Way back in 2007, Pixar released the movie, Ratatouille; a story about a rat that wanted to be a chef. Although Ratatouille will never be considered one of Pixar's greats, it was still pretty good and NPR reviewed it favorably. However, one quote from that review has always stuck with me.
"The idea of making a rat the hero of a major motion picture is a lot nervier than using penguins or other cuddly folk." -Kenneth Turan (NPR)
I remember thinking, and still do, how totally wrong that statement was. Nervy to use a rat as a likable character? But fiction is absolutely riddled with hero rats! This isn't a new idea, in fact, I can name at least three more rat heroes without even thinking very hard about it. Here they are and why I think rats make great characters:
Templeton, the great anti-hero of Charlotte's Web! I always liked Templeton. Sure he's selfish and mostly fixated on stealing scraps of food, but he does find writing materials that help Charlotte save Wilbur from a bacony-end. Templeton is a similar archetype to Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z. Neither one is a "good guy," but they hang out with other good guys and almost by accident end up doing good things. Their motives are mysterious because their personalities and actions don't exactly match-up. I find that much more interesting than a good character who does good things. There's an admittedly dark side to rats: they're dirty, disease spreaders, scavengers, etc. but that characterization also gives them the moral space for redemption in fiction.
Side note, whenever we collect kitchen scraps to compost, I always imagine we're just feeding Templeton. I'm cool with that.
Montague Mad-Rat is the main character in one of my all time favorite children's books, A Rat's Tale by Tor Seidler. The rats in New York City spend their time scavenging for loose change in order to buy themselves goods and luxuries (ribbons and tinned ham bath tubs, for example). They also need the money to pay the "rat rent" on the wharves where they live. Montague is different. He comes from a family of creative rats. His mother makes "rat hats" out of pigeon feathers, and his father builds mud castles in their home under the streets of New York. Montague is an artist and paints incredibly detailed pictures on the backs of seashells, a skill that is unappreciated by his peers at first, but winds up helping the wharf rat community. It's a fun story because it plays with our idea of rats as hoarders (and consumerists by extension). The illustrations in this book by Fred Marcellino are really strong too.
Ok, so Mrs. Frisby is a mouse, but the Rats of NIMH from the book of the same name, are extraordinarily likable and heroic. Mrs. Frisby is a widow and she must move her family out of their winter home in a farmer's field before the farmer plows up the ground for spring. But one of Mrs. Frisby's sons can't be moved after he has been bitten by a spider and fallen terribly ill. She needs help and eventually appeals to the mysterious rats that live under the rose bush beside the farmer's house. I don't really want to spoil this book, so I can't say why the Rats of NIMH are so special, but it's a great story and there's no question of the rats' decency. I loved this book growing up, and was also pretty obsessed with the movie, which takes some creative liberties, but the animation is still a pleasure to watch (from the great Don Bluth, who also did The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven)
I didn't realize it until I actually compiled this list, but all of these rat characters are from children's stories. I suppose there's an Aesop's Fables element here.
Maybe after coexisting with rodents for millions of years, it's easy for us to agree that rats are dark, sneaky, dirty little thieves. But then those assumptions give authors a foundation to which they can add contrasting elements (kindness, loyalty, intelligence, creativity, etc.) for richer characterization.
So for this reason, I think NPR is wrong. Penguins don't make very good characters, because what do we know about penguins? They like the cold. They like fish. They might be cuddly (debatable), but is a penguin devious? Smart? Nervous? I don't know. They're blank and unfamiliar to me. But I do know what I think of when I think of a rat and that's a symbol ready for reinterpretation.
What other animals or things can you think of that serve a similar narrative role as the rat? You might argue the spider, à la Charlotte from Charlotte's Web. What else?
Also, are there any famous rats I've forgotten?
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro