By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #6 – I Was A Rat! or: The Scarlet Slippers by Philip Pullman

I love Philip Pullman's unique take on fairy tales. This is another classic: a boy claims he was a rat. Who he is, or where he's from, you may wonder? Read on if you want to find out!

“Hey! I’ve read another book, and I need to tell you about it! It was sort of a fairy tale…”

“No! No Elke, I won’t have it! I do not want to listen to you rambling on about any of these fairy tales you love so much!”

“But this one, by Philip Pullman…”

“Honestly, you keep talking about them. But you know I’ve heard them all. I know all the original ones, I know all the Disney versions…”

“Trust me, I Was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers is  different!”

“Sure, like those new movies that tell us what happened after the happily-ever-afters are different? Like those prequels that inform us how the villains became evil?”

“Listen to me. This one is not like these. It’s not even about the characters we all know, and that’s what makes it so much fun to read.”

“Really? Ok, well, if you say so, I’ll give it a go then, just this once. But make it quick, please.”

“Ok. So, this story is about cobbler Bob, washerwoman Joan, and a boy that knocks on their door one day. He is lost, and introduces himself by saying “I was a rat!” Bob and Joan think he must be very confused, and take him in. They give him food (though he seems to prefer wood and paper – which he then eats), new clothes (for he was dressed as a page boy), and a name (rats usually don’t have one): Roger. Roger doesn’t know much about the real world, but he does recognise the new Princess Aurelia when he sees her in the newspaper, unlike anyone else. Only he calls her Mary-Jane.”

“Right. It’s got fairy tales written all over it! Strange, beautiful girls with confusing names, boys with identity crises. No one in the real world can be a rat! How would that be possible? What would people think? The newspapers must devour that story.”

“Funny you should mention it. Newspapers and the value of word-of-mouth information are actually really important in this story. So what happens is, people find out about Roger, and they want to study him, they want to make money of him, they want to use his rat-like abilities for their own good, and they want to blame him for the bad stuff that happens all the time.”

“Well, that hardly sounds fair. How come people know about him?”

“Like I said: since Roger is such an extraordinary boy (he keeps doing all these rat-like things such as gnawing pencils, and keeps forgetting how to act like a normal boy), that people start talking about him. The newspaper The Scourge, which previously was only interested in the upcoming royal wedding between the Prince and Princess Aurelia, now spends all their space on Roger. He is put on trial because they think he’s a monster. He becomes the sensation of the century, or so the newspaper would have us believe.”

“Really? But he’s just a rat, right? What will happen if he is found guilty? Will they kill him? But he did nothing wrong! He simply didn’t know any better!”

“True. But that’s what people do, right? They hear about something interesting, and stop thinking for themselves. Anyway, in the end he does get saved, by Princess Aurelia. You see, she wasn’t born a princess at all, but was simply Mary-Jane, a kitchen-girl with a pet rat, who wanted to attend a ball. Her wish came true, and suddenly poor Roger was turned into a real boy.”

“Wait a minute! That sounds familiar… So it is a famous fairy tale after all?”

“Yes, and no. This is about what happens to those close to these famous heroes. Roger was some kind of collateral-damage, so to speak. Oh, and in the end, Bob makes these really pretty shoes for Aurelia.

“And let me guess: they lived happily ever after?”

“Of course! What do you think?”

“You’ve convinced me. This does seem like a fun, modern twist on a fairy tale we all know. I might give it a go – but only because you keep saying it’s fun to read.”

“Hurrah! But please, if there’s one thing you should learn from this book, it’s that you shouldn’t form an opinion based on what other people say. Just read it for yourself, and let me know what you think of it.”

“Will do! As long as you won’t mention fairy tales for the next couple of weeks…”

So, have you read this book? What did you think of it? Do you think this is an interesting take on fairy tales, or do you know better ones? Let me know in the comments, and follow me for more (admittedly fairy-tale heavy) book reflections/musings!

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