Category Archives: Literature

Breaking Muse!

Mouse Muse by Lorna Owen


Today I’m taking a detour from our art-inspiring rodent to share a bit of exciting news: a book based on this blog will soon be published!

Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art — is due out this November 2014.

The idea began to form several years ago when I caught my first deer mouse in an old farmhouse into which my husband and I had just moved. While I saw mice, with their talent to shoot out from the shadows, simply as critters who made my heart race, the minuscule mammal with huge eyes and ears, sitting in the no-kill trap staring back at me, I admit sparked a re-thinking of the entire species. In that mouse, I instantly thought of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors of mice and I couldn’t help wondering how the mouse has been interpreted in art beyond the pages of children’s illustrated stories.

The white-footed fellow propelled me on this unexpected journey both to learn about the tiny creature and to understand just who were those artists who were compelled to use mice in their work. And in the course of my undertaking I found—and continue to find—that the reasons behind the mouse’s role as muse are as revealing as they are surprising. That the otherwise lowly, misunderstood mouse, nature’s most humble creature, has indeed left an astonishing and gigantic legacy in visual art.



 A few facts:

Title: MOUSE MUSE: The Mouse in Art

Publisher: The Monacelli Press

On-sale: November 18, 2014

Available for pre-order: Amazon; B&N; Powell’s; Chapters Indigo, Canada; Amazon UK; Random House Australia (and many others)









Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Winslow Homer, 1858, engraving, Eventful History of Three Little Mice“Three blind mice/ see how they run/ they all ran after the farmer’s wife/ who cut off their tails with a carving knife…” A horrifying image dressed in a child’s verse. The English it seems gave the German Brothers Grimm a run for their money. This familiar nursery rhyme was allegedly scribbled in honor of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary I, who also happens to be called Bloody Mary because she had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of Protestants; she, the “farmer’s wife,” who so generously had three noblemen—the eponymous mice—burned at the stake rather than their eyes poked out.

Taken out of context of 16th century England in which they originated, the unseeing mice today are but a trio of unfortunate tiny rodents, without sight and without tails. And the ambiguity of the lyrics leaves us speculating about the sequence of events—whether the mice were running after or running away from their mutilator when she slashed their tails. The celebrated poet Billy Collins, however, turns our attention to an even more pertinent question: why were the mice blind in the first place? The former Poet Laureate guesses at the answers as empathy sneaks up on him, sneaks into the lines of his “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’”:

…If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
…the thought of them without eyes

and now without tails to trail through the moist grass


or slip around the corner of a baseboard

has the cynic who always lounges within me

up off his couch and at the window

trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion

which might account for the wet stinging

in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s

mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”

which happens to be the next cut,

cannot be said to be making matters any better.[1]

But long before the three blind mice softened a cynic’s heart, America’s greatest nineteenth century painter got caught up in the nursery rhyme as well. In his early years as an artist, Winslow Homer earned his keep as a commercial illustrator. In 1858, a Boston publisher hired Homer to contribute seventeen illustrations to a children’s book. Titled Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, it could almost be read as a direct response to the question Collin’s would one day pose. And like Collins, Homer and the tale’s anonymous author treat the mice sympathetically, showing us that their lamentable fate wasn’t because they were naughty but because they were mice simply being mice—in the pantry of the farmer’s wife looking for food.




[1] Billy Collins, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” (excerpted), Picnic, Lightning, 1998.

Additional sources: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction” in Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1996 edition, Oxford University Press; Garth Stein, “Billy Collins’s ‘I Chop Some Parsley….’,” Shambhala Sun, July 2010, p. 96.

(Image: Winslow Homer, from Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1858, hand colored engraving, publisher: E. O. Libby & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.)



A mouse is miracle enough

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Draft in Earliest NotebookI am the poet of little things…
Of each gnat in the air, and of
     beetles rolling balls of dung,
Afar in the sky was a nest
And my soul flew thither, and 
     squat, and looked out,
And saw the journeywork of
     suns and systems of suns,
And that a leaf of grass is
     not less than they
And that the pismire is equally 
     perfect, and all grains of 
     sand, and every egg of the
     wren …
And the cow crunching with 
     depressed neck surpasses every 
And pictures great and small crowd the rail-fence, and hang on its
     heaped stones and elder and poke-weed.
I am the poet of Equality.
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger trillions of infidels.

