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  • Belling the Cat:Heroism and the Little Hero
  • Gregory Maguire (bio)

A story to start us off.

A hungry cat had come to stay and all the mice lived in fear. The mice decided they would call a meeting. When they were all together, the biggest mouse stood up and said, "There is a hungry cat about. As long as he walks these woods, not one of us is safe. So I ask you all to think. What are we to do?"

Then one mouse gave a plan. And one mouse gave another. And still a third had his say and on and on until a very young mouse spoke.

"Friends," he said, "I think that we can solve this problem easily: Hang a bell on the cat. Then we will know when he is near and we can stay out of his way."

"A good idea!" someone called. And all the other mice agreed. "We'll all be safe at last!" they said and danced around until a very old mouse spoke.

"Friends," he said. "One moment, please.

Things are easier said than done—

The old and wise will tell you that.

So now, will someone tell me this:

Who is going to bell the cat?"

Aesop dishes up a little fable for us, which works as a fable should: it proposes a little dilemma, and revolves itself just at the point at which a simple lesson can be extrapolated and digested easily. This retelling by Eve Rice from Once in a Wood: Ten Tales from Aesop emphasizes through the time-honored use of rhyme the moral at the end—things are easier said than done. The satisfaction of the fable is that of the wisdom of the venerable elderly guarding against the foolishness of youth. The character we identify with is Old Grandfather Mouse. He retires from his moment in the limelight, a bit smug with his success, perhaps, knowing he's saved the occasion from the delusion of safety. A tasty moment, and one we all enjoy.

Not long ago I was treated to an unexpected memory. I remembered being the lone child at the family dinner table. An unusual occasion, I don't know where my six siblings were, but I know I was the only child [End Page 102] at the table, and the adults included my parents and a guest, a friend of my dad's—an affable, barrel-chested, opinionated, outgoing insurance broker. My dad mentioned that I had been occupying myself that summer—I was twelve years old at the time—with writing stories to entertain my younger siblings. "Great, wonderful," roared the guest, "kids' stories are fine, I just hope they're not about mice. All these stories about talking mice give me the willies."

I was both curious and offended. In fact, I wasn't writing about mice, but I had entertained for some time a rather substantial hope that all those books about small creatures who lived on the underside of our world were true, simultaneously, and that the world was crawling with intelligent, articulate vermin and their many small friends and relations. Chester the Cricket in Times Square and the Twelves out on the moors and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and company and Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and all—and by now they'd have been joined by the Indian in the Cupboard and the Mouse on the Motorcycle. I imagined vast, complex, Tolstoyesque fictions in which the characters conferred with each other, created new allegiances, suffered new betrayals and braved new worlds together. Miss Bianca might throw over faithful Bernard if the vagabond Stuart Little passed by on his travels, though could Stuart ever be satisfied with life in a Porcelain Pagoda? After they left the rosebush, might the rats of NIMH find succor in the warrens of the brave rabbits on Watership Down? And it wasn't impossible to imagine the Borrowers stumbling across the mammoth meadows of Malplaquet, and falling upon the necks and breastbones of their literary kind, the Lilliputians from Mistress Masham's Repose. To a 12-year old, adult life on a miniature scale seemed perfect—both a toy to be manipulated...


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