In many ways, The Tale of Despereaux details the titular mouse protagonist’s process of growing up and learning to stand up for what he believes is right. Despereaux doesn’t fit in with other mice, but this is largely because he believes in things that he suggests are far more meaningful and important than what most mice value: he values love and honor, rather than eating and being afraid. His values lead him not only to speak to and fall in love with the human Princess Pea, but to survive banishment to the dungeon—and to later return to the dungeon to rescue the princess when the rat Chiaroscuro kidnaps her and hides her in the dungeon’s darkness. Despereaux’s principles, the novel suggests, motivate him to become far more mature and far more moral than his fellow mice are.
Part of Despereaux’s maturation, though, is connected to his realization that good won’t happen in the world if he and his fellow mice only sit around and wait for it to happen—he must act on his principles, even if doing so is frightening. Despereaux makes this realization as he dreams that the knight in shining armor from a story he loves to read is actually just an empty suit of armor, and as he then realizes that perhaps it’s empty so that he can wear it and be a knight himself. Essentially, as Despereaux loses his innocent and youthful belief that good things will just happen in the world, he gains the armor—or the courage—he needs to be a force for good in his own right.
Principles, Courage, and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Principles, Courage, and Growing Up Quotes in The Tale of Despereaux
While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.
He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
“Furlough,” he said, “what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?”
“Cripes!” shouted Furlough from a far corner. “Don’t stand there in the middle of the floor talking about heaven. Move! You’re a mouse, not a man. You’ve got to scurry.”
“What?” said Despereaux, still staring at the light.
Reader, you may ask this question; in fact, you must ask this question: Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea?
The answer is … yes. Of course, it’s ridiculous.
Love is ridiculous.
But love is also wonderful. And powerful. And Despereaux’s love for the Princess Pea would prove, in time, to be all of these things: Powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous.
“Did you break them?”
“Yes, sir,” said Despereaux. He raised his voice. “But…I broke the rules for good reasons. Because of music. And because of love.”
“Love!” said the Head Mouse.
“Oh cripes,” said Furlough. “Here we go.”
“I love her, sir,” said Despereaux.
“We are not here to talk about love. This trial is not about love. This trial is about you being a mouse,” shouted the Most Very Honored Head Mouse from high atop the bricks, “and not acting like one!!!”
How, he 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?
“Why would you save me, then?”
“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
Looking at the royal family had awakened some deep and slumbering need in her; it was if a small candle had been lit in her interior, sparked to life by the brilliance of the king and the queen and the princess.
For the first time in her life, reader, Mig hoped.
And hope is like love…a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.
Mig tried to name this strange emotion; she put a hand up to touch one of her aching ears, and she realized that the feeling she was experiencing, the hope blooming inside of her, felt exactly the opposite of a good clout.
He dreamt of the stained-glass windows and the dark of the dungeon. In Despereaux’s dream, the light came to life, brilliant and glorious, in the shape of a knight swinging a sword. The knight fought the dark.
And the dark took many shapes. First the dark was his mother, uttering phrases in French. And then the dark became his father beating the drum. The dark was Furlough wearing a black hood and shaking his head no. And the dark became a huge rat smiling a smile that was evil and sharp.
And what of the light in the princess’s heart? Reader, I am pleased to tell you that the Pea was a kind person, and perhaps more important, she was empathetic. Do you know what it means to be empathetic?
I will tell you: it means that when you are being forcibly taken to a dungeon, when you have a large knife pointed at your back, when you are trying to be brave, you are able, still, to think for a moment of the person who is holding that knife.
You are able to think: “Oh, poor Mig, she wants to be a princess so badly and she thinks that this is the way. Poor, poor Mig. What must it be like to want something that desperately?”
“It will be all right,” said Louise.
Cook brought the hem of her apron up to wipe at her tears. “It won’t,” she said. “It won’t be all right ever again. They’ve taken our little darling away. There ain’t nothing left to live for without the princess.”
Despereaux was amazed to have exactly what was in his heart spoken aloud by such a ferocious, mouse-hating woman as Cook.
He put a nervous paw up to his neck and pulled at the red thread, and suddenly his dream came flooding back to him…the dark and the light and the knight swinging his sword and the terrible moment when he had realized that the suit of armor was empty.
And then, reader, as he stood before the king, a wonderful, amazing thought occurred to the mouse. What if the suit of armor had been empty for a reason? What if it had been empty because it was waiting?
“What do you want, Miggery Sow?!” the princess shouted.
“Don’t ask her that,” said Roscuro. “Shut up. Shut up.”
But it was too late. The words had been said; the question, at last, had been asked. The world stopped spinning and all of creation held its breath, waiting to hear what it was that Miggery Sow wanted.
“I want…,” said Mig.
“Yes?” shouted the Pea.
“I want my ma!” cried Mig, into the silent, waiting world. “I want my ma!”
“Oh,” said the princess. She held out her hand to Mig.
Mig took hold of it.
“I want my mother, too,” said the princess softly. And she squeezed Mig’s hand.
Despereaux held his trembling needle against Roscuro’s heart. The mouse knew that as a knight, it was his duty to protect the princess. But would killing the rat make the darkness go away?