On the Need for Stories and The Tale of Despereaux

On the Need for Stories and The Tale of Despereaux

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” ~ Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux 

Everyone needs good stories. Stories of despair but of perseverance. Stories of darkness yet of light. Stories of wrong but of forgiveness. Stories of doing what is right even if it costs one’s dignity, and yes, even one’s tail. This is The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

From the publisher, "A brave mouse, a covetous rat, a wishful serving girl, and a princess named Pea come together in Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal–winning tale.

Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other's lives. What happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out."

While The Tale of Despereaux is a children’s fantasy novel, it moved me, an adult, as the themes are universal no matter one's age. As C.S. Lewis said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” So, fellow adults, I hope you’ll read it, and I hope you'll read it to your children. There is darkness in this story, which has led some reviewers to say it is inappropriate for children, but children already know that life is sometimes hard and cruel. In dark times, they and we adults need stories with a message that light is possible.

(Sidenote: if you're okay with your children reading books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, this book should be fine.)

However, while there is sadness in this book, there are also humorous moments, such as when DiCamillo writes of the servant girl's dramatic curtsying and when both the servant girl and the king are described as not being the sharpest knives in the drawer. I also chuckled when I read, "When you are a king, you may make as many ridiculous laws as you like. That is what being a king is all about."

Interestingly, while The Tale of Despereaux itself is a story to inspire courage in the circumstances of the reader, it is likewise a story within the book that inspires the main character, Despereaux, a mouse, to be brave. You see, Despereaux isn't an ordinary mouse. He is small and sickly and wasn’t expected to live when he was born. He is named Despereaux, which is French for sadness. However, Despereaux is different for more than just his illness, his need to carry a handkerchief, and his unusually large ears. Despereaux is also different because he doesn’t adhere to ordinary mouse behavior. For example, he talks to humans, and instead of nibbling on the pages of books like his sister, he reads the words. He is a mouse living in a castle, and he is enthralled by a fairy tale of a knight saving a princess. He reads it over and over again, and it inspires courage in him when he himself must save a princess from rats.

I shall not say much more out of fear of spoiling the story, but here is a passage that especially resonated with me,

"How, he [Despereaux] wondered, had things gone so terribly wrong? Wasn’t it a good thing to love? In the story in the book, love was a very good thing. Because the knight loved the fair maiden, he was able to rescue her. They lived happily ever after. It said so. In the book. They were the last words on the page. Happily ever after. Despereaux was certain that he had read exactly those words time and time again. Lying on the floor with the drum beating and the mice shouting and the threadmaster calling out, ‘Make way, make way,’ Despereaux had a sudden, chilling thought: Had some other mouse eaten the words that spoke the truth? Did the knight and the fair maiden really not live happily ever after? Reader, do you believe that there is such a thing as happily ever after? Or, like Despereaux, have you, too, begun to question the possibility of happy endings?"

The Tale of Despereaux reminds me of Sam’s words to Frodo in The Two Towers movie, "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for."

So, my friend, I hope you’ll read The Tale of Despereaux. I hope it is a story you will hold onto in dark times. The story does end happily, and as Christians, we can be sure that our stories will end happily too because of Jesus. Stories like this one are really just echoes of the greatest story ever, the story of Jesus coming to rescue us and the hope we have in Him. 


Hi, Mandie,
Thanks so much for commenting! I’m glad this post resonated with you and that you enjoyed The Tale of Despereaux too!

Lauren Watt

Hi Lauren—
Thank you for this book review—I too love The Tale of Despereaux, and what you said at the very end of your post is something that my mom and I (both avid readers of children’s and adult books), have said for years, which echoes your CS Lewis quote as well: “Any good story will just be an echo of The Great Story”—it won’t matter if it is a specifically Christian novel, or secular—there will be echoes at the very least. Because The Great Story is what it’s all about. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words!!

Mandie Hendrickson

Leave a comment