Sunday, March 9, 2014

Adventures of the Rat Family: A Fairy Tale (book) by Jules Verne, introduction by Iona Opie, afterword by Brian Taves


I love rats, or at least the domesticated kind. I've had several pet rats over the years, I collect rat-related things, and I even used my love of rats as inspiration for a large research project in college. My coworkers know how much I like rats, and, when one of them found this book in her personal collection, she gave it to me to borrow.

I admit, I've never read anything by Jules Verne before. I've always associated Verne with adventure stories and science fiction, so finding out about this book was a surprise. It's the story of a young man named Ratin and a family composed of a mother (Ratonne), a father (Raton), their daughter (Ratine), her cousin (Raté), the family's cook (Rata), and the family's maid (Ratane). The world they live in includes something that seems very much like reincarnation, without the dying – every being moves up and down a ladder of existence, transforming into higher and lower beings based on aspects of their own lives or on the whims good fairies or evil magicians. On the lowest rung of the ladder of creation are mollusks. Then come fish, birds, quadrupeds, and finally human beings.

Ratin and Ratine are in a fix. They love each other and wish to be married. They were once both rats, but, sadly, Ratin transformed into a man before Ratine transformed into a woman. Ratin loves her regardless and is perfectly willing to wait for her final transformation, but the difference in their forms is not their only problem. Ratine's mother thinks Ratin is not good enough for her, because he is poor and Lady Ratonne believes she, her husband, and her daughter deserve the grandest possible existence when they finally become humans. Also, Ratine's beauty has attracted the attention of the arrogant Prince Kissador, who wishes to hold her captive until she transforms into a beautiful woman and he can marry her. In order to achieve his goal, Prince Kissador has enlisted the help of the evil magician Gardafour, who has transformed the entire rat family into oysters.

Gardafour's actions have resulted in his powers being temporarily taken away, so, for a time, the good fairy Firmenta can help them. While Prince Kissador and Gardafour try to thwart her and kidnap Ratine, Firmenta gradually guides the rat family through several forms – from oysters, to fish, to rats, to birds, to large quadrupeds, and finally humans.

When I first flipped through this book, I was a little disappointed at how few rats illustrations there were. I now understand why there were only three rat illustrations in the whole book, but Felician Myrbach-Rheinfeld's rat illustrations were so nice I still wish there had been more.

The “rat family” spends surprisingly little time in rat form, but I have to admit I liked how imaginative the various transformations were. Every family member transformed into specific species that either fit who they were or affected their perceptions of who they were. Lady Ratonne's forms were usually varied in color, something she took great pride in. Bumbling Raté's transformations were always mixed up – every time he transformed into a new animal, he retained one of the characteristics of his previous transformation.

Overall, I liked this book. I enjoyed seeing what each of the characters transformed into, and I liked watching Gardafour's efforts to capture Ratine for Prince Kissador, and Firmenta's efforts to counter him.

The story did have issues, though. All the Rat- names were difficult to keep track of – I frequently flipped back to the beginning of the book, when everyone was introduced, in order to remind myself who was who. Also, I hated how Verne wrote about women. It wasn't just that Ratine was so passive, or that Ratane so quickly forgave her husband for spurning her when he had a more beautiful form than her, or that Lady Ratonne was obsessed with status and wealth. At the end of the story, Verne, through Raton, specifically poked at women, calling Ratonne “shrewish” and having Raton dismiss her complaints about a choice he made by saying “'Ah! Women! Women! Beautiful heads often, but brains, none at all!'” (61). Sorry Verne/Raton, I'm on Ratonne's side on this one.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Spirited Away (anime movie) - While reading Adventures of the Rat Family, I couldn't help but think that it would make a wonderful animated movie, specifically one directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Like Verne's story, Spirited Away has various fantastical transformations, although they're not tied to any kind of "ladder of creation."
  • The Tale of Despereaux (book) by Kate DiCamillo - I read this at some point, but I can't honestly say I remember much about it. Those who'd like another children's fantasy story featuring rodents (Despereaux is a mouse, Roscuro is a rat) may want to give this a try.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - At the beginning of this series, a girl from our world is transported to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms by a man she later learns is a kirin. Each of the Twelve Kingdoms has a kirin, which is responsible for choosing that kingdom's ruler. In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, beings are born from egg fruit, and it's possible for humans to accidentally receive children from egg fruit intended for animals - one character is a rodent who was raised as the child of a human woman. Those who appreciated the fantastical elements of Verne's story may want to give this series a try. I have written about the TV series and several of the books.

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