Okay, bear with me on this one, because it takes some unpacking.
So the other day, I just got through reading The Witches, the Roald Dahl classic, to Wump. She’s been enjoying his stories, and although I’d much rather have the paperbacks (only The BFG and Matilda seem to have made it to Finland with me), the e-book versions are fine. A little overpriced, at €7 – €8 for a book I can read aloud to an interrupting six-year-old in three or four nights, but okay.
Anyway, that wasn’t the point. The point was, I just read the book and I was struck by a mess of things that I need to talk about here.
First of all, it seems pretty clear to me that Rowling took a lot of inspiration from Roald Dahl in her creation of the Harry Potter series. Our hero in the story is a little boy whose parents are killed in a car accident (just as Harry was told happened to his parents), leaving him with nothing but a scar on his forehead. After that it all skews off the rails, but there are witches involved.
Another Roald Dahl book, incidentally, James and the Giant Peach, predates The Witches by a couple of decades and involves a little boy whose parents are eaten alive by a rhinoceros, and the kid then goes to live with his two horrible aunties. A big fat one and a nasty skinny one, who lock him in his room with bars on the windows and make him do all the chores and never let him go anywhere. Just saying.
Look, that’s all fine, Rowling is British and Dahl was a big fucking deal in British children’s literature (and indeed weird young adult and weird adult literature).
No, I want to talk about how the book is a prequel to Stuart Little.
Now, let’s unpack this still more. An amusing pair of factoids here, The Witches is a book that I know has been made into a movie but I have never seen the movie. Stuart Little is a book that I only just found out was a book (and by E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web’s fame, no less!), that has been made into a movie. I have seen the movie, but – and you might get a kick out of this – I saw it on a bus on the way from Tijuana to Los Angeles back in 2000, I was out of my mind on a day’s-worth of the most amazing tequila I’ve ever tasted, and all I really remember is sitting on a bus with a guy from the US Marines, and both of us pissing ourselves laughing at the entire movie. Also a mariachi band came onto the bus, and I smuggled a box of cigarettes over the border for the bus driver, and – okay, look, this side-anecdote is starting to outshine the main blog post at this point, so let’s move on and I’ll come back to my Tijuana odyssey later.
To the point.
The Witches, I suppose I will need to see sometime because Wump liked it. Stuart Little, unforgivable that I didn’t know it was an E.B White book, but oh well. USians get to look down their noses at me over literature once they sort their shit out, and not before.
For the purposes of this exercise, I will be talking about the book version of The Witches (because it’s all I know), but using a picture from the movie (because while the book was illustrated, I’m going with the photo). And I will be talking about the movie version of Stuart Little, because the book version is just a mildly-horrifying story about a boy who was born to human parents but was tiny and “looked very much like a rat/mouse in every way”. No thank you.
The Witches, in case you didn’t know, was the harrowing story of a boy who gets caught by a bunch of witches and turned into a mouse using a special formula the Grand High Witch brewed up. He retains sentience and the ability to talk in his normal voice, so all the potion really did was turn him into a mouse-sized, mouse-shaped human.
Here he is, before being turned into a mouse, training one of his pet mice which was always a mouse. Stop me if I’m going too fast for you.
You probably see where I’m going with this. As another interesting aside, did you know the Stuart Little screenplay was written by M. Night Shyamalan (and Greg Brooker, but M. Night Shyamalan is the one to remember here)? So yeah, prepare for a dumb twist.
Anyway, The Witches concludes with the mouse-boy hero and his grandmother nabbing some of the potion and turning all the witches of Great Britain into mice, which are then promptly slaughtered by hotel kitchen staff. Mouse-boy and Grandmama then start out on an epic quest to make more of the mouse-potion and travel the world, turning witches into mice and then setting cats on them, eventually eradicating the species once and for all. In a … just a fantastically cruel and brutal way.
The story of Stuart Little is, basically: A couple adopt a second child and this one happens to be a talking mouse for some reason. Hilarity ensues. Like I said, I don’t remember much about the movie, and I know nothing about the book.
The adoptive father is the modern reincarnation of George from Blackadder, but let’s not overcomplicate this.
I think there was some confusion over whether Stuart could talk human language and cat language, or what was going on there, but the main question was why in Satan’s glorious name was he a mouse?
“Let me answer that question by handling your food.”
Well, obviously, he was a mouse because of the mouse-maker potion. He’s exactly the sort of mouse that the potion produces.
But it goes beyond that. Because the final part of The Witches, and the part which really stayed with me as a kid, was the fact that a mouse’s heart beats a bunch of times a second (this is not scientifically verified, by the way, but it seems to check out), and a mouse does not live very long. My scientific research took precisely 12 seconds longer than Roald Dahl’s, although in his defence there was no Google in the ’80s.
This is why, although I like mice and rats, I could never keep one as a pet. And yet, at the same time, I know that if we produce genetically-manipulated rats with 30-year lifespans, we will quite rightly be extinct by 2070.
The upshot of this fact, in the book, was that a mouse-child was only likely to live another ten years or so, which was about as long as Grandmama was going to live too, since she was over 80. And Grandmama and Mouse-boy would die together. And Mouse-boy was fine with that.
It just … horrified me, as a child.
The braided storyline is thus complicated by the fact that Stuart Little, in the movie version at least, has mouse parents.
“Let me answer that question by handling your boobs.”
But that’s fine, because in The Witches, we’re actually also flat-out told that mice are prodigious breeders and Mouse-boy is likely to father nine or ten or twenty generations of mouse-kids by the end of his short and vigorously genocidal life.
Obviously, Stuart Little’s parents are the descendents of some collateral damage from the witch extermination of the 1980s. Which makes sense, because Phase Two of the plan was to infiltrate the witches’ castle headquarters and turn all the witches into mice, and those witches most likely had at least some human assistants or visitors. Collateral damage was mentioned several times in the book, on both sides. Not to mention that the potion was being distributed by a seven-year-old kid in the shape of a mouse. Mistakes were inevitable.
In twenty years, even a single mouse-human couple (or bloody Hell, even a single girl accidentally turned into a mouse, meeting up with either the book’s hero or with Bruno Jenkins, another kid who was randomly turned into a mouse and then went on to have off-page adventures with his family and family cat much like Stuart Little did) would have been able to produce a subspecies of sentient mice. Hey presto, the family who were killed in an accident and left Stuart Little in that orphanage.
The Witches was the origin story for Stuart Little.
Now, let’s see where the Rats of NIMH fit in…