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Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh

Style: Classic

Attitude: Take Care → Positive

In Brief: A gentle story, highlighting a mother's love for her children and the risks she'll take to help them. Normal animal behaviour combined with intelligent actions and, in the case of the laboratory-enhanced Rats, developed technology which they're giving up.

Cover of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh

Author: Robert C. O'Brien

Series: The Rats of Nimh

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1971

Age Range: Children+

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Rural America

Genres:  AnimalClassicThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Mrs Frisby is the widowed mother of a family of field mice who must brave dangers to get medicine for her ill son Timothy and to save their home from the farmer's plough.
  • Mr Ages is an elderly field mouse, wise in medicines, who offers to help Mrs Frisby.
  • Nicodemus is the leader of the intelligent Rats who live near the Frisbys. For the sake of the friendship he had with Mrs Frisby's dead husband, he undertakes to move the Frisbys' house out of the farmer's way.

Synopsis:

Widowed fieldmouse Mrs Frisby turns to the rats for help when her family's house is threatened, only to find them abnormally intelligent and with technology. They reveal that they knew her dead husband and they help her and her family before they leave the farm for a new life free of the technology they fell they depend on too much.

Notes:

This book operates at two levels, which turn out on inspection to be three. On the surface is a child-friendly story in which a widowed fieldmouse seeks the help of her friends and neighbours when her family's house is threatened by the farmer's plough. When she helps a young crow escape the cat (“We all join together against the cat”) he rewards her by helping out on several occasions, in particular taking her to see the owl who suggests a solution and points her towards the rats, who carry out the owl's idea. On the way, Mrs F overhears a plan to smoke out the rats, which she passes on, making sure that they escape in time. A neat quid pro quo, neighbourliness and friendship are all satisfied.

But then we enter the subplot of the titular Rats: escapees from NIMH - some sort of bioengineering research facility where they were experimental subjects injected with DNA to enhance their intelligence. Their treatment was not harsh but did include the usual cages and electric-shock mazes. The experiments were more successful than the researchers realised, and the rats escaped, along with some similarly-enhanced mice. The escaping rats and mice overcome hardships until they settle in the a farmer's garden where one of the mice, Jonathan Frisby meets his wife and starts a family. The rats use their new-found knowledge to build a rat-burrow provided with electricity, running water and a library, scavenging from the nearby house and garden. At this stage, we seem to be looking at a sort of mixed parable concerning animal experimentation in general, bioengineering in particular, and a suggestion that perhaps rats are innately smarter than humans, and just as capable of intelligent life and society. There's a short section in which Nicodemus explains that it was more-or-less an accident of nature that gave humans the upper hand over other creatures. If you have any kind of misgivings about human-intelligent animals, now's your time to jettison this story. But it's not really that bad:

When you look again, you realise that for all the rats' technological advances, all the animals are basically intelligent. In common with Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and many other books, the animals all live effectively human lives, only in a more brutal milieu. The animals have a normal humanesque family life, christian names and surnames, but Mrs Frisby is still worried that the owl will eat her when she approaches him for help. (The only apparently unintelligent animal is the cat, the animals' common enemy). The rats' search for a better life without the technology they feel too dependent on, and without stealing from the farmer, is far more a human quest. To our modern eyes, it represents a yearning for a simpler, more moral life: the rats have acquired a conscience along with their intelligence. Interestingly also, the few humans encountered throughout the story are not despised by the animals, nor accused of crimes against Nature. True, the rats escape from the scientists at NIMH but there's no attempt at moral superiority.

Themes:

  • Animal Experimentation
  • Intelligence and animals
  • Agrarian vs technological lifestyles

So we began working out the Plan. It has been a long time coming. Three years ago this spring we started watching Mr Fitzgibbon to learn what he did, and how he did it, to bring food out of the earth. We collected books and magazines on farming. We discovered early that in order to stop stealing we would, for a while, have to steal more than ever. We've laid up a two-year food supply so that even if we don't succeed in growing a good crop the first year, we won't go hungry. We've got two-thirds of it moved to Thorn Valley already, and we've dug a dry cave to store it in, under one of the big rocks. We've got seeds; we have our ploughs; we've cleared and cultivated part of the land near the pond; and in a few days we'll being our first planting. We've even dug some irrigation ditches, in case there's a drought.

Friday 25th August 2006