Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Most Moral, Mighty, Magnificent Mouse

[Here, at last, is my Reepicheep essay. It is not my best work, but I believe it is adequate. If you have read The Chronicles of Narnia, you will understand my arguments following. If not, I encourage you to read Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader post-haste.

If this post is too long for you, read the abridged version above. If this is too short for you, either you are crazy (and thus in no position to gauge the sanity of a talking mouse) or should quit your day job and become a professor of English or Law. If my reasoning does not convince you, either you are crazy (and thus in no position to argue with me about the sanity of a talking mouse), or you should write a systematic rebuttal. Go on. I dare you.]

Sanity Check

In The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis presents a swashbuckling, talking mouse. Speaking of this amazing, marvelous, minuscule (yet-magnificent) mammal, my sister Cheryl recently asserted that “Reepicheep is completely insane.” This libelous assertion has already been challenged on the field of honor. (And feel free to vote for which cake is better!) Now we will demonstrate the true nature of this noble beast using critical literary analysis. Reepicheep has very “human” foibles, but is lucid as well as lovable. Any psychiatrist—once she had overcome her anxieties about examining a talking mouse—would find him to be a functioning adult. (After which she would dose herself with anti-psychotic drugs to treat her own obvious hallucinations. Perhaps we should take pity on the poor doctor and prove his sanity using other methods. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, as even Reepicheep might acknowledge.)

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “sane” as “mentally healthy” and sanity as “soundness of judgment or reason.” Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary further clarifies “sane” as “able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one's actions.” Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law adds, “ distinguish right from wrong.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines “insane” and “insanity” with terms like “persistent mental disorder or derangement,” “unsoundness of mind sufficient in the judgment of a civil court to render a person unfit to maintain a contractual or other legal relationship or to warrant commitment to a mental health facility,” and “a degree of mental malfunctioning sufficient to relieve the accused of legal responsibility for the act committed.”

It seems very difficult to prove any person is sane. Who doesn't do unreasonable or irrational things on occasion? The burden of “proving” he is insane—sufficient to convince a judge to throw him in a mental hospital, for instance—lies with the prosecution. I am the defense. (The judge will handle this case better than that poor psychiatrist, anyway. She is used to crazy commitment hearings.) But the preponderance of evidence makes me confident that I can demonstrate Reepicheep is a functioning adult mouse: lucid, emotionally stable, legally competent, moral, noble, intelligent, posessing good judgment, capable of reason, and responsible. Good computer programs perform a “sanity check.” Let us do the same.

Legally Lucid

As to “lucid,” we see Reepicheep neither hallucinate nor speak incoherently. I cannot prove a negative, but if the lawyer for the prosecution has evidence of this Mouse experiencing hallucinations, psychoses, dysphasia, dementia, or other mental impairments, let her advance her arguments. (I do note, pointedly, that in “The Dark Island” chapter, Reepicheep alone seems unaffected by the terror and hallucinations affecting everyone else aboard the Dawn Treader.)

Regarding the Mouse's mental health, we never see him morose, sulky, depressed, or suicidal. Manic, perhaps, but not suicidal. His willingness to challenge beings ten times his size to duels stems not from depression, but from pride. Neither does he suffer from mood swings. He might be manic, but he's always manic. He never mentions a love interest, but then, he never complains about the lack, either. (I respect his privacy—and discretion. No doubt a handsome, heroic, charismatic leader among mice lacks not for female companionship if he so desires.)

As to legal competence, Reepicheep is the Chief Mouse, and his followers love him. He was knighted by the hand of the reigning King Caspian, while three other kings (Aslan, Peter, and Edmund) looked on approvingly. He argues respectfully but forcefully with kings, and participates in Caspian's councils. Obviously he enjoys full recognition as an adult Narnian citizen, eligible to enter into official responsibilities and contractual obligations—and honorable combat.

Tail Trouble

Eustace is a brat. Early in the Dawn Treader, he impulsively grabs Reepicheep by the tail and swings him in circles. Our rugged rodent protests this treatment. Vehemently. Would you enjoy a caveman dragging you around by your hair? What if your hair were beautiful and glossy and your best feature? What if your hair had once been hacked off by hooligans, leaving you wretched and ragged, but had then been miraculously restored, in an instant, by God himself? Would you not find this caveman's behavior a violation of your human rights, a desecration of your dignity, a sacrilege against your crowning glory?

This is how Reepicheep feels about his tail. “Sir,” he tells Aslan, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse.” Under such provocation, our hero is entitled to defend himself—and does so. (Could you draw your sword while being swung upside-down by your tail? And then use it with surgical precision against your tormentor? Didn't think so.)

