This utterly beautiful essay (It made me cry…twice) was written by 16 year old author, A. M. Freeman. For more beautiful things written by A. M., visit her blog: Lost In La La Land.
When I was quite young, my mom read my brothers and I The Tale of Despereaux. It is one of those stories that you remember loving, and though you may not remember exactly why or how the plot went, it still sticks with you. I think Despereaux could be considered a surperversive book, that is the opposite of subversive as explained by The Superversive Literary Movement. But it’s not just the book I want to talk about today.
There is a scene in which the little mouse hero has been banished to the dungeon by the Mouse Council, one of the members being his father. They banished Despereaux because he loved the Princess, broke the law by showing himself to her, a human, and would not denounce her. So he is cast down the steps of the dungeon and walks on, to what would be his death. He finds comfort from the crushing darkness and despair around him by reciting to himself the story he had read hundreds of times in the castle library. He tells himself the story of the brave knight, because he wants to be brave for his beloved Princess Pea.
What Despereaux does not know is that the jailer, Gregory, heard him. He picked up the mouse, and in that act saved him from the dungeon rats that would have eagerly eaten him. Gregory had never saved any of the mice before, and when Despereaux asks why Gregory would save him, the old jailer replies, “Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
Reading this book again, many years later and further on in my journey as a writer, this passage rings very true for me. For what else is a good book, than light in the darkness? A beacon of hope, a way of adventure and discovery, a way to be lifted out of ourselves and see the world from someone else’s eyes. A world in all its joys and evil, and where light can prevails over darkness. This is what a good book can do.
We should write stories that not only lift our readers out of their mundane routines of life, sweeping them away into a new world filled with new people, experiences, and struggles. But give them something good, something they can think about and remember. Give them light to see the world in different, better, ways.
It is one thing to enjoy a decent book and then be done with it, much as you would enjoy cotton candy and then move on to the next thing. But if you had a good, wholesome meal, it would not only taste just as good as the cotton candy, or even better, it would give you more to chew on and leave you satisfied for longer. Maybe you’d even remember it years later as that “One dinner Grandma cooked.” And this is how we should write, and how to write in a superversive way.
But it’s not only about the good and the light. To have a story you must have conflict, so there must be struggle and darkness. The light must have darkness to fight against. For that is the reality of the world. There is always much darkness, and people are often weighed down by it. So we as writers must bring light and hope, to help lift their burdens and make it through another day. Especially to those who feel overwhelmed by the darkness.
How many times, when you are outside at night, do you pause to look at the stars and became lost in their vastness and beauty? I do almost every night. I crane my neck and stare. And the longer I stare, the more immense and limitless it becomes. It gives me a sense of childlike wonder and meekness. It lifts me out of myself and makes me realized just how small and fleeting my little existences is, compered to everything else. And I smile in joy and awe, because I know I am not alone and I am part of something bigger than myself.
This is the kind of feeling we’d like to give our readers.
However, this frightens some people, because they only focus on the darkness surrounding the light. They only see the void and the hopelessness. They never truly look, because they can only see the darkness and not the beauty of this messy universe. And when you no longer look for the light, you start to cave in on yourself and sink. Just as when St. Peter focused only on the waves around him, he began to sink.
In The Tale of Despereaux, there is another character, a rat named Roscuro. Being a rat, he has grown accustomed to the darkness and learned to enjoy torturing prisoners. But he also has a fascination with light, which is unheard of for a rat. He struggles with his conflict until finally he ventures upstairs and is dazzled by the beauty of the light. Though after an unfortunate incident involving soup, a queen’s death, and a look filled with hatred from the Princess Pea, Rosocuro’s heart is broken. Sadly, some hearts that break aren’t put back together properly and heal crooked and lopsided. And so was the fate of Rosocuro, when he swears to seek revenge on the Princess.
