Reepicheep! One of the greatest of fictional mice, though he is real in our hearts! Chivalrous leader of the talking mice of Narnia (or at least all the mice we see in Prince Caspian)!
Over the course of the last few essays, we’ve been exploring how the dueling narratives of Prince Caspian show us both the “Lord of Victory” and the “Lady of Peace.” There are conjunctions of seemingly conflicting values throughout the novel. When they come together, though, they bring restoration, healing, and a purging of those who brought corruption into Narnia. In Reepicheep, we find yet another example of dueling natures holding together to make a unified whole.
Lewis, always a medievalist at heart, loved the traditions of chivalry. He wrote an article called The Necessity of Chivalry in which he talked about the beauty of men being expected to be both gentle in court and ferocious in battle. “The knight is a man of blood and iron,” he wrote, “a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise of happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.” Reepicheep is, perhaps, the clearest picture of this chivalric knighthood in Lewis’s work.
We first meet him as Caspian is making the rounds in the woods, meeting the remainders of Old Narnia. Like most of the talking beasts, Reepicheep immediately pledges his fealty to Caspian as the rightful ruler and it’s all “sire” and “your majesty” and graceful bows from their first interaction. Reepicheep lives in a little green hill with eleven other mice. (Note that there are twelve of them…much like the twelve disciples of Christ, or the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne.) He’s about a foot tall when he stands on his hind legs and Lewis describes him as a “gay and martial mouse.” The symbols of these two contrasting adjectives are his long whiskers which he twirled “as if they were a mustache” and his tiny rapier. He’s both fop and soldier, courteous and ready to fight.
Throughout the story we see both sides of the chivalrous Reepicheep. He and his fellow mice are blowing trumpets and loudly proclaiming that feasts and councils can wait, because Miraz is a villain and the plainest course of action would be to storm the castle. Yet when Reepicheep meets Doctor Cornelius, he is so pleased that the old teacher treats him with respect that the mouse knight makes a vow of friendship after exchanging a few sentences. Cross his lord and Reepicheep will fight you tooth and nail. But say a few kind words and you will make a lifelong friend.
When Peter and Cornelius sit together to make their long, polite declaration of battle, Trumpkin suggests that Reepicheep could be one of the party sent to deliver it, because his war-like glares are so fierce. Of course, he is not sent with Edmund (who takes a giant and a centaur, who are far more intimidating) and though Reepicheep remains bound to his king, his feelings are hurt, something he expresses with proper courtly etiquette: “My life is ever at your command, but my honour is my own. Sire, I have among my people the only trumpeter in your Majesty’s army. I had thought, perhaps, we might have been sent with the challenge. Sire, my people are grieved. Perhaps if it were your pleasure that I should be a marshal of the lists, it would content them.”
High King Peter, in one of the few places where we see him acting with the wisdom and kindness that we are told were the hallmarks of his reign, tells Reepicheep that it would be unfair to Miraz. Some humans are afraid of mice, and it wouldn’t be right to rob Miraz of his courage when fighting for his life. Reepicheep takes this explanation at face value, agreeing that he had noted the number of humans who feared mice.
When the battle finally comes, the mice swarm into the fray, despite Peter’s protestations that “This is no place for mice.” They stab their enemies in the feet and if the enemy falls, they finish them. If they don’t fall, well, they’re a bit slower now having been wounded by the mice and their steel.
Reepicheep is gravely wounded in the battle, and his eleven companions bring him to Queen Lucy on a tiny litter. She uses her cordial to heal him, to everyone’s relief, and Reepicheep immediately leaps to his feet and one foot goes to twirl his whiskers and the other to his sword. But, to his horror and considerable embarrassment, the mouse knight discovers that he has lost his tail.
Aslan assures the knight that he doesn’t need a tail, and Reepicheep replies, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honour and glory of a Mouse.” Aslan is not particularly moved by this, and tells Reepicheep that he thinks about his own honor a bit too much.
At this moment Reepicheep gives a rather impassioned speech about what it’s like to be a talking mouse, and how it’s important that everyone understand that one makes fun of a mouse at one’s own peril. The other mice draw their swords, and when Aslan asks them why, one of them says that if the High Mouse cannot have the honor of a tail, it would be shameful for them to hold an honor denied their chief. This takes us back to that theme that came up often when we discussed the political situation in Narnia: much of this book is about things being in the right order. It’s not right that the High Mouse be denied an honor that his people are given.
This completely wins Aslan over. The Lion gives a speech in which he shares the origin of the talking mice:
You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.
Kindness. Love. Great hearts. In the end, these are the things that matter most to Aslan, and he gifts Reepicheep with a new tail. Soon enough Caspian is knighted into the Order of the Lion, and he passes along knighthoods to others among his companions, including Reepicheep.
I suspect Lewis is telling us something about the greatest of knights, here. It is not enough to be a sensitive courtier, and focused on one’s reputation and honor. Those things must have a reason to them, a connection to the order of things. It is not enough to be courageous in battle…the fight must be undertaken for righteous reasons. It is kindness that moves us toward greater things and becoming more than we are, from regular mice to Talking Mice. It is love for one another that brings us to places of honor and healing. To become a knight is an act of art, not nature, according to Lewis. It is a discipline that must be achieved. It is too easy to fall out of balance and to become a courageous bully or a person who is gentle but cowardly. Lewis writes (again from The Necessity of Chivalry), “the knight—is a work not of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.” I suppose we Narnians can say that mice may also be the artist’s medium.
And so we come to the end of Prince Caspian. Aslan sends everyone to their rightful places, whether it’s the newly knighted King Caspian to his castle or the Kings and Queens to their railway station, or the Telmarines back to their island on Earth. The true king is on his throne, the true religion restored, and all is right in the world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through Prince Caspian as much as I did. It had been a long while since I’d read it, and I genuinely enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the ruins of Cair Paravel a thousand years after the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and reflecting on the Bacchanal, exploring the re-ordering of the Narnian political world, and thinking through the implications of being “too old for Narnia.”
In a few weeks, we’ll set sail beyond the boundaries of Narnia on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It’s a strange little tale full of wonder and dragons and sentient stars and, of course, Reepicheep moves from delightful side character to a central member of the party. I hope you’ll join us then!
In the meantime, keep an eye out for Aslan here in our world, and remember that, like Reepicheep and the Talking Mice, it is our kindness toward one another and our love for the community around us that makes us great.