The Tale of Despereaux by Kate di Camillo

Title: The Tale of Despereaux
Author: Kate di Camillo
Series : No, this is a stand alone book


In Short:
This is the story of Chiaroscuro the rat who longs for light, Midge the deaf servant girl who desperately wants to be a princess, and Despereaux the tiny mouse who believes in fairy tales, honour and happy endings.  All of them are drawn, by love or hate to royal daughter,  Princess Pea.


What I thought:

The Tale of Despereaux is much darker than I expected.  It is told in the voice of an old fashioned story teller who speaks directly to you, “dear reader”.   I felt as though I was being led slowly through the story, while the author pointed out each moment to me, making me look equally at cowardice, love, compassion and cruelty.  The illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering contribute to the mood:


The three main characters- the mouse, rat and servant girl –  refuse to fit into the place allotted to them by birth.  They don’t make a concious decision to rebel but in each case, a pivotal event infects them with longing for something that they should not want.

Roscuro the rat yearns for light after a flame of a match is thrust into his face.  Midge is enchanted by the glittering image of a princess riding past her home.  Despereaux learns to read under the heavenly light of a stained glass window.  Light and dark is a motif that runs throughout the entire book.  Here is Roscuro captivated by a glimpse of light shining down the dungeon stairs:

Roscuro, however, stared directly into the light.
Reader, this is important.  The rat called Chiaroscuro did not look away.  He let the light from the upstairs world enter him and fill him.  He gasped aloud with the wonder of it.
“Give him small comforts” shouted a voice at the top of the stairs, and a red cloth was thrown into the light.  The cloth hung suspended for a moment, bright red and glowing, and then the door was slammed shut again and the light disappeared and the cloth fell to the floor.

Another theme is that of flawed parents.  Even the King, who loves his daughter Princess Pea with all his heart, is rather stupid and self centred. You could say this is a story about growing up and  the loss of innocence – particularly the realisation that there may be no happy ending to your story, and that no matter how much you may want something – “nobody cares what you want.”


I wont quickly forget the image of Despereaux frantically repeating the phrase “happily ever after” as he is dragged to the dark dungeon. That, if anything, was the lasting image.  Of the lonely journey one makes from the loss of innocence to forgiving the cruelty of the world.  When Despereaux forgives his father:

Forgiveness, reader, is, I think, something very much like hope and love – a powerful, wonderful thing.

And a ridiculous thing, too.

Isn’t it ridiculous, after all, to think that a son could forgive his father for beating the drum that sent him to his death? Isn’t it ridiculous to think that a mouse could ever forgive anyone such perfidy?

But still, here are the words Despereaux Tilling spoke to his father.  He said “I forgive you, Pa”

And he said those words because he sensed that it was the only way to save his own heart,to stop it from breaking in two.  Despereaux, reader, spoke to save himself.

But after all this, The Tale of Despereaux is not a grim story.  It has a happy, if not a fairy tale ending:


Another theme that of  stories and story telling.  Despereaux learns that there is no such thing as happy ever after – but he also learns that this does not mean that stories are lies.

I leave you with the Coda:

Do you remember when Despereaux was in the dungeon, cupped in Gregory the jailer’s hand, whispering a story in the old man’s ear?  I would like it very much if you thought of me as a mouse telling you a story, this story, with the whole of my heart, whispering it in your ear in order to save myself from the darkness and to save you from the darkness too.  “Stories are light” Gregory the jailer told Despereaux.  Reader, I hope you have found some light here.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nymeth
    Jul 07, 2009 @ 11:12:34

    I didn’t expect it to be so dark either. But you’re right, it is a very hopeful book. You’re making me want to read it again.

  2. mashadutoit
    Jul 07, 2009 @ 12:27:30

    I wonder what I would have made of it if I had read it when I was a child. As it is, I found the description of Midge being hit about the ears until she went deaf particularly disturbing.

  3. Amie
    Oct 20, 2009 @ 07:09:10

    I love this book so much, its the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. And yes i agree, this book is very dark and sullen, just making the end result that much more beautiful.

    (maybe there is a different copy of the book, because my book claims the serving girl’s name in not midge, but Miggery Sow, but i guess i just dont know…)

  4. mashadutoit
    Oct 20, 2009 @ 09:03:40

    Hi Amie It true – the contrast in tone makes the events at the end seem to glow. And as for Midge / Miggery – Its far more likely that I just got the name wrong! 😛

  5. megan
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 02:08:16

    this book is great:)

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