The Rat In The Hat Essay, Research Paper
The rat in the hat The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett 269pp Doubleday £12.99 A talking rat is fighting for his life against a terrier, inside a circle of excited men who whoop and roar and snarl. Another rat bungee-jumps down from the rafters to rescue him. In the instant of astonishment before both rats are whisked skyward, the human onlookers just have time to notice that the rescuer is wearing a tiny boater on his head. He lifts it. “Good evening!” he squeaks. This is a scene from The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, which has just won Terry Pratchett the Carnegie Medal, children’s literature’s highest award. “Maurice” is a cat; the rats are accidental beneficiaries of a magic spillage; together with a daft-looking human boy who plays the flute, they travel from town to town, working a Pied Piper-related con on the unsuspecting inhabitants. Ethically challenging, beautifully orchestrated, philosophically opposed (like all of Pratchett’s books) to the usual plot fixes of fantasy, The Amazing Maurice deserves its medal. But as usual, there’s a certain arbitrariness about which one of a good author’s good books the award goes to. Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996), the two high points in Pratchett’s series about a melancholy 13-year-old assailed by supernatural troubles, were just as amazing as Maurice, but there were other claimants on the shortlist in those years whose body of work for children shouted louder. Getting the Carnegie this time should be seen in turn as a compliment to Pratchett’s whole body of work, not just Maurice. Actually, there’s a further arbitrary element at work, specific to Terry Pratchett, when he wins a prize for children’s books. The truth is that he writes in almost exactly the same way for children as he does for adults. We have other writers, like Peter Dickinson, who write for both and draw on aspects of the same sensibility to enrich both; but Pratchett essentially works in the same mode when he’s doing both. The qualities in him that might be thought of as ideally suited to children’s books, like his unembarrassed pleasure in wordplay, his easy access to polymorphous messing around with words, are equally central to his adult novels. Whichever audience he’s talking to, he’s always engaged in a kind of comic explanation. He has something he’s interested in, in his head, and he’s sorting it out for himself and his audience in the form of a story – a story with jokes which, in common with all serious comedians, he sets off like explosions of discovery, each revealing a relationship between things, underlining an uncertainty, warming an idea so it shows its human meaning. He always writes streamlined sentences, easy to assimilate, because he has plans for the reader’s attention, and wants to lead it along twiddly inventive paths without wasting any on unnecessary obstacles. To be sure, the adult Discworld novels are all comedies of recognition. Part of the point is always to spot which thing in our world the Discworld is refracting in satirical form, from Macbeth to Rolf Harris. Pratchett’s children’s book do take exemplary care to contain in themselves everything you need to understand what’s going on, to be their own completely adequate guidebook. But then, they too offer the pleasures of recognition. The Amazing Maurice is a pleasingly sharp reminder of the whole, frequently icky tradition of humanised animal stories, not least because the rats are in the process of constructing a religion around a discarded picture book about a rabbit in a waistcoat called Mr Bunnsy; and it gives you foolish behaviour to recognise that will be as familiar to readers of 10 as to readers of 40. Pratchett always writes the same kind of satire, one with a picture of human (and rat) nature that his readers tend to cherish, whether child or adult, because it is fundamentally hopeful. In Pratchett’s eyes, people are ridiculous, but kind; deluded, but good-hearted; irrational, but in consequence also strangely innocent. Even his thugs often have a sheepish simplicity about their thuggishness. He genially accepts that people are self-interested brawlers locked in a Darwinian scrum, but he doesn’t think we should find it too hard to forgive ourselves for that, so long as we don’t claim we are allowed to behave badly because we are better than other people. Pratchett hates condescension. In fact, taken to its extreme, condescension becomes the one unforgiveable sin in his world: treating other people as things. Characters who do this arouse his sense of real horror, and are the true villains of his novels: the elves in Lords and Ladies, the vampires in Carpe Jugulum, Mr Teatime the assassin in Hogfather (pronounced Tay-at-im-ay, if you please). By choice, he does popular art, and he has a quite deliberate sense of what that entails, if it is to mean more than art that happens to have hit a fashion, or art that gets a big audience as a nice bonus. It means using the common language, it means deliberately working on the huge areas of emotional experience that overlap for all of us. One of the reasons he is so interested in stories as such is that the famous stories, the urban legends, the central stories of religion, the fairy tales everyone knows, tend each to record a way of making sense of exactly one of these areas of shared experience. It’s not an accident that his books so often take on an existing story – as Maurice does with the Pied Piper. Where there’s a story, there’s sure to be a rich deposit of stuff-we-all-care-about. He trusts the accumulated wisdom of storytelling to point out what’s really important. Then, of course, he reshapes the story, because he combines a remarkable ability to access shared, generic imaginings, with a very idiosyncratic imagination of his own. He campaigns against the idea that stories offer a reliable guide to reality: but he still thinks they’re essential maps, and that it’s important to get the right story, the right map, because it affects how generous and tolerant you can manage to be, really. Some things he can’t do (which is a bit of a relief). He doesn’t do beauty. He doesn’t do epic. With him, large scale scenes come out more like the big numbers in a musical, or like the synchronised swimming the rats do in bowls of cream. He does sadness, but he doesn’t do tragedy, because tragedy puts things beyond the reach of the comic recuperation of sadness which is his writing’s big gift. It is typical that in Maurice, when the kid with the flute confronts a professional rat piper, he endorses the common sense of the watching crowd, who “were rather attached to the experience of real life, which is that when someone small and righteous takes on someone big and nasty, he is grilled bread product, very quickly”. And still arranges for the small person to win. He bungee-jumps into the midst of grim things, and lifts his hat. Good evening!· Francis Spufford is the author of The Child That Books Built.