Neither the gnat nor the beetles made the final cut, at least within these two verses, while the poke-weed, the elder and the stones sprung up on pages before and after. But the mouse who could stagger a million million infidels remained here it seems in every single draft. These were the earliest extant scribblings of lines that appear in Leaves of Grass, America’s most famous poem by America’s most influential poet.

“Song of Myself,” originally untitled, was Walt Whitman’s propulsive meditation, an extension of who he was as the country’s idealized self. In an undated notebook prior to 1855 the power of nature over art, revealed in the small and the humble and the oft neglected, that Walt Whitman felt was unwavering as evinced in the revisions he made to the work; the mouse was not just able to stagger a handful of non-believers but trillions of them, and in the published poem this tiny creature would go on to astound more than sextillion.

Whitman was, according to scholars, a constant tinkerer of every single word, every single image; he scrambled the lines, “substantively” we’re told, as if they were leaves of grass blown by the wind—so much so that even as Leaves of Grass was being typeset in 1855, he was making last minute changes.[1] Between 1855 and 1881 he revised Leaves of Grass over and over; the Civil War too transformed his thoughts about purpose as a writer and transformed his book, which ultimately resulted in six consecutively thicker editions.

This, his final version, which do you prefer?

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels



[1] Kenneth Price, Ed Folsom, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work, Wiley, 2005.

Additional sources: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: His Original Edition, with an Introduction by Malcolm Cowley, ed., Penguin, 1976; The Walt Whitman Archive.

(Image: Page 83 of Notebook #80, Library of Congress, reprinted for non-commercial use from the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Fall 2002.)

Sminthean Apollo

1 Temple of Apollo SmintheusIn the Iliad Homer called the “God with the silver bow/ protector of Chryse” Sminthean Apollo, which has been translated as Mouse Apollo and as Apollo, the Lord of the Mice. Afterward, give or take a hundred or a few hundred years, images of the god with a small rodent began floating about; the twosome showed up sometimes on money and sometimes in stone. One coin showed Apollo with the mouse under his chin; another showed the mouse sitting on the palm of his outstretched hand. A certain Scopas of Paros was said to have carved a statue of Apollo with the mouse lying under his foot (no longer extant). And in the Troad (the Biga peninsula of Turkey today) the Temple of Apollo Smintheus had been rumored to have white mice living under its altar; tales circulated that the people had given the creatures food and water “at the public expense.” The mice were sacred. The ancients of Greece scratched their heads. They looked for a suitable explanation for this bewildering god-mouse connection and overheard this ‘origin’ narrative:

An Oracle advised the newly dispossessed Teucri of Crete “to settle wherever they were attacked by the children of the soil.” Wandering about Asia Minor, they were assailed one night near Hamaxitus by a throng of field mice who chewed their leather armor as well as nibbled their bowstrings to bits. (Shades of Herodotus’ tale of the Egyptian ruler Sethôs—and like all good lore the Oracle’s guidance traveled well.) The Teucri decided at once that these mice were the said ‘children of the soil,’ the ‘earth-born inhabitants.’ The refugees dropped their bags and set up house; they built a great edifice to the lord who protected them, christening it Temple of Apollo Smintheus, venerating both god and mouse.

But myth for fact in the meantime seems to have made scholars and translators rather uneasy; they’ve since banished the mouse from the Iliad’s line, rendering Homer’s epithet into the colorless “Apollo of Sminthe”—in step with early speculations that Apollo acquired the mouse appellation not in honor of the small creature but because he had driven the mice from the town of Sminthe. Yet the ancient Greek geographer Strabo noted that the city-name Sminthe, in Troad or in the whole of Asia Minor, didn’t belong to just one location; many places carried the name and held Smintheia festivals—evidence surely mice were worshipped, and worshipped in more places than one.



All quotes: Andrew Lang, Custom and Myth, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1884.

[Image: Temple of Apollo Smintheus, Gülpinar of Ayvacik, Turkey, reproduced for non commercial use only.]

“Who in the world needs another Nutcracker?”

Maurice Sendak Nutcracker 1984Bland and banal and predictable were a few of the words that Maurice Sendak immediately thought of when Kent Stowell of the Pacific Northwest Ballet mentioned the Nutcracker to the celebrated—and sometimes crabby—children’s book author and illustrator, inquiring whether he would be interested in designing the sets and the costumes for a new production. Sendak changed his mind about the project once he had a chance to meet with Stowell and understood that the Seattle-based company’s artistic director and choreographer wanted to “renovate” Tchaikovsky’s ballet that had been performed so faithfully since its debut in 1892.[1] Together they worked to adhere more closely to the original storyline.