The story comes to a climax in the deepest, darkest part of the dungeon, where no hope can survive and no light touches. The rat has succeeded in dragging the fair Princess there, with the help of a servant maid, Miggey Sow. At the final confrontation where our small hero has found his way out of the dungeon, then back in again to save the Princess, Despereaux points his sword-like needle at Rosocuro and threatens the rat with it. But while Despereaux is contemplating whether killing the rat would really make the darkness go away, Rosocuro smells something on Despereaux. The other rats standing and watching suggest tears or mouse blood, but then Rosouro realizes it’s soup.
The smell of soup brings back the memory of the light, the laughter, the joy, and everything wonderful about that day, before he fell into the Queen’s soup bowl and gave her a heart attack. He begins to cry and admits the reason he really brought the Princess to the dungeon was so that he might have some light.
One thing you must remember, is that the King had outlawed soup after the Queen’s death. Despereaux only had the smell of it on him because the cook, who hates mice, had shared it with him. This remarkable interaction came about because the cook was illegality making soup, for the Princess had just gone missing, and in terrible times like those, soup helps. Cook was so releaved that the little footsteps she heard where that of a little mouse, instead of the King’s guards coming to take her away, that she not only let the mouse live, but shared the soup with him. She said, “Oh, these are dark days. And I’m kidding myself. There ain’t no point in making soup unless others eat it. Soup needs another mouth to taste it, another heart to be warmed by it.”
The soup reminded Rosocuro of the light he so loved, and how he can never again have it, because he was a rat. Disgusted with himself, he agrees with almost everyone else saying that he should die. All is resolved by a very brave act of the Princess. Here I will again quote the book, for what happens next is best put in the words of the author.
“Gor!” shouted Mig, waving her knife, “I’ll kill him.”
“No, wait,” said the princess. “Rosocuro,” she said to the rat.
“What?” he said. Tears were falling out of his eyes and creeping down his whiskers and dripping onto the dungeon floor.
And then the princess took a deep breath and put a hand on her heart. I think, reader, that she was feeling the same thing that Despereaux had felt when he was faced with his father begging him for forgiveness. That is, Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting always, with the light. She did not like the rat. She would never like the rat, but she knew what she must do to save her own heart. And so, here are the words that the princess spoke to her enemy.
She said, “Roscuro, would you like some soup?”
And so Roscuro leads them out of the Dungeon, and they all eat soup. The story is about bravery, light, forgiveness, and soup. Miggery Sow is reunited with her father who had sold her when she was young but repented of it everyday after, the Princess Pea and Despereaux become great friends, and soup was once again allowed in the kingdom. At the very end, there is a last passage where the author is talking to us, much as a story teller might talk to the children scattered at her feet, listening to the tale. It says:
Do you remember when Despereaux was in the jailers’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, with my 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.
Most of us aren’t looking for an earth-shattering, life-rocking outcomes when we pick up a book, but sometimes that is exactly what we get. Sometimes on a smaller scale, and sometimes without even realizing it at first. Most readers just want to be entertained, which of course we should do. But even as we do this, we want to entertain them with something wholesome, something good, something filled with light, because even entertainment can be a sort of light.
Remember to offer the light, but don’t force it upon them. Writing in a pious, preachy, or lecturing way is very annoying and gets in the way of the story. People want a story, not a sermon.
I am not the best authority on how exactly to write a superversive story, for I am only just starting, but I know what one looks like when I see it. It must be heroic, it must be uplifting, it must be light. It should be filled with the things everyone forgets to notice, like the way leaves change in the fall, the innocent play of a child, the moments of goodhearted laughter among friends, watching how an ant crawls across the ground, or how lovely the stars are at night.
So what can we do for those who are burdened and consistently being pushed on by the darkness, or for those who have forgotten to look for the light? We lift them up, we show them hope, we help them see that even though there is much darkness, there is also much light. And we do this by telling them stories. Stories of struggle and light, stories that are wholesome and surperversive and filled with wonder. With great skill and care, we writers bring these stories to anyone who will listen. But let us not only bring them stories, let us bring them light in their darkness!
Also, dear readers, if any of you woud like to write a review of a book you feel has Superversive qualities, to appear here as a guest blog, let me know. (You don't have to be as brilliant a writer as A.M.. Even an ordinary book review will do.)