Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was published in 1971 and won the Newbery
Medal in 1972. The story tells of a group of rats and mice that become
intelligent as a result of a genetic engineering experiment. Mrs Frisby
is not one of this group, but she must depend on them to save the life of
one of her children. Much of the story is told as a retrospective by
one of the rats. who explains to Mrs Frisby how they came to be and why they
will help her.
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents was published in 2001
and won the Carnegie Medal in 2002. Again there is significant back
story told as retrospective, although this is mostly by Pratchett filling
in historical details as they become relevant. In this case the rats
(and one cat, the Amazing Maurice of the title) became intelligent as a result
of eating magically contaminated waste.
In both Mrs Frisby and Maurice there are talking animals. However
in Mrs Frisby there is no clear distinction between the genetically
enhanced rats and mice and the other animals. Mrs Frisby consults an
owl about her problem because owls are wise, but in reality owls are no more
intelligent than any other bird. Mrs Frisby herself is an ordinary
mouse, but she is intelligent enough to converse with the enhanced rats and
mice, and to understand their thinking even if she cannot emulate it. The
biggest difference between the genetically enhanced and other animals is
that the enhanced creatures can read and write.
The blurred distinction between the enhanced and natural animals in Mrs
Frisby is its greatest weakness to adult eyes. To children, used
to stories of intelligent talking animals, the wise owl and the housewifely
Mrs Frisby will appear much less strange.
Pratchett draws a much clearer distinction between the "Changed" rats of
the Clan and other animals. Other animals are dumb in both senses of
the word. The Clan can read, write, talk and think. They can
still deal with normal rats, but only through their natural non-verbal communication
Pratchett not only draws a clear distinction between the Clan and the "keekees",
he actively satirises stories for children about talking animals. His
rats set great store by a book they have found called "Mr Bunnsy has an Adventure".
This is a story for young children featuring a range of animals that
talk, wear clothes and never eat each other. Each chapter in Maurice
starts with a quote from this book, and Pratchett contrasts the friendly,
safe world of Mr Bunnsy with the dangerous world inhabited by the rats. This
contrast is most sharp when the leading rat makes a speech to encourage his
people before they go into danger, and calls on imagery from Mr Bunnsy: "You
heard about the Dark Wood in the Book? Well, we're in the Dark Wood
The only humans with speaking roles in Mrs Frisby are the scientists
who first made the rats intelligent. The rats see the scientists as
implacable captors and do not attempt to communicate, even though they could
easily do so. The scientists are simply curious investigators, and
not unkind to their subjects.
The deliberate creation of intelligent creatures raises some interesting
moral questions. Whatever one's opinion of vivisection the use of a
fellow intelligence for such experiments would seem morally wrong. O'Brien
could have explored this issue by having the rats communicate with the scientists,
reveal their intelligence, and then plead for their freedom.
Once the rats arrive at the farm they continue this pattern of isolation.
The farmer is always off-stage and is seen by all the animals as akin
to a natural force: they can live with him and to some extent predict his
actions, but they have no hope of influencing him.
In Maurice almost the first thing that happens after the Clan and
Maurice become intelligent is that Maurice devises the Pied-Piper scam and
recruits "a stupid-looking kid" named Keith to front it. Shortly after
arriving in Bad Blintz the mayor's daughter Malicia discovers their secret,
and by the end of the book rats and humans are dealing on equal terms.
Pratchett's major characters are generally sharply observed and idiosyncratic.
This is particularly true of Malicia, who combines a sharp intelligence
with a dreamy fixation on adventure stories. By comparison Keith ambles
through the story, pulled this way and that by the other characters but rarely
with any ideas of his own. He just wants to be left alone to play his
The Food Chain
One thing that confuses Pratchett's rats is that nobody in the Mr Bunnsy
book ever eats anyone else. To the rats, eating whilst avoiding being
eaten is part of everyday reality. A running joke throughout the book
is that when a rat dies "don't eat the green wobbly bit".
Food presents a moral problem for Maurice the cat: cats kill and eat rats,
but with his new-found intelligence he feels empathy for his prey and has
decided that killing something that can talk is wrong. Pratchett explores
Maurice's internal conflict between primitive cat and intelligent being in
some depth. Not only does Maurice experience a cat's drives to hunt
and kill, but he is bothered by guilt over not being a proper cat and also
at having behaved as a cat in the past. This conflict gives depth to
Maurice, and lets us empathise with him as his character develops and changes.
Initially he is an amoral rogue who is happy to cheat his friends,
just like any cat. By the end of the book he has repented of his past
sins and found redemption by fighting and sacrificing two of his nine lives
for the Clan.
The world is a dangerous place for Mrs Frisby too. O'Brien uses
the fact that owls eat mice to build a strong dramatic scene out of Mrs Frisby's
visit to the owl, and later she finds she must risk being eaten by the cat.