Reepicheep skewers Eustace's hand to secure his own release, and then seeks satisfaction. He chastens the brat with the flat of his sword and challenges him to a duel. He is angry, but his is a measured response. (He does not disembowel his attacker on the spot.)

When the issue comes before King Caspian, the monarch does not say “He's a little crazy—doesn't know what he's doing—needs a guardian's approval before issuing a legal challenge...” Rather, Caspian takes the idea seriously. He may have smiled to himself, predicting (accurately) that Eustace would back down, but he would have permitted a duel.

We should note, further, that we never see a legislative or judicial system in Narnia. The king has power to pass laws, enforce them, and settle disputes. The only “checks and balances” are Aslan and the consent of the governed. In our society, Reepicheep could have filed a civil suit. In Narnia, a civil trial was probably not in the legal paradigm. (Especially on a small ship away from civilization.) Most likely, his only options were to demand satisfaction in honorable combat, or to complain to the king.

It is Eustace who bursts in on the monarchs, whining, crying, and threatening lawsuits. Reepicheep apologizes to Their Majesties that the situation has interrupted their meal. He is a very independent mouse. Why whine to Caspian and wait for the king to order ten lashes, when Reepicheep is himself perfectly capable of administering a sound spanking? Especially since the injury was done to his own person, and the libertarian mouse values minimal governmental interference and personal responsibility?
That Caspian endorses a duel demonstrates that it was a legal option. Barbaric by our standards, perhaps—Reepicheep would have slaughtered the wimpy Eustace, of course—but perfectly logical within the mouse's frame of reference.

Predictive Powers

Regarding causality and consequences, Cheryl says, “He reminds me of those who step in front of semis saying, 'My god will save me.'" I respectfully disagree. He never claims that he would win a duel against a giant. Glaring at Wimbleweather, he says to Aslan:

“...if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is one...shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir—not the tallest fool in Narnia!”

He is vain. He is too concerned with honor. But if he errs, it is not from blind faith, or idiocy, or peer pressure, or disconnection from reality. He's not a frontal-lobe-challenged, testosterone-poisoned teenage boy. He is not idiotically impulsive. (He wouldn't try to skateboard down a cliff on a whim, just to see what happens. ) He is motivated by an internal code of honor, honesty, and adventure. Pride may be a deadly sin, but it is not inherently insane. Reepicheep decides to defend his principles at any cost, never settling for a cringing, servile existence devoid of self-respect! His priorities may be questionable, but not his predictive powers.

Is it insane when, in Ivanhoe, Rebecca embraces “death before dishonor” and threatens to leap to her death rather than accede to Guilbert's advances? Is it insane for Patrick Henry to cry “Give me liberty, or give me death!”? Was David deluded when he challenged Goliath? Was his king crazy to allow it?

A Most Moral Mouse

In addition to understanding consequences, he also has a strong moral sense of right and wrong. He is no tragic Greek hero with a fatal flaw. Rather, his foibles are tempered. He is prideful, but not destructive. Agressive, but not cruel. Comic, but not ridiculous. Argumentative, but not obsessive. Tempermental, but controlled. Easily angered, but forgiving.

After Eustace's sulky apology over the tail incident, he does not hold a grudge; his honor is satisfied by an apology, albeit an insincere one. He doesn't bully Eustace, or seek vengeance. He is not petty.

This benevolent beast demonstrates true charity. When Eustace is enchanted into a dragon, it is Reepicheep who most often visits and comforts him. No wonder the author so often calls him “valiant” and “noble”. He guards his pride fiercely, but also guards the water cask. It is a menial, thankless task performed for the greater good. And when there is a dispute about the water cask, everyone believes Reepicheep's account, because he is so honest.

He is certainly intelligent. He usually beats Lucy at chess. Note that he would die to protect her, but does not hesitate to slaughter her vicariously in a game. He doesn't pout when he loses. Nor does he gloat when he wins. Nor does he “throw” the game in a reverse-chauvinist attempt to “let the girl win.” He gives her the respect of playing his best game and assuming she will, as well. True, occasionally he gets distracted, imagining real combat, and his performance suffers. This just means our energetic mouse has some ADD. Maybe some ADHD. But so do many very smart ER physicians.

