What is it about talking animals that fascinates us? And by us, I mean me. I’ve always loved books involving critters, whether they behave more like real animals who just happen to talk (as in Watership Down) or like small furry people (think Secret of NIMH). And, of course, there are plenty of books in which animals are just completely anthropomorphized, where they’re living in a basically human world, wearing human clothes, doing human things. Mouse Guard by David Petersen falls somewhere in the middle: the mice behave like people, walking on two legs and wearing clothes, writing books and building cities, but they’re still mice. Tiny creatures in a world filled with much bigger things like snakes and owls and weasels who are decidedly not friendly.
I don’t remember when I first came across Mouse Guard—probably in a bookstore somewhere—but I only had time to flip through briefly and thought it looked promising. When the first two collected volumes (Fall 1152 and Winter 1152) showed up at my local library I decided it was finally time to give them a read, and I’m really glad I did. Mouse Guard is like Lord of the Rings meets Watership Down with mice. Oh, and there might be a touch of Star Wars in there, too.
Here’s the gist: the mice live in colonies scattered throughout the forest (and on the shore), somewhat camouflaged and hidden from view. But occasionally a mouse needs to travel from colony to colony, or somebody needs to send a message. That’s where the Mouse Guard comes in. A select group of trained fighters, based in Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard are responsible for the territory surrounding and separating the colonies. Their leader is Gwendolyn, and outside of the colonies their word is law—a small price to pay for their protection.
The artwork is amazing: Petersen depicts the various mouse colonies with painstaking detail, and the supplemental material at the end of the books shows that he has fairly detailed maps and backstories for everything. I was especially impressed with encounters between the mice and various predators. In the first book, several crabs attack some mice in a house on the beach, and the illustrations of a couple crabs crawling over the roof are absolutely striking. I enjoyed Fall 1152, about a secret plot to overthrow Gwendolyn, but it was the second volume, Winter 1152, that really hooked me, both the story and the artwork.
For the most part, the books are kid-friendly, too, as long as you’re okay with some illustrated violence. The creepiest part (which I wouldn’t show my six-year-old for fear of causing nightmares) is in the second volume: a few of the mice wind up in Darkheather, old weasel territory, and come across the bones of their victims (i.e., mice). That’s an image that won’t fade away soon.
So far those are all the collected books Petersen has completed, but he’s got a lot in the works. Legends of the Guard will be written and illustrated by various contributors with oversight by Petersen, and The Black Axe will reveal in more detail the legends of a mouse warrior that we’ve only gotten hints of up until now. Petersen has also prepared an 11-page insert for Free Comic Book Day, coming up in May.
For more about Mouse Guard, including extended excerpts, check out Petersen’s website MouseGuard.net. And one more bit of “hey, cool!” is the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game. I haven’t played this myself, but having seen the amount of detail Petersen puts into the comics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the RPG is a richly-created world.
If you like The Lord of the Rings and talking animals, you should definitely check out Mouse Guard. You won’t be disappointed.