Last year marked the fifteenth anniversary of The Tale of Despereaux, a children’s fantasy novel authored by Kate DiCamillo. In 2004, The Tale of Despereaux won the prestigious John Newbery Medal, awarded to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” My first brush with DiCamillo’s novel was when I was in the second grade in 2008. I can’t recall why, but my second grade teacher at Cairo American College, Mr. Bart Grandlund, narrated The Tale of Despereaux to my class and I. Upon hearing it for the first time, I instantaneously fell in love with DiCamillo’s fantasy universe of light and darkness, mice and rats, princesses and knights, and soup. Ten years later, after several re-reads, I’m still caught in its spell.
The Tale of Despereaux is set in Dor, a kingdom in which both rats and soup are banned. The story follows the book’s eponymous protagonist, Despereaux, a courageous young mouse. Tiny, even for a mouse, Despereaux is unlike most mice. Born with big ears and with his eyes open, Despereaux enjoys reading stories about valorous knights (an action that is unheard of in the mice community) and believes he is a knight as well. After he violates the most significant mice rule — not talking to humans — by initiating a conversation with the kingdom’s princess, Pea, Despereaux is sent to the dungeon, expected to be killed by the dungeon’s rats. He manages to escape, however, and learns of a plot to kidnap Pea, which he then attempts to thwart.
What makes The Tale of Despereaux so distinct is its structure. DiCamillo decides to tell the story nonlinearly. The Tale of Despereaux is divided into four “books.” The first is called A Mouse Is Born, the second is called Chiaroscuro, the third is called Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow, and the fourth is called Recalled To The Light. With A Mouse Is Born, we are introduced to Despereaux. DiCamillo then goes backwards in time with Chiaroscuro, where we are introduced to Chiaroscuro, nicknamed Roscuro, a rat fond of the light who serves as the novel’s deuteragonist. We then go back in time yet again with Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow, where we are introduced to the novel’s tritagonist, Miggery Sow, a dull, partially-deaf (the result of child abuse) young girl with aspirations to become a princess. The ending of Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow serves as the converging point for the three stories, which climaxes in Recalled To The Light. Though the decision to divide the book into four parts may seem superfluous, it’s paramount in its success. The Tale of Despereaux was adapted into an animated film of the same name, which was released by Universal Pictures ten years ago. The animated film is a loose adaptation, swapping DiCamillo’s unique structure for a traditional three-act structure. As a result, the film, although beautifully animated, is vacuous. For this story to work, DiCamillo’s approach is inviolable.
The decision to divide the story into four parts places a heavy emphasis on the characters. The film shows greater concern for how the plot unfolds, yet DiCamillo isn’t primarily interested in looking backward or forward. Instead, her focus is inward. The Tale of Despereaux is as much a perusal of identity as it is a fantasy novel. The division into four parts isolates the three pivotal characters, granting us the ability to plunge into their worldview. DiCamillo digs deep into her characters, introspecting on how their dreams and experiences manifest in their actions. The King of Dor, who banned soup and rats, is simply a man grieving the death of his wife, who died of a heart attack after a rat fell into her soup. Roscuro, the rat who fell into the Queen’s soup, attempts to kidnap the princess as a form of revenge after the princess was hostile towards him just after he inadvertently killed her mother. Miggery Sow aids Roscuro in the kidnapping of the princess as she longs to be one herself and is easily deceived by Roscuro that kidnapping the princess will accomplish this dream. As for Despereaux, DiCamillo intends for us apprehend that, his idiosyncrasies aside, he is as fearful as any other mice, but what distinguishes him from others is his propensity to overcome his fear for he dreams to be a knight like the ones in the fairy tales he enjoys reading. In the world of The Tale of Despereaux, your identity is based on your role in society. This, as seen with Roscuro, Miggery Sow—and even the King—results in pain, but hope and courage are strong enough to grant you the ability to transcend your identity.