Reason, Judgment, and Discretion

The real question, then, is this: Does he exercise good judgment? Cheryl claims, “Reepicheep acknowledges no reason to avoid danger in any instance.” Such superlatives are dangerous. She claims the mouse is completely insane and never avoids danger. If I can find even one exception to this statement, the prosecution's entire proposition is false. Reepicheep is not addicted to his sword. He can solve problems without it; he is just selectively pragmatic. In fact, there are many cases in which Reepicheep avoids danger, demonstrating not cowardice but merely common sense. I shall win, then, not on a technicality of finding one weak exception, but rather by showing a pattern of behavior that is not nearly as reckless, ill-considered, or crazy as my esteemed opponent believes.

In the first place, how often do you see Reepicheep actually challenge someone to a duel? He threatens to issue challenges all the time, but the only time he actually follows through is in the aftermath of the unfortunate tail-swinging incident. Recognizing Wimbleweather's weak mental powers, Reepicheep issues stern reminders about respecting dignity, but does not pursue the issue. He refrains from challenging Eustace when they first meet out of respect for his Queen. “To the convenience of a lady,” he says, “Even a question of honor must give way—at least, for the moment...” Would d'Artagnan have postponed pursuing l'homme de Meung to assist a woman? Probably not.

When their small party lands on the Island of the Invisible Voices, unseen creatures cut the Narnians off from their ship and demand that Lucy perform a dangerous covert mission. The mouse acknowledges that their tactical position is hopeless.

“Her Majesty is in the right,” said Reepicheep. “If we had any assurance of saving her by battle, our duty would be very plain. It appears to me that we have none. And the service they ask of her is in no way contrary to her Majesty's honor, but a noble and heroical act. If the Queen's heart moves her to risk the magician, I will not speak against it.”

“Reep” is right. Further, he permits the other males in the group to save face. Since no one doubts the creature's courage, Caspian and the others can agree with him and suffer only minimal embarrassment. No one will rush to die in battle because he's too ashamed to “look” cowardly. His statement prevents further stupidity. He also demonstrates principled pragmatism, and shows that, even when faced with a military challenge, violence is not always the solution.

Our mettlesome mouse further demonstrates his tactical genius when the ship encounters the sea serpent. While Eustace hacks a sword to pieces and bowmens' arrows glance harmlessly against the creature's scales, Reepicheep alone keeps his head, shouting, “Don't fight! Push!” Inspired by his example, the men form lines, push the serpent off the ship, and then escape. Another example of the mouse solving a problem without a sword—and reasoning while others panicked.

True, he seems foolhardy about the dragon.

“We must all show great constancy,” Caspian was saying. “A dragon has just...lighted on the beach...between us and the ship....”

“With your Majesty's leave—” began Reepicheep.

“No, Reepicheep,” said the King very firmly, “you are not to attempt a single combat with it. And unless you promise to obey me in this matter I'll have you tied up. We must just keep close watch and, as soon as it is light, go down to the beach and give it battle. I will lead. King Edmund will be on my right and the Lord Drinian on my left....”

If Reepicheep did, indeed, intend single combat, it is a blow to my argument, especially if he believed he could win. But he never finished his sentence. Caspian assumes the worst and interrupts. A more likely explanation is that Reepicheep only intended to request, as he did in Prince Caspian, “All I ask is that the King will put me and my people in the front.” When the King outlines the plan for battle and assigns positions, Reepicheep accepts his orders—he is a very military-minded—and does not further distract his commander-in-chief.

I defy the prosecution to prove otherwise.

The Valiant Vermin is capable of discretion. When they land on Ramandu's island, Reepicheep guesses that the banquet table contains poisoned food—and does not test that hypothesis. Like any sensible person, he simply abstains. He errs on the side of caution.

Conscience: Neither Capricious nor Cautious

True, he seeks glory and adventure. In “The Dark Island” chapter, he bullies the others into entering the foreboding Darkness. Yet he bullies them not physically, but by his superior moral strength.

“We did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honor and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honors.”

Several of the sailors said...”Honor be blowed,” but Caspian said:

“Oh, bother you, Reepicheep. I almost wish we'd left you at home. All right! If you put it that way, I suppose we shall have to go on.”

This may have been what caused my learned opponent to say , “he gloriously seeks danger under the guise of adventure and labels any who refuse to join him cowards.” And yet, consider. The Narnians did set sail for “impractical” reasons: quests, adventure, and exploration. Caspian backs down because he knows Reepicheep is right. He just needed a reminder. He also did not say, “You are all sissies!” but rather, that it would reflect poorly on “all our honors.” He grouped himself with the men and was not sanctimonious. (Well, not much.)