But the other animals appear much more human. Jeremy the Crow
is friendly and helpful, despite the fact that a real crow would be happy
to make a meal of a mouse. The rats appear to be largely vegetarian:
their primary source of food is grain stored by the farmer, although no doubt
they steal other food as well. At no point do the rats kill anything.
Despite the danger, nobody actually dies in Mrs Frisby. Three
of the intelligent rats die in Maurice (not counting ones who don't
stay dead), and there are a number of references to past casualties and painful
Maurice is a much darker book than Mrs Frisby. There
are repeated references to suffering and death throughout Maurice,
and towards the end, in a scene reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, the rats must
find and destroy the source of the evil that is starving the town . It
is also dark in a more literal sense: much of the action takes place in rat-runs
underneath the town. The rats light candles to push back the dark,
but even this makes them more aware of the darkness that remains in the shadows,
waiting to come back when the candle goes out. By contrast the rats
of NIMH have electric lights in their warren and there is no evil to be faced,
just practical problems to be solved.
Learning to Read
Both Pratchett and O'Brien present animals who can read and write. The
Rats of NIMH are fully literate, but in Maurice the rats are only
partially so. Even the best reader, Peaches, finds Mr Bunnsy difficult.
She is developing a pictographic language that she hopes rats will
read more easily.
This raises the question of how the rats learned to read. The Rats
of NIMH were taught basic reading by the scientists who manipulated them,
and later taught themselves much more when they found a deserted house with
a large library. The Clan in Maurice learned to read from labels
and signs left in the rubbish tip they lived in, and their names are words
they "liked the sound of" before they learned what they meant. But
how did they learn any of this? Pratchett does not explain. Perhaps
the knowledge seeped into their brains along with the intelligence. On
Earth this explanation would be unsatisfying, but causality on the Diskworld
works differently. On the other hand perhaps Pratchett was just hoping
nobody would ask the question.
Little Animals with Large Questions
Both Pratchett and O'Brien bring their intelligent animals up against questions
that bother humans, such as: What happens to us after we die? What
moral duties does intelligence impose? What kind of society do we want
to live in? Both succeed, although Pratchett explores a wider range
The main philosophical question facing the Rats of NIMH is whether to continue
living off humans "like fleas on a dogs back". A lengthly central section
of Mrs Frisby is occupied by a rat named Nicodemus telling their story
to Mrs Frisby and explaining this dilemma. He tells of reading an essay
about the human "rat race", and realising that his people are falling into
the same trap. Their colony is growing, and they are having to steal
more food and other supplies. The farmer has started taking anti-vermin
measures. Intelligent rats can evade these easily, but the farmer is
going to start wondering about it soon. The rats could move to another
farm, but the immediate problem has started some rats thinking that they
should move away from humans and live on their own resources.
Pratchett uses Maurice and the rats to explore a wide range of moral and
philosophical issues. In contrast to the set piece lecture by Nicodemus
to Mrs Frisby, Pratchett drops these issues in unexpected places. At
one point some rats are contemplating the sudden death of a comrade in a
trap, and one of them asks "what happens to you when you die?". At
first the other rats misunderstand, and reply that either you get eaten or
you go green and mouldy. But the questioner persists, and gradually
puts over its theory of a soul as an entity separate from the body. Its
a new thought to the rats, and it may be a new thought to young readers as
well. They may have learned the word "soul" as part of religious education,
but Pratchett manages to discuss the idea without mentioning the word, a
device that lets readers come at it without preconceptions imposed by others.
On another occasion some rats are arguing over what to do with a young "keekee":
an ordinary rat. The leader Hamnpork argues that she should be let
go, to face certain death amongst the traps and poisons, because she is no
use and can't think. Others don't like the idea, but have difficulty
explaining why. Then the Clan's philosopher, Dangerous Beans, states
that the Clan can think about what they do, and therefore can pity
an innocent who means them no harm. This is a dramatic moment where
two plot threads come together. The leader's failing authority takes
another blow and the philosopher makes the first connection between intelligence
and moral duty. The fact that this happens suddenly within a seemingly
ordinary argument emphasises its importance. Had the philosopher stated
this conclusion outside such a context it would have seemed trite.
Pratchett also emphasises the importance of the philosopher to the rest of
the Clan. Even the ageing leader, who distrusts all this new-fangled
thinking, values the philosopher.
Pratchett's rats live and think like rats. They deliberately spoil
human food by "widdling", a word defined by A Concise Dictionary of Slang
to mean urination, and mark special locations and territory in the same way.
Defecation is not directly referred to, apart from the fact that the
crooked rat-catchers have been spreading rat droppings.
Mrs Frisby contains no references to any bodily function apart from
These differences reflect the times in which the books were written. Mrs
Frisby was published in 1971, about 30 years before Maurice. In
those days very few books contained any kind of reference to bodily functions,
and the few that did tended to be for specialist audiences. It would
have been considered especially unsuitable for children. Today things
are more relaxed. In addition Pratchett is a humourist and children
are particularly fond of scatalogical jokes.
