Through the Eyes of Small Animals

By Alethea K. Helbig

[Original title: "Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Through the Eyes of Small Animals". Paragraph breaks were not present in original text, so I have inserted them where they seemed likely to occur. Numbers in parentheses correspond to the page number of the cited text. --Simon]

One a winner, two for the show: that summarizes Robert O'Brien's brief career as a novelist for the young. His first book, The Silver Crown, tells of struggles against evil forces attempting to control the world; it never caught on. His third, Z for Zachariah, is a posthumous publication set in the future after a nuclear holocaust; it enjoyed a brief glow of popularity, and still holds some appeal for young adults. But it is O'Brien's second book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, that earns him a permanent place among the best in children's literature.

Mrs. Frisby recounts the exciting story of a courageous and winsome lady mouse who enlists a colony of ingenious, inventive super-rats to help her find new quarters for her family, and then becomes involved in saving them from extermination. An emotionally engaging combination of talking animal fantasy and scientific possibility, the novel was awarded a Newbery Medal, and won honor status on both the Boston Globe-Horn Book and National Book Award lists. One of the few credible attempts at science fiction for younger readers, Mrs. Frisby has appeared in paperback and as a film, and it maintains a steady following among its intended audience. The book is not without its flaws, particularly in plot construction and in characterization. The plot is, certainly, suspenseful and inventive; it awakens questions early, and then moves with carefully calculated pacing to a dramatic climax of emotion and action. The problem is that the climax does not relate to the original questions.

With the advent of spring, Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mousewife, faces a severely perplexing personal problem that pits her against her environment. Farmer Fitzgibbon will soon plow the garden patch where rests her cinder block home. Before he comes, she must move her family to summer quarters down by the river. Can her sickly son, Timothy, survive Moving Day? Will the wise old owl, the patriarch of the forest, feel enough compassion for a mouse to advise her of a solution to her dilemmal Can Mrs. Frisby make it across the formidable expanse of the farmyard to the rosebush home of the rats who, the owl suggests, may be able to help her? If she makes it, will the rats permit her to enter their dwelling and state her case? Can they help? Will they do so? At this point, however, the story takes a turn, and interest shifts to the rats, who, Mrs. Frisby and the reader discover, are quite extraordinary, living as they do in an underground apartment house complex, fitted out with such human amenities as running water, electric lights, and elevator, all constructed with ingenious planning and technological application. There follows a pocket story told by Nicodemus, the capable leader of the rats, an account so intrinsically gripping and inventive in concept that it steals our attention away from the story of Mrs. Frisby that had first aroused our interest. Nicodemus tells how the rats had been captured and subjected to experiments in the laboratory of NIMH (presumably an acronym for National Institute of Mental Health), where they were given injections designed to increase their size, their intelligence, and their longevity. A different series of questions now arise. To what purpose are these experiments! Can the rats make it through the air duct beneath the laboratory to freedoml What will be the effect on the countryside of the presence of such super-creatures.

Tension mounts as the rats espouse Mrs. Frisby's problem, and as she undertakes the dangerous and aptly foreshadowed task of doping the food of Dragon, the Fitzgibbon family cat--an effort, Mrs. Frisby learns, that took the life of her husband a year earlier. She is captured and imprisoned in a bird cage, and while awaiting rescue, she felicitously overhears conversations which indicate that plans are underway to exterminate the rats. She warns her rat friends, who, having shifted her cinder block quarters bj� clever application of rat-scaled human technology, prepare to insure their own survival.

The arrival and subsequent activities of the exterminators provide the real emotional climax of the story. Thus the focus shifts emphatically, from the protagonist of the main story to the rats of the inside one. Their history and problems have become more engrossing than those of Mrs. Frisby, whose concerns seem mild in comparison, and merely prelude to theirs. At the end, Mrs. Frisby and her little family are safe, snug and cozy in their cinder block home in the lee of the rock, and the reader is relieved about that. But the rats' story remains open-ended. It tugs at the emotions and intellect. The reader continues to wonder about them, and to be sorry that not all of these ironically compassionate, highly moral, and surprisingly idealistic beings escaped to take part in implementing their bold Plan for creating a self- sufficient society over the hills in Thorn Valley.

This shift in em phasis deprives the plot of its unity--a serious flaw. Equally serious is the fact that no character, not even the protagonist herself, haunts the memory. Though credible and convincing, all the figures are flat and static. No one of them comes close to assuming the proportions of a Water Rat, a Toad, a Mole, a Tucker Mouse, or even a Miss Bianca.

Mrs. Frisby is the stereotype of the practical, maternal figure, heroic under duress and solicitous from beginning to end. We may applaud her fortitude, we may feel concern for her little family, but she remains essentially functionary. She serves the utiliarian purpose of introducing the rats' more engrossing and thought- provoking tale.

