The Power of Story in Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Webb, Caroline (2015); Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature: The Power of Story; New York, Rutledge, (p. 20-23); Cached dokument
Pratchett’s first Discworld novel marketed to children, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, makes very clear his engagement with the problem of fiction. On the one hand, stories generate dreams, even ideals, through which people can imagine and construct a better future; on the other, taken too literally, they can produce false expectations, with dangerous results when readers trust to the happy ending of fairy tales to bypass the power of actual evil. The story of The Amazing Maurice holds both ideas in tension. It offers a beguiling story, or set of stories—the story of two children outsmarting a gang of thieves, aided by a cat and some rats; the story of a homeless boy and a homeless family, who happen to be rats, finding places to live—but at the same time it critiques the conventions of story and asks pertinent questions about how we not only think about but think with and through stories to shape our lives.
The novel’s premise seems to answer one of Pratchett’s characteristically faux-naïf questions: if you pay someone to remove rats, isn’t it in his interest to make sure there are always rats to take away? Thus we are introduced to a young traveller whose bags contain a clan of intelligent rats—or, as they prefer to be known, educated rodents (Pratchett, The Amazing 87)—whose role is to provide the impression of a rat plague that the young man, known for the first part of the novel simply as “the kid” (12), can then triumphantly remove from each town by playing his pipe. The absurd rightness of this scenario is heightened when the reader realises that the brains of this operation is a cat, the amazing Maurice, who magically gained intelligence at the same time as the rats, but whose cat instincts for making the most of a situation remain well to the fore.
As is characteristic in Pratchett’s work, the ideas presented and indeed the structure of the opening pages of the novel are highly significant to his project. In this case, the novel’s opening highlights the extent to which The Amazing Maurice is “a story about stories” (10). First, we are presented with an epigraph drawn apparently from a children’s book called Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure. Second, the opening lines echo Browning’s famous poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”: “Rats! They chased the dogs and bit the cats, they—” (Pratchett, The Amazing 9). The reader is immediately, and doubly, projected into story, whether the imitation Beatrix Potter of the epigraph—the fictional source text of which turns out to be significant to the plot—or the quotation from Browning. However, the narrator interrupts his own sentence, commenting “But there was more to it than that” (9) before quoting, this time, the title character himself—“As the amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats” (9)—and observing, significantly, that “the difficult part was deciding who the people were, and who were the rats” (10). The final one-sentence paragraph before we are introduced to the central characters underlines the metafictional aspect of what we are reading: “But Malicia Grim said it was a story about stories” (10). This layering and contrasting invites readers to keep in mind several ideas in reading the novel: that we are reading a story that may be interpreted in different ways; that the story may provide a comment on story itself, as underlined by the epigraph and quotation as well as Malicia Grim’s assertion; and, importantly too, that it may involve a confusion between good and evil, distinguishing the “people” from the “rats.” This Orwellian difficulty is explored in the later stages of the novel, but it is intriguingly literalised in the opening pages. The reader discovers that some of the “squeaky voices” heard by the coachman belong not to humans but to rats—but rats who are definitely “people” (10). The novel at one level imitates the many children’s stories featuring animal characters, but this is not simply naturalised; through Pratchett’s initial use of the coachman as focaliser, the reader is left guessing the identity of the “voices.” Pratchett thus introduces us to the world of the novel, in which animals are not expected to have voices—but may turn out to—and in which not only the characters but the narrator may conceal information from the reader.
This element suggests an ethical dimension to the novel that is further established in the immediately following action. The “fair-haired young man” (10) who is the only person the briefly focalising coachman can see, asks, “Maurice? [. . .] You don’t think what we’re doing is, you know . . . dishonest , do you?” (11), 3 and is fobbed off with the unseen Maurice’s glib arguments. The young man’s awareness that “some of those towns looked pretty poor” (12) generates an argument about the nature of the group’s activities that is ironically punctuated by a more explicit theft than the scam the characters are clearly running, as the coach is held up by a highwayman. Only when the highwayman is in turn attacked by beings that “ran up your trouser legs [. . .] Typical rat trick” (16) does he, and the reader, realise that the hidden Maurice is a cat—and that the other speakers, apart from the young man, are rats. We, like the now vanished coachman, and the highwayman who enquired whether his intended targets were wizards, witches, vampires, or werewolves but did not think of intelligent rats or cats, have been deceived, and our awareness of this deception is focused by the continuing discussion. Clearly we are reading not only a story about stories, but a story that will constantly engage with questions of right and wrong—and with judgements less between good and evil than between the greater and the lesser evil. After all, no one expects the heroes of a story to be rats.