And, in fact, they do find something useful in the thick, dark mist. What would have happened to the quest—and Lord Rhoop—had they not followed the curious creature's counsel? They also realize, after leaving their dreaded dreams behind, that there had never been any real danger. (I shall begin a mass printing of "Reep is Right!" bumper stickers forthwith.)

Later, when the company are debating whether to sail east to the end of the world, the sailors begin mutinous mutterings. Reepicheep, without disparaging others' choices, says:

“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I shall paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan's country...I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise...”

“Hear, hear” said a sailor....He added in a lower voice, “I'm not going to be outdone by a mouse.”

This is Reepicheep's function. He is the gadly, the conscience, the custodian of the company's honor. He is Atticus Finch, who, as Miss Maudie says in To Kill a Mockingbird was “born to do our unpleasant jobs for us....We're so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we've got men like Atticus to go for us." In Christ, the merest mouse is mightier than men.

It is true that the mouse seeks adventure and glory, but he is not irresponsible. He names a successor. His quest to go beyond the World's End has Aslan's tacit approval. It may sound crazy, but were Marco Polo and Magellan crazy? Reepicheep takes a radical risk, yes, but in accordance with prophecy. When Caspian wants to abdicate and join Reepicheep's final quest, the mouse lectures the monarch, “You are the King of Narnia. You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person.” Our adventurous animal has no dependents, however, and is free risk—and gain—everything.

Mightier than the Sword

The best example of Reepicheep's independence from his sword occurs when he departs for Aslan's country. As he prepares to sail, alone, over the world's edge, he removes his sword and flings it away, announcing, “I shall need it no more.” He does not storm the gates of heaven demanding entrance. He goes boldly (but humbly) to his last adventure, confident that the tool he used to right wrongs in a flawed world will be unnecessary in a perfect paradise.

Closing Arguments

Reepicheep is a swashbuckling, sometimes swaggering, adventurer. He is passionate. A tad eccentric. He gets carried away at times. But he is no nuttier than d'Artagnan. (Hmm. Bad example.) Not as bad as the trigger-happy cast of Schlock Mercenary? (Ick. Even worse. Let's try this again.)

He is not a pirate. (Too dishonorable.) He is decidedly not Cyrano de Bergerac. (Too depressed.) He is not the valiant knight Ivanhoe. (Too staid.) Neither is he the Scarlet Pimpernel. (Too blind, distracted, and annoying.) Nor is he Wesley from The Princess Bride. (Too...something. Sarcastic? Satirical?) He is not quite Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda. (Too much subterfuge.) He is not even Robin Hood. (Too wild.) No, he is Reepicheep, the epitomal swashbuckling hero, the paragon of a paladin fighting for principle but not for fun.

He has a Napoleonic complex, over-compensating for his height. Perhaps his “perfect” big brother died in childhood, leaving Reepicheep to compare himself to an impossible ideal. But who among us do not have formative experiences which affect our characters?

Reepicheep has his foibles and imperfections, but he checks them. He is a risk-taking--but not reckless--rodent. His behavior is neither erratic nor uncontrolled. Even at his most idealistic, he is a functioning adult mouse: lucid, intelligent, moral, responsible, emotionally stable, legally competent, capable of reason, periodically pragmatic, and possessing good judgment.

Though reserving the right of rebuttal, the defense, smugly, rests.


Anonymous said...


Your stirring defense of Reepicheap's sanity is a masterpiece of its own. C. S. Lewis would be pleased that the character he created has inspired such loyalty from a lifelong reader.


Gail said...

Thank you! I am delighted that someone read it! (Actually, I know you read it because you helped to edit the rough draft. But still. I hope you enjoyed the improved version.)

Carrie said...

Oh dang, I have catching up to do. This is way too long to read in the 5 minutes before class.´ll try to get to it...later?? But the office closes early on Fridays, and I don´t have internet access on weekends, and...oh dear. I´ll figure something out.

Carrie said...

Ok, I read it.

I'll admit, it's incredibly well written. It might go a BIT overboard with all of the outside literary references -- I think you were just trying to show off your English degree, there. But I definitely think this would qualify as an A+ caliber essay in an upper-level "analyzing children's literature" English or Library Science course.

As a legal essay, however, I'm not quite as convinced. Sadly though, I'm not in law school yet, so I can't spend hours subtly picking apart some of your arguments. Except, perhaps, for the insanity one to begin with -- it's possible that Cheryl meant the phrase "insanity" in a more colloquial, not literal, sense. Also, it's rather difficult to get any talk of insanity admitted into a courtroom in the first place. But...such is a discussion for another day.