At the bottom of the dungeon stairs, Despereaux discovers that none of his bones are broken. As he gets to his feet, though, he notices a horrible smell. The dungeon smells of “despair and suffering of hopelessness,” which is the smell of rats. Also, the darkness is so thick that it’s almost its own creature. Despereaux can’t even see his own paw in front of his face. He exclaims aloud, and then just to hear his voice again (so he can be sure he still exists), he says, “Perfidy.” Despereaux shivers and grabs his tail, just for something to hold onto. He considers fainting, but he remembers the threadmaster’s advice to be brave.
In comparison to the light, bright, beautiful upper floors of the castle (which the narrator associates with goodness), the dark dungeon that smells of suffering is wholly evil. And the rats that live there, the novel suggests, are a living embodiment of cruelty and evil. At first, Despereaux focuses on how his family has betrayed him (by repeating “Perfidy”). But he then recalls that he has more people to rely on than just his family—such as the threadmaster, and even himself.
Despereaux decides to be a knight in shining armor for the Princess Pea. He decides the best way to be brave is to tell his story, so he clears his throat and says, “Once upon a time.” He feels a bit better as he recites the next line about the knight’s shining armor, but then, Despereaux hears a booming voice in the darkness asking what a mouse knows about once upon a time and knights. Assuming the voice belongs to a massive rat, Despereaux faints.
It takes courage, the novel suggests, for Despereaux to face the dark dungeon and tell his story to it. But doing so allows Despereaux to experiment with stepping into the role of a brave rescuer himself—though when he faints of fear, it suggests he needs some practice in this area.