More interesting is the difference in mating customs of the animals in the
two books. Mrs Frisby was the widow of Jonathon Frisby. This
presents the animals as having human-like nuclear families. The Rats
of NIMH might conceivably have picked this trait up along with intelligence,
but Mrs Frisby herself has not been enhanced and seems perfectly at home
in the role of housewife. In contrast Maurice contains some
oblique references to mating that strongly suggest that Pratchett's rats
'[...] There's more interesting things to do now than
bite one another.'
'Or do rllk, from what I hear,' said Dangerous Beans.
Peaches looked down, demurely. [...] 'The ladies are a lot more choosy,'
she said. 'They want to find fathers who can think.'
Mrs Frisby is almost the only female character in the book. The only
other female she encounters is a young rat, one of the offspring of the original
Rats of NIMH. All the important decisions for the colony appear to
be taken by males, and only males are named in Nicodemus's account of their
escape. Mrs Frisby is an idealised housewife, concerned only with looking
after her family and having no larger goals or concerns. Significantly,
her husband chose not to tell her about his past or his ongoing dealings
with the rats, and her discovery of this is one of the major plot threads.
In Maurice the rats have a leader, and it seems to be unquestioned
amongst them that the leader will be the strongest male. However they
have evolved an informal leadership council that makes the decisions in practice,
and this council embodies the tensions in their society.
Officially the Clan leader is the ageing and inflexible Hamnpork, but the
other three can easily out-think him. Hamnpork knows this, and is forced
to resort to bluster as he feels himself being pushed out of their decisions.
The younger, brighter generation are represented by the mechanically
apt male Darktan and the more nurturing female Peaches, who seems to be deputised
to speak for all the females in the Clan. Disputes are mediated by
the Clan philosopher Dangerous Beans.
Peaches is the most important female amongst the rats. There is an older, stronger female called Big Savings who seems to be the
female counterpart of Hamnpork, and guards the mothers and youngsters. But
Big Savings is rarely on-stage and Peaches is undoubtedly the dominant female.
She is also the "official carrier" of the Mr Bunnsy book and is working on
developing a written rat language.
At one point the philosopher Dangerous Beans asks Peaches to write down a
Thought. It might seem that this presents Peaches in a secretarial
role, traditionally junior and female, but the context makes it clear that
this is not the case. Dangerous Beans is blind whilst Peaches is the
best reader and writer in the Clan. Her role is more scholar than secretary
Neither O'Brien or Pratchett have their rats consider the issue of gender
roles in their societies, which is an interesting gap. In Mrs Frisby
this may have been due to the time it was written. In 1971 the question
of equal rights for women was a controversial issue, and many saw it as antithetical
to the nuclear family. But Pratchett has been ruled by Mrs Thatcher
and his earlier book Equal Rites satirises paternalist thinking.
The big question faced by the Rats of NIMH is whether to build their own
society or to continue to parasitize the human one. But the argument
has led to schism within the rat society. One split occured before
the rats arrived on the farm, and the proposed move to the wilderness threatens
another one. But we are never told how the decisions are made. Are
the Rats a democracy, or an autocracy, or is the colony small enough to hammer
out their decisions in a mass meeting? Either way coercive force is
Politics in Maurice mostly revolve primarily around the personalities
of the Clan leadership. Without realising it the rats find themselves
moving from a leadership based on physical strength to one based on knowledge
At the end of the book the rats talk to the humans of the town. Maurice
and the rats offer a vision of a tourist industry and economic growth stemming
from co-operation, and compare it with a bleak image of scorched-earth warfare.
A long negotiation follows, during which Darktan and the human Mayor
privately discuss what it is like to be the leader. They find that
their experiences are very similar. Pratchett uses this scene to emphasise
the unity of intelligent life over differences in body shape and basic instincts.
Both Mrs Frisby and Maurice use their settings as a way to
introduce young readers to deep questions. Literature that does this
has a long history: many Victorian stories were sold as being "improving"
to their readers. Mrs Frisby is the more straightforward example
of this: its subtexts all support social cohesion and the popular image of
the ideal nuclear family at the time.
Maurice is more complex. Pratchett explores the conflict between
animal instincts and drives and intelligent freedom of action. Since
his target audience are children entering or going through puberty this will
have powerful resonances for them. Pratchett's message here is clearly
humanistic: Maurice is shown as heroic for putting his intelligence and empathy
before his natural cattiness. Similarly, one of the first Thoughts
of Dangerous Beans is that the Clan are not like other rats. This is
not merely an observation: if they are not like other rats (i.e. intelligent
and not acting purely on instinct) then they don't have to try to be like
other rats. This is in contrast with the views of Hamnpork, who prefers
to stick to what he knows.