For many the Nutcracker begins and ends with the rise and fall of the theater curtain, the Land of Sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy in between. Tchaikovsky’s ballet has it seems all but obliterated the spirit of the tale from which it springs. Far more complex and not nearly as light, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which he wrote in 1816, is not for dancing but for reading, not for a child but about a child’s private world. His story within a story echoes the novella’s themes: an infinite longing mixed with fear, the ‘conflicting emotions’ of a child growing up (perfectly suited to Sendak).

Seven-year-old Marie (Tchaikovsky’s Clara) wakes up from a deep sleep and tries to convince her mother that the Christmas Eve antics of Nutcracker and an army of mice led by the Mouse King with seven mouse heads were more than a dream, that she had been caught in a battle between the dolls and mice when she must have fainted and hurt her arm. But her mother says, “Don’t talk such nonsense…What have mice got do with Nutcracker?” A few days later Judge Drosselmeier stops by to see how his goddaughter is feeling; Marie suddenly remembers seeing him that night sinisterly sitting high on top of the clock. She says to him “Oh, Godfather, how ugly you were!” Her mother is mortified by her daughter’s impertinence but Drosselmeier rasps, Doll girl, don’t be frightened/ Bells are ringing loud and long/ To chase the King of Mice away/ Owl comes flying black and gray… and then laughs it off as a silly song. Over the next couple of evenings he tells Marie and her brother “The Story of the Hard Nut,” about a certain Princess Pirlipat and a vengeful Madame Mouserinks, the queen of mice who turns the precious princess into a little nut-cracking horror show. There’s also a character who just happens to be named Drosselmeier and just happens to be the story’s hero who figures out Pirlipat can regain her beauty if she eats the meat of a hard nut that is broken by a young man’s teeth. Drosselmeier finds both the nut and the young man. And as the entire palace is celebrating having their pretty princess back, the young man inadvertently steps on the queen of mice, sealing his fate. He’s now a nutcracker. To “cast off his ugliness” he would need to kill Madame Mouserinks’s seven-headed son and win the princess’s heart in spite of his appalling appearance. Judge Drosselmeier tells his godchildren, “Now you know why people say, that was a hard nut to crack…”

Sendak’s and Stowell’s 1983 reworking of the Nutcracker embraced “The Story of the Hard Nut”; it gave the fairy tale, according to Sendak, “dramatic sense and needed psychological meaning.” While Tchaikovsky’s ballet left out “The Hard Nut,” Sendak’s and Stowell’s decidedly left out the Land of Sweets.


[1] Quotes within: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction,” E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, story translated by Ralph Manheim, first published, 1984; reprint, Gramercy Books, 2003; Excerpt, “The Story of the Hard Nut” on-line here.

Additional source: The Best Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dover, 1967; Pacific Northwest Ballet.

(Image: Maurice Sendak, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, 1984, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

The Hidden Snare

Frank Bartolozzi, after Bunbury,   The Mouse's Peitition, 1791Like Robert Burn’s “To a Mouse,” Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “The Mouse’s Petition” was in the form of a supplication. Only this time man wasn’t imploring mouse, mouse was imploring man; and as such, compassion shown for animals had entered a new territory. The year was 1773.

At the heart of the poem is a mouse who’s been trapped to become the subject of a certain Dr. Priestley. The mouse pleads for his freedom:

OH ! hear a pensive captive’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries.

His appeal continues on a high note of desperation that’s left others since to reconstruct the story behind it with an equal degree of distress. First the facts: Joseph Priestley in 1700s England was a leading political thinker as well as a scientist. He was credited for the discovery of an air-like substance that we know today as oxygen—but not before he used live mice in experiments with deadly gases. Meanwhile Barbauld, according to William McCarthy’s biography, considered Dr. Priestley and his wife to be her second family.

One evening the poet, who was often a guest in the Priestley home, witnessed a mouse caught in one of the doctor’s live traps. Since it was already nighttime, Priestley’s servant took the mouse to the lab where the small rodent was destined to sit in a cage till the following day. When the doctor entered the lab the next morning he found the mouse with a rolled-up piece of paper stuck in between the cage’s metal bars. On the sheet was written none other than “The Mouse’s Petition” with the pointed inscription “To Doctor Priestley.”

