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When one looks in the box, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the cat.

Terry Pratchett Book Club: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Part I

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Terry Pratchett Book Club: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Part I

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Published on April 14, 2023

We should all make sure we’ve got appropriate rat names by the end of this.

Summary

Traveling in a mail coach is a human boy named Keith, a cat named Maurice, and a clan of rats. All of them have names and can talk, and they use this to their advantage—they go to towns and make villagers think they’ve got an infestation, then have Keith play his pipe to get rid of said infestation and get money. The rats are not keen on his arrangement because they think it’s unethical, but Maurice can’t see the problem. Their coach is stopped by a highwayman, and Maurice negotiates with the rats on how to deal with him; they wind up leaving the thief the mail coach with the horses (since the coachman runs off), and taking his horse. The group seemed to gain self-awareness and the ability to speak after eating at or near the Unseen University (in the dumpster, for the rats). Their leader is Hamnpork, who doesn’t much likes thinking. The smarter rats are Dangerous Beans, an albino member of the clan born after thinking started, and his assistant Peaches. Peaches insists that the upcoming town is the last one they will trick out of money; the rats have more than enough to start their own society at this point. Maurice says if this will be the last time, they should go all-out.

When they arrive in Bad Blintz, it’s market day, only the town doesn’t look very well-off. Keith notes that the people look poor, but the buildings look rich, and there are ads for rat-catching that require the locals to pay half a dollar a tail, more than anywhere else they’ve been. Maurice does some investigating and notes that food is scarce and rationed, with people lining up for bread. The mayor of the town looks nervous and also quite thin. The local rat-catchers come by with nasty dogs and loads of rat-tails tied together. One of them drops a few and Maurice tells Keith to pick them up, but he’s stopped by the Rat-catchers, who are drunk and aggressive and awful. Another man offers Keith a lot of money plus four loaves of bread for Maurice, though Keith refuses to sell much to Maurice’s dismay (since he could’ve escaped the man immediately). Keith wonders if they shouldn’t leave since something about the town is off, but Maurice is determined to stay. A young girl notices them talking to each other, and comes over to harangue them, but eventually catches Maurice out for talking, and tells them they better come with her or she’ll scream.

The rather gather in the undertown and light a candle—some of the younger rats are scared of shadows now, which Hamnpork thinks is absurd since they used to live in the dark. Dangerous Beans is kind about it, however, and insists that fearing shadows is a part of consciousness because it’s a primer to help with other types of fear. Darktan points out that there are no rats in the undertown, which doesn’t make sense in this place where there’s supposed to be rats everywhere. (The rats discovered a book called Mr. Bunsy Has An Adventure after gaining intelligence and thought it was a miraculous thing, which is part of the reason Darktan wears clothes.) He sends the troops off to start pestering the the humans: one for widdling on stuff, one for bothering humans and running about, one for trap detection. The rats are meant to keep an eye out for keekees—normal rats—who are different from them, the Changelings. Peaches knows that Hamnpork is getting old and worried about being called out and killed, though Dangerous Beans doesn’t think a rat should ever kill another rat. Peaches write this down on their rat commandment scroll, and checks in on Hamnpork, who insists that he is fine.

The little girl takes Keith and Maurice back to her home and offers them food, though Keith doesn’t think she should if they’re so low. The girl insists because her father would—he’s the mayor. Her name is Malicia, and she firmly believes that Maurice used to be a witch’s cat, which is why he can talk. She asks about Keith and he tells her that he was left on the doorstep of the Musician’s Guild as an infant. Malicia assumes that he’s a dispossessed prince of some sort, and then explains that she is also living a very hard life where she’s expected to clean her room once in a while and wait on the bread line. She also mentions how the rats have ruined everything just as Sardines invade the house and begins his tap-dancing routine. Malicia spots him despite Maurice trying to warn him off, and she throws a dish at him, causing him to run right into a trap, but he survives because the trap catches his cane. Keith shoves over the dresser to rescue Sardines while Malicia tries to adjust to the idea of rats being able to talk… but she quickly uses that information to work out their whole scam. Sardines asks why there are no rats in town, which Maurice had also guessed; the rats tails the catchers have are shoelaces. Malicia is in—her grandmother and great-aunt wrote fairy tales and she knows one when she sees one.

