Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fantasy Novel: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (by Terry Pratchett)

The Amazing Maurice, a talking cat, leads a group of “changed” rodents and a musical orphan boy, Keith.  Together, they con towns with their pied piper scam.  The rats infiltrate the town and wreak havoc.  Then, Keith offers to help the town by luring them out with his music.  When they enter one last town before retiring, there are evil forces at work.  The townspeople survive on limited rations as well as live in fear of the rats and the plague.  Strangely, the rat crew finds few "normal" rats in the town, but a plethora of poisons and traps litter the underground pathways.  Keith and Maurice befriend Malicia who possesses a rich imagination from the many fairy tales she reads.  The trio stumble upon the rat-catcher’s scheme, but there is something more sinister at work.  Everyone must work together to defeat it or the human race will be annihilated. 

A cat with a conscience?  Rats talking and thinking?  I know.  It sounds ridiculous.  I thought so too as I read the first few chapters.  As the characterization unfolded in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, I found it to be a thought-provoking, literary read.  Several motifs are explored.  First, the rats spend much time grappling with age-old questions: What does it mean to be a rat?  How does it differ from humans?   Is there a part that goes on eternally?  If so, where does it go?   Not all of these questions are answered clearly or realistically, but they prompt a good discussion and deep thinking.  Next, I found the inner conflicts of the rats intriguing.  I could not help but to think of the book Flowers for Algernon where a mentally challenged man evolves into a genius and then back to his former self.  As he gains intellect, a lot of pain comes with understanding the world and people in it.  There is a fascinating contrast between being simple but happy and a genius but tormented.  The rats have a similar conflict.  As their intellects grows, so do their problems.  They begin to fear the shadows and the unknown.   One of my favorite elements is the fantasy vs. reality tension.  Much of the humor of the novel comes from this contrast and ironies associated with it.   Malicia represents fantasy and fairy tales while Keith symbolizes reality and real stories.  These two characters (ideas) are at odds for much of the narrative, but they eventually develop a friendship.  This conflict also plays out between the rats and humans.  Fairy tale stories and deep thinking prompt the rats to imagine a world where they are safe and can co-exist with humans, but in reality they must negotiated a contract for the two species to live harmoniously in a fallen and imperfect world. 

There are a couple ideas I do not agree with in the novel.  For instance, humans are often depicted as evil for desiring to eradicate rodents.  The human race is drawn as inhumane and selfish. While these are qualities found in some individual a great deal and in everyone at least a little, I do not believe they are what define humans. It felt a bit too narrowly focused by not showing the incredible generosity, sacrifice, and love that is also in the human race. Also, an underlying thread is that humans and rats are no different in their rights and value.  While I understand why some people react so vehemently toward those who are not respectful of animals and their habitats, the proper response is not equal rights.  Humans have special significance as the one creature made in God’s image and in whom God breathed life.  We have a responsibility to care for and to protect the rest of the creation, but we are not all "equal."  While I disagree with some the author's premises, I believe those areas are worthy of discussion as with many other ideas in this profound book.  

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents has many other areas to explore like leadership, nature of good and evil, selflessness, and friendship.  I highly recommend this novel for ages 10 and up. 

Teaching Activities and Information for Lesson Plans

Suggested Teaching Resources
Annotations, Information, and Quotes
Discussion Questions from Harper Collins
Pearson Teaching Guide

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