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

The good doctor, it was reported, set the mouse free.

Upon publication the deceptively sweet poem found its many fans. “The Mouse’s Petition” was critically received and applauded for its condemnation of animal experimentation by the same people who were finding their voices to courageously speak out against animal cruelty and for the rights of animals. As a ‘petition’ the poem, they viewed, could be none other than a political text. It accorded the mouse a consciousness and basically asked: What gives humans the right to have dominion over another creature?

That, however, was not the end of the story. Stirring the pot, Barbauld tossed in a pinch of doubt with the third edition of her poem a year later. She went it seems out of her way to separate herself from her reviewers. She wrote in a note that accompanied the poem’s new publication: The Author is concerned to find, that what was intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as a victim of domestic economy [i.e., in a mouse trap], than of philosophical curiosity.

Scholars on the right have taken her coda at face value, embracing the mouse’s plight as a mere metaphor for a number of injustices prevalent in the poet’s Georgian society, while critics on the left, then and now, have stood by the verse’s literal interpretation. McCarthy, who spent twenty years researching Barbauld’s life and her works, argues that there really is no ambiguity when it comes to the poem’s meaning, that the poet’s intention is clear. Barbauld, unusually highly educated for a young woman at that time, had a teasing relationship with Priestley and would often enter into a lively discussion about his actions “from the stance of alternative ethics.”[1] The note she attached to the poem’s new edition was nothing more than a realization she had, with her friend, regrettably gone too far.


[1] William McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Additional sources: Jerom Murch, Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries, London, 1877; Kathryn Ready, “‘What then, poor Beastie!’: Gender, Politics, and Animal Experimentation in Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition,’” Eighteenth-Century Life, Winter 2004.

(Image: The Mouse’s Petition, etching and stipple, print made by Francesco Bartolozzi, Henry William Bunbury, 1791, The British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!”

Rumi The Camel and the Mouse1A mouse finds himself entangled in the tether of a camel, and as the camel begins to move forward, the mouse suddenly thinks that it is he who is driving the beast; he thinks, I’m a mouse of a special kind. The camel has a hunch that his tiny new companion has gained an inflated opinion of his strength. He tells him, Amuse yourself, I’ll sort you out. They then come to a deep river; the mouse freezes in his tracks. The camel says to him, Why are you at a loss?/Step forward like a brave man—walk across!/Great mouse, my guide and leader, don’t stop here/And give up. There is nothing now to fear. The two animals discuss the water’s depth. While the camel shows the mouse it only reaches to his knees, the mouse reminds the camel, A dragon for me is an ant to you. In other words, if the water comes to the camel’s knees, it’s already far above the rodent’s head. The camel sees this as a teaching moment. He tells the mouse, Don’t be so bold again/Or else you’ll burn with soul-tormenting pain! He’s on a roll, Compete with your own species, and beware/You’ve nothing that a camel wants to share. The mouse begs his forgiveness and begs for a ride. Help me to make it to the other side! The camel feels a sense of compassion, Jump!/Climb on my back, then rest upon my hump./This is not difficult for me to do/I could take millions of small mice like you!

“The Camel and the Mouse” is a tale from Rumi, the celebrated thirteenth-century Persian poet, teacher, theologian and Sufi mystic. And like Aesop and the Panchatantra‘s anonymous author, Rumi saw in animals’ true nature, lessons to guide his fellow Sufis along their mystical path toward their ‘union with God’ and utter ‘knowledge of reality.’ The mouse’s lesson in humility and dozens and dozens of other fables appear in his impossibly long, twenty-six-thousand-verse-poem the Masnavi. Its plain title, translated to mean nothing more than a straightforward description of the work’s structure, its ‘rhyming couplet,’ belies the fact that it’s considered the ‘greatest mystical poem ever written.’ Rumi marinates each anecdote in his own words of wisdom and advice. The mouse’s conceit enables the poet to admonish: Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!/Don’t row the boat when you are not the boatman/…God said, ‘Keep silent!’ so don’t you forget./Be all ears since you’re not God’s mouthpiece yet!”



Sources: Lines from The Masnavi (Book Two) by Rumi, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2008;

(Image: A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, ink and pigments on thin laid paper, folio from an illuminated manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi, scribe unknown, circa 1663, the Walters Art Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Enslaved by a metaphor.”

Art Spiegelman first glommed onto the idea of depicting the mouse as a metaphor for the oppressed during his stint as an underground ‘comix’ artist when he was asked to contribute a piece for a comic book called Funny Aminals [sic]. This being 1971, the twenty-three-year-old Spiegelman thought mice tyrannized by cats befitted the Black experience in America. While his efforts didn’t pan out—“just felt problematic”—he saw how neatly his “Ku Klux Kats” could be Nazis instead; injustice writ large if not anthropomorphically. And quite unexpectedly, he saw too in cats chasing mice a relevance to his Polish Jewish family’s history. So he wrote and drew “Maus.” His three-page Funny Aminals story would, fifteen years later, swell into the first volume of Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir.

With mice standing in for Jews, for the small Spiegelman clan, the narrative shifts back and forth in time: from the comic book artist getting his father to speak about the past; to his father and his mother during the Holocaust; to his and his father’s complicated relationship, replete with recriminations, disappointment and guilt as he continues to work on Maus—all very meta.

Spiegelman elevated balloons of dialogue and bubbles of thoughts to literature; his graphic memoir is now considered a ‘modern classic.’ It’s been hugely influential; it’s sold over three million copies worldwide, translated into more than thirty languages. And inasmuch as he dragged his heels to revisit “the book that both ‘made’ [him] and has haunted [him] ever since,” he finally agreed to do a follow-up. His aptly titled MetaMaus is based on a series of conversations Spiegelman had with the scholar Hillary Chute. Covering practically every aspect of the creative process behind Maus,* he answers the three questions that have bombarded him ever since Maus, Volume I: My Father Bleeds History appeared in 1986, “Why the Holocaust?” “Why Comics?” and surely the single most important: “Why mice?” To which he nods to Funny Aminals and says, although he had some vague notion “of Jews as defenseless scurrying creatures,” it wasn’t until he began reading up on the Holocaust, research for the short story, that he discovered numerous works from the 30s and the 40s of Jews pictured as mice and rats, as vermin. “Shockingly relevant,” is how Spiegelman puts it; dehumanization was “a necessary prerequisite” for murder.

Meanwhile, Spiegelman realized, mice and cats were just the beginning; every nationality needed an animal to represent it. The international group of patients at the Czech sanatorium where his mother once stayed quickly became a zoo on the page; and the child of a Nazi and a Jew forced the artist to make some sort of a cat-mouse hybrid. And there were the wartime favorites: American dogs and Polish pigs, British fish and Swedish reindeers… “At a certain point,” Spiegelman sighs, “I did feel enslaved by my metaphor.”



* Mentioned briefly in this earlier post when both a scholar and a critic had found similarities between 17th–18th century Japanese illustrations of mice and Spiegelman’s mice.

All quotes by Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus, 2011; additional sources: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History, 1986; Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale, And Here My Troubles Began, 1991.

(Image: Self-portrait by Art Spiegelman, 1999, from MetaMaus, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“The Ringdove”

The king asks the philosopher what is the import of community, how can people who come from different backgrounds learn to trust one another. The philosopher illustrates his answer with the tale of talking animals: a crow, a gazelle, a tortoise, and a mouse.

Doves have fallen into a snare; encased in the net, they manage to fly away in unison just as the hunter approaches. The doves land next to a burrow of a mouse, a friend of their ringdove leader. The mouse gnaws through the net and releases the birds, and with this action he’s impressed a crow who’s been observing the camaraderie between the two species. The crow shouts to the mouse that he too would like to be friends. The mouse, well aware that crows are his natural enemy, believes however the crow is sincere. The crow suggests he and the mouse move to a safer place, distant from the homes of men, near to a pond of a tortoise. The mouse and the crow and the tortoise spend their days enjoying one another’s company and the tranquility of the secluded area. One day a gazelle wanders by, scaring them until they realize the gazelle is only looking for water; they soon become a happy foursome. But on another day the gazelle disappears into the hunter’s trap. As with the doves before, the mouse chews through the ropes. The gazelle then asks, what happens when the hunter comes back? He says, while he and the mouse and the crow could flee, their hard-shell pal is much too slow to run. As they discuss their quandary, the hunter shows up and captures the tortoise, ties him upside down to a stick. The other three devise a rescue plan. The gazelle would feign injury and lie in the middle of the hunter’s path; the crow would pretend to lick his pretend wound to make the scene all the more convincing. When the hunter arrives, the gazelle would leap up and lure him away so that the mouse could free their tortoise friend. Their plan is a great success. The hunter, having lost both his ‘catch,’ has become suspicious of the area and decides to move away. The mouse, the crow, the gazelle and the tortoise embrace and kiss one another. “[N]ow they could live in complete peace and happiness.”