Commentary

First off, sorry for splitting this into three parts, I misread the page numbers, and should have done this in two! But it’s fine, we can just get really granular with The Pied Piper of Hamelin, that’s a thing I’m sure people do all the time.

So the Discworld now has a talking dog and a talking cat. And it seems relevant to me that while both of them are shrewd, Gaspode often has a lot of good advice to dispense and gets ignored, while Maurice often has terrible advice and asserts himself by sheer force of catness. It checks out with the way both animals tend to move through the world.

You also have to love the way the disparate characters tackle the concept of sudden sentience. Maurice immediately decides he ought to be in charge of things and have tons of money, while Dangerous Beans is prone to philosophical thought and the creation of rules for community and care, while Hamnpork cannot adjust to the changes occurring with his people. The clear demarcation lines between generations based on how old you were when the change hit.

I’m assuming that Pratchett went the route of making the piper’s job a con because of how the colloquial meaning of “pied piper” changed over time to mean a person who could affect people with charisma and get masses to follow them. While the founding story is actually about the piper being cheated and luring the town’s children away for refusing to pay him, the meaning attached to a pied piper now certainly sounds more like a conman, so it’s not much of a stretch to envision a version of the story where the whole thing was a scheme. Also, frankly, who wants to tell a story about kidnapping/murdering children? Good idea to shake things up a bit.

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Witch King
Witch King

Witch King

The hierarchy of the rats is illustrated immediately, and the naming conventions might be some of my favorite Pratchett has ever used. I’m curious about the choice to make Dangerous Beans blind when set against the original tale—which usually has a few children survive the Pied Piper’s song due to various disabilities that prevent them from following, one of them being blindness. It’s important that we get a differentiation made between types of blindness in the description of Dangerous Beans here. It’s so common for people not to know that there are gradients in disability, a great deal of nuance in how people’s bodies work. Dangerous Beans is blind, but he can perceive light, and having that specificity (even just going out of the way to discuss how his senses work) makes for better characters and better story overall.

I’m realizing on this read that I have no clue how old the kids are? Keith and Malicia sound a bit older than I think they’re intended to be, but Pratchett does tend to write lots of his central child characters as pretty precocious. Your guess is as good as mine, is the point.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • The version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that I knew best as a kid was the Faerie Tale Theatre version where Eric Idle played the Piper, so as a result my brain is trying to make Keith a tiny Eric Idle?
  • Okay, but they started in Ankh-Morpork, right, so uh… what happened there?
  • The idea of newly intelligent rats taking the Peter Rabbit books as a sort of gospel is… deeply dystopian, in a way. Can’t stop thinking about it.
  • I appreciate that the Brothers Grimm are the Sisters Grim on the Discworld, being a handy allusion to the fact that many folktales and fables were passed down by generations of women before men decided to put them in a book and be forever known as their “authors.”

Pratchettisms:

As the amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats. And the difficult part of it was decided who the people were, and who were the rats.

One wrong move and you were lunch and a pair of gloves.

It was never a good idea to be rude to a smell of beer.

He’d lived in a theatre and once ate a whole box of greasepaint. It seemed to have got into his blood.

He tried to make a face which said Don’t be a complete twerp, OK? which is quite hard to do with a cat’s head.

He was quite plump for a rat, but when his feet were dancing he could float across the floor like a balloon.

 

Next week we’ll do chapter 5-8!

About the Author

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Emmet Asher-Perrin

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Emmet Asher-Perrin is the News & Entertainment Editor of Reactor. Their words can also be perused in tomes like Queers Dig Time Lords, Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction. They cannot ride a bike or bend their wrists. You can find them on Bluesky and other social media platforms where they are mostly quiet because they'd rather to you talk face-to-face.
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