What defines our humanity? For ages, we’ve seen ourselves as different and unique in the animal kingdom and above the “wild beasts” in many ways. In his series of graphic novels called Mouse Guard, David Petersen challenges this notion.
Heroic deeds throughout human history and in literature are called heroic for two main reasons: Firstly, because of the difficulty or size of the task that the hero faces. Secondly, because the acts do not directly benefit the hero as much as the people they fight for. The greatness of a hero might be measured by how great the foe is and how much good they bring to their people.
Take the heroic epic Beowulf, for example. While Beowulf’s strength is proven through fighting the ogre Grendel and besting a dragon, he is heralded as a hero not just because of these triumphs alone, but also because of how his ability allows him to bring peace to his people and rule them as a just king. The strength of monsters he fought is proof that nobody else could have done what he did, but the act that defines this as true heroism is the legacy of those saved.
Mouse Guard echoes this idea within the very first chapter. The Guard, the elite society devoted to the protection of all mice within the Mouse Territories, follows this essential belief: “It matters not what you fight but what you fight for.”
From this point on, Mouse Guard focuses on the camaraderie amongst mice and the society that they have to build while following these morals. The first two volumes, Fall 1152 and Winter 1152, have moving epilogues in the form of a detailed log from the Guard’s Matriarch, their leader, reporting on the state of the Territories. Accompanied by stunning artwork, each considers the nature of how one must rule.
In light of the first volume’s threat of a hostile mouse overthrowing the Guard, the epilogue includes a line that exemplifies the tolerance that the Guard is expected to show: “Mouse should never raise blade against mouse. There are enough outside threats in this world.” More subtly, the walls of Lockhaven, the Guard’s capital, are adorned with words encouraging selflessness and generosity. In the storeroom, for instance, are there words: “Only what ye need and not a morsel more.”
Considering this focus on leadership and the duties of the individual in Mouse Guard leads me to believe that Petersen’s world is, in some ways, the foundations of a utopia that he may wish to see in our own world.
Winter 1152’s epilogue introduces that the various cities of the Mouse Territories will begin to meet for seasonal meetings, rather than attempting to govern independently. They agree that “no city shall impose itself over another’s laws or importance” because, against the harshness of their environment and their need to survive, peace is paramount. Finally, in the third volume, The Black Axe, the Matriarch fears that the death of the selfless hero Celanawe may lead to the mice reverting to a more primitive way of life. Yet by the end of this installment a new hero, Lieam, rises to take on Celanawe’s role as a hero who acts for the greater good.
Ultimately, what Petersen seems to be saying is that no matter how big the world may be, for a functioning society to truly prosper against all odds, it must be run by those who give more than they take, and it must possess noble heroes that care for others more than they care for themselves.
While today we don’t fight dragons, enormous snakes, or owls, it’s important to think of how there are, nonetheless, foes we face that are greater than any individual. What we see on the news every day may not be literal, physical fights to face, but they loom over us and threaten our lives like the threat of wolves and foxes in the Mouse Guard.
Mouse Guard isn’t a story about our personal lives; yet, we can see ourselves in the shoes of many of its characters, especially through its representations of heroics, interdependency, and leadership.
Petersen’s series may rely on the tropes of heroic fantasy, but at the same time it offers a fresh world with which to explore issues facing modern readers. It makes you think that writers and creators of fantasy worlds have some good ideas about how our real world ought to look.
The Mouse Guard series by David Petersen began in 2007, and its universe now spans over 5 volumes and has its very own role-playing game and board game straight out of the Mouse Guard world. If you found this post interesting, give the books a read!
-Contributed by Cal Janik Jones