The Amazing Maurice highlights two approaches to fiction. In the first, an individual may lose sight of the world—and his or her place in it—through belief in the literal truth or the universal applicability of a story. The rats, who have taught themselves to read after suddenly becoming intelligent, believe in the reality depicted in Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure. Malicia Grim, meanwhile, has immersed herself in stories; she is fully aware that the stories she reads are fiction, but her admiration for story results in her endeavouring to turn everything she encounters into the shape of a story. People turn around to watch her being inconspicuous (112). As a result, although Malicia sees a lot more than do the townsfolk around her, she misses seeing some obvious facts because she is convinced that she knows how the story ought to go. Importantly, the human beings she meets do not behave as she expects they will, as when the villainous rat-catchers beat up her and Keith, the kid—who does not bounce back displaying superhuman powers—and shut them in a prison that lacks an obvious escape route. The rats, on the other hand, have been using Mr Bunnsy as their guidebook: they believe there must already be a place where people and rats relate to each other as described in Mr Bunnsy.
Both views misinterpret the ways in which stories can tell the truth. Stories do not provide the literal truth about events. What good stories do, as the rat Darktan eventually recognises, is to provide “a map of . . . where we are and where we’re going” (Pratchett, The Amazing 227). Mr Bunnsy does not describe the world as it really is; it is, as Malicia points out, a rather silly story that ignores not only social realities, such as the enmity of humans and rats, but physical possibilities, as it depicts a snake wearing a collar. But just as Darktan could use the idea of a rat in a jacket, depicted in Mr Bunnsy, to invent something that is not a jacket but is a version of a jacket that might be useful to a rat—a harness of straps and pockets—so he and the other rats can use the idea of a place where animals and humans can live with and help each other to start to make that happen. In the novel’s denouement, the intelligent rats negotiate a way in which they can cohabit with the humans to the benefit of both. Malicia, too, turns out to have learned at least some useful things from stories—she is able to manipulate hairpins to open locks because she has practised this storybook skill, and her decision to provide the villainous rat-catchers with the same emetic as fake antidote that they have been given as fake poison is, as she observes, “narratively satisfying” (214). And Keith, the “stupid-looking kid” (31) who initially claims that he just wants to be allowed to play music, but by the end has not only helped to track down the villains but also been clever enough to defeat and then do a deal with a real rat piper, is last seen speculating about how long it might take to become mayor. Keith, who expressed scepticism about story in his discussions with Malicia, has also learned from story by the end of the novel, in this case about the possible future of a boy who arrives in a town with a clever cat. The rats and Keith, as well as the humans of the town, have used story to imagine and to begin to construct new ways to live their lives.
The Amazing Maurice, like a number of Pratchett’s novels, highlights both the inevitable falsity of stories and their power. At the end of the novel Malicia’s father, the town’s mayor, remarks, “Stories are just stories. Life is complicated enough as it is. You have to plan for the real world. There’s no room for the fantastic”; the response “ ‘Exactly,’ said the rat” (313) underscores the extent to which this practical conclusion is emerging within a fantastic scenario. Stories in this novel turn out to be more than “just stories,” and planning for the real world entails an idea strikingly akin to Sir Philip Sidney’s suggestion that “her [Nature’s] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (216). The “golden world” only available through art becomes an exemplar for real life to follow. Pratchett’s story simultaneously warns against a simplistic investment in the literal truth of story and provides what might seem a wonderfully escapist fantasy that in fact educates its readers in how to learn from what they read.
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