“The Ringdove” is found in the literary classic Kalila wa Dimna, a collection of fables based on the Panchatantra that Ibn al-Muqaffa—“one of the most brilliant exponents of the classical age of Arabic literature”—translated into Arabic in the eighth century from the Sanskrit original via a Persian version. The philosopher tells the king, and tells us today, twelve centuries later, community is everything—especially when times are tough. He might also be saying, don’t hang out with tortoises; they can cause you trouble.



Source: Esin Atil, Kalila wa Dimna: Tales from a Fourteenth-Century Arabic Manuscript, Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

(Image: “The Mouse Gnawing the Net Imprisoning the Doves” from the Kalilah wa-Dimnah, illustrated manuscript, completed in 1354, artist unknown, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“There by the banks and in armour bright”

A gentle mouse prince is sitting lakeside, dipping his whiskers in the water, when a frog introduces himself. He tells the mouse that he’s the king; he sings the praises of his people, how they can play in water as well as dance on land. He invites the mouse to his home on the other side of the lake. The mouse reminds the frog king he is a mouse and it’s much too far for him to swim. The king says, hop on my back, I’ll give you a ride. As the waves rush over him, soaking his fur, the mouse begins to have regrets. And no sooner does he think to tell the frog king he wants to go back to the shore than they spot a mutual foe, a water snake. The frog immediately dives down into the water’s depths to escape, thoughtlessly forgetting his small guest desperately clinging to his shoulders. The mouse prince loses his grip; he struggles in vain. From the edge of the lake, his brother has been taking in the scene and shrieks the details to his nibbling clan. The mice nation says there is no question, they must avenge their prince’s death; they arm themselves with shields made from the skin of a cat and don helmets made from nutshells. They send a message to the frogs to prepare for battle. When Zeus, the god of gods and man and mice and frogs, gets wind of the upcoming war, he asks Athena to aid the mice since they are known to dance in her temple. She says, no, she’s had enough of their mischief, spoiling her wreathes, chewing holes in her sacred robes. As for the frogs, she says she won’t help them either. She’s still bitter about the time she returned home, ‘spent with glorious toil,’ and they kept her awake with their noisy babbling. So from the heavens the Olympians watch the battle. The mice are winning—they’re pummeling their amphibian foes; their hero Meridarpax, pride of his sire, and glory of his house/And more a Mars in combat than a mouse, boasts he will single-handedly vanquish the entire kingdom of frogs. It rouses Zeus to intercede. Feeling sorry for the frogs, he can no longer stomach watching them perish; he sends in an army of crabs to turn the war around, forcing the mice to retreat.

O’er the wild waste with headlong flight they go,
Or creep conceal’d in vaulted holes below.

This is the story recounted in the epic poem Batrachomyomachia, or “The Battle of Frogs and Mice.”[1] It comes out of ancient Greece and although once attributed to Homer, it is said to be instead a mock re-creation of the poet’s Iliad. It has neither the intention to mock the original nor the desire to teach a lesson; it’s just “a harmless tale about animals, with no relevance to human society,” one scholar asserts.[2] “An innocent joke” that is presumed to have been written sometime around the birth of Christ, its author unknown.


[1] The painting shown above of the imagined battle is the work of an obscure British artist, a certain Henry Bright (1824-1876) who should not to be confused with the slightly less obscure landscape painter Henry Bright (1810?-1873) of the Norwich School. The work’s original title in all likelihood was “There by the banks and in armour bright,” as listed by the Royal Academy. See Frederic Gordon Roe, “Henry Bright,” Walker’s Quarterly, 1920.

[2] Ulrich Broich, The Eighteenth-century Mock-heroic Poem, translated by Henry David Wilson, 1990.

Batrachomyomachia translated by Thomas Parnell (1679-1718).

(Image: The Batrachomyomachia by H. Bright, watercolor and pencil on paper, 21 x 35 inches, 1871, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)