Sunday, December 22, 2019

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Rescuers

Y’know, a while back I didn’t know what to do with Fantasy Literature Rewind.  I had done spotlights on all the major children’s classics I could think of at the time (Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Oz books, I even did “The Snow Queen” even though I don’t particularly like H.C. Andersen’s work) and I thought the well had run dry.  Granted, I was probably thinking too narrowly about what mistakenly gets called a “fairy tale” and would fit the blog.  But then Disney released a remake of The Jungle Book and I remembered “Oh yeah, there are more children’s classics out there”.  Now, I’ve been using Disney’s production slate as a semi-guide for a little while now and here I am trying to get ahead of it and spotlight the stories that aren’t likely to get the remake treatment.

Case in point: The Rescuers.

The Rescuers is a book written by Margery Sharp and illustrated by Garth Williams and published in 1959 (we are wandering far, far from our comfortable public domain here, dear readers.  So, brace yourselves).  The book was not expressly written for children but ended up finding that audience anyway.  The story concerns a group of mice called the Prisoners’ Aid Society.  The Prisoners’ Aid Society is a society of mice who fill a civic need by befriending prisoners during their long incarcerations.  As the story starts though, the Prisoners’ Aid Society has decided to step outside their usual bounds and actually rescue one of the prisoners in question.  The prisoner in question is a Norwegian poet who is being held in the infamously foreboding prison called The Black Castle.  For this, they need a mouse who can speak Norwegian.  So, a stalwart mouse from the Pantry named Bernard goes to recruit Miss Bianca, who is an ambassador’s pet and has the privilege of travelling via “diplomatic bag”, who then makes her way to Norway and recruits a seafaring mouse named Nils.  All three of them end up on the daring rescue mission where they run the risk of not just failing to rescue the poet but also getting caught by human guards but also by the cat Mamelouk.
If none of this sounds anything like the 1977 animated Disney film you grew up with, there’s good reason for that.  All sources consulted suggest that Disney didn’t take much from the first book when making their film adaptation of The Rescuers.  Instead, most of it came from the sequel titled Miss Bianca.  Even then, they changed large amounts of it.
The book as it actually is, is an interesting piece of work.  Friendly talking mice are a staple of children’s literature and fairy tales and have been for a long time.  This is one of the few times I’ve ever seen them moved into the position of being political players.  I mean, in this day and age our day-to-day view of politics is “What law did they not pass today?” and “Did the President really say something that stupid?”, but don’t doubt that what the Prisoners’ Aid Society is doing is political.  Right off the bat, they have to deal with travel issues (why they need Miss Bianca) and language barriers (why they need Nils).  It’s also never really stated why the Norwegian poet was imprisoned, but the fact that he was a poet suggests that he was jailed as a political prisoner for writing something that a political figure did not like.  You know, in this case the Disney movie may have been better about getting across the political aspect because of how they modeled their “Rescue Aid Society” deliberately on the United Nations (though, I guess we could fault them with a lack of subtlety).  Basically, we watch as three mice try to deal with a very big, yet still delicate situation.  There’s no promise of success and for a good chunk of time it seems practically impossible anyway.  The book goes into detail describing how for a period of months they spent their time living in the walls of the Black Castle watching events and trying to figure out how they’re even going to pull off their rescue in the first place.  Then when they do figure it out, there’s only one day of the year when it’s even possible.  The characters deserve some praise.  Nils is a bit of an over-the-top figure with his sailor talk and love for his big rubber boots, but he’s still a likable character.  Bernard is humble and plain-spoken, but it’s established early on that he’s brave and true.  After all, he had been decorated with the Tybalt Star for Gallantry in the Face of Cats.  Special attention should be paid to Miss Bianca, though.  For, you see, every one of the qualities she has that seem like they’d be weaknesses on a rescue mission turn out to be strengths when applied correctly.  The mission at one point calls for her to talk to the dangerous cat Mamelouk.  Not a great mission for a spoiled pet mouse who doesn’t know enough to be afraid of cats, right?  Well, it’s because she’s unafraid and because of her more genteel, sophisticated nature that allows her to talk to Mamelouk in such a way that she gets the information they need out of him.  Not bad for someone who lives in a porcelain pagoda.
The Rescuers book series has nine books in it, but very few of them seem to be in print.  So, the best bet is probably to check your local library for most of them.  As for this first one, I thought it was a solid, entertaining little book.  A quick read, too.  I suggest giving it a read if you get the chance.  In the meantime, I’m going to try and figure out what I’ll do if I run out of books that were turned into movies.

Until next time.

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