The owl is the wise patriarch of the forest who resides in an immense dying beech, with which, he says, he will eventually go down. He is distinctive, but not memorable. The white mouse, Mr. Ages, one of those also given injections at NIMH, is credible as the animals' physician; he is wise in the use of herbs, and respected. Nicodemus is the typical careful, cautious, reasoning, idealistic leader. lustin appeals as his younger counterpart, a bright, dignified, self-controlled, worthy leader-to-be. Minor figures claim some interest, too: Jeremy, the twittery and improvident young crow who carries Mrs. Frisby on his back to visit the owl and who collects aluminum foil for his lady love; Isabella, his rat counterpart,flighty, garrulous, love-struck for Justin; and Dragon, whom descriptions depict is a formidable villain.

But this is hardly an eminent cast; in fact, neither the characters nor the strangely shifting plot suggest why Mrs. Frisby might be considered a touchstone.

Yet even though the plot limps and the characters lack dimension, many readers have loved the books, have passed it along to friends, and have returned to it themselves with pleasurable anticipation. What keeps Mrs. Frisby from being just another talking animal story and endows it with lastingness is O'Brien's gift of style, his remarkable ability to evoke setting and incident and help the reader to experience things from the animals' point of view. As a combination of science fiction and animal fantasy, the book describes fantastic situations with careful scientific accuracy.

It is clear from the beginning that O'Brien both believes in and appreciates the little creatures about whom he writes. He tells us so by focusing affectionately on the small features of their lives. He early establishes the comfort and desirability of the under- ground house where Mrs. Frisby and her family live and in which, he says, they "were especially lucky" (3). Their snug home is described concretely as "lined with bits of leaves, grass, cloth, cotton fluff, feathers and other soft things Mrs. Frisby and her children had collected." It "stayed dry, warm and comfortable all winter" (4).

O'Brien also presents the abandoned farmhouse where lives old Mr. Ages, the mouse physician, in richly descriptive terms It had "a wide lawn around it...ln the summer it was a wild and beautiful place, bright with blooms and full of the smell of blackberry blossoms and purple clover" (14). Through careful selection of words O'Brien creates clear images that evoke the sights, sounds, smell, and taste of the places where his characters live. Because he so carefully depicts where they live in descrip- tions that appeal to all our senses, we are better able to believe in them, and thus, to care about what happens to them.

Though O'Brien's tone conveys less affection for the rats' dwelling-place, and more wonder and admiration for the results of their technological ability, he seems equally convinced of its existence and appearance, which he also evokes with much sensory detail. Like Mrs. Frisby, the reader is astonished at what greets the mouse lady when she arrives at the rats' cave home under the rosebush:

Ahead of her stretched a long, well-lit hallway. Its ceiling and walls were a smoothly curved arch, its floor hard and flat, with a soft layer of carpet down the middle. The light came from the walls, where every foot or so on both sides a tiny light bulb had been recessed and the hole in which it stood, like a small window, had been covered with a square of colored glass-- blue, green or yellow. The effect was that of stained-glass windows in sunlight. (76)

This is not a natural home like Mrs. Frisby's, but the atmosphere projects its own sense of security and warmth, and we know instinctively that our protagonist will come to no harm here. We feel confident she will find the help she seeks. The final word, "sunlight," which connotes comfort, goodness, and the nurturing of life, assures us of that.

Not only does O'Brien give attention to small details of setting, in prose that is occasionally rhythmical and consistently rich in concrete and sensory references, but he also paints characters with equal concern, with a palette not broad but distinct. Timothy, Mrs. Frisby's youngest and frailest, is "something of a hypochondriac.... But there was no doubt he was really sick this time" (10). Timothy doesn't just get sicker, but his "eyes looked wild and strange from the fever; he trembled contin- uously, and each breath he took sounded like a gasp for life" (11). Specific details individualize his circumstances and point up the immediacy of Mrs. Frisby's need to discover a way to insure that he survive the move. Her concern about him becomes ours because we can visualize his illness so clearly.

Nicodemus is a "lean rat with a scarred face" who "spoke graciously, with an air of quiet dignity." Mrs. Frisby soon "noticed two more things about him. First, the scar ran across his left eye, and over the eye he wore a black patch, fastened by a cord around his head. Second, he carried a satchel--rather like a handbag--by a strap over his shoulders" (79-80). Nicodemus is a type, but a carefully delineated one, a man of the world who has Undergone Experiences and whose story, which Mrs. Frisby and the readers are about to hear, can be accepted as truth, fantastic as it may seem upon first hearing.

Other characters are equally distinct. Brutus, the rats' watchman, is introduced as "looking at...[Mrs. Frisby] with dark, unblinking eyes...the biggest rat she had ever seen" (67). She notices "how powerful his muscles looked under his glossy coat" (68). He is not just a big, tough guard rat, however, but one who "would almost be a match for Dragon [the cat]--almost, but not quite" (68), a description that both particularizes him and foreshadows trouble. The doctor from the lab who oversees the extermination of the rats is a methodical scientist with horn rimmed glasses. He systematically examines the rosebush for thorn removal, a sign of the rats' presence, and declares, "There's the entrance hole, very neatly hidden...You were right. You'll need to bulldoze it" (218). His cold, dispassionate manner increases the horror of what may happen, and makes him, as our idea of the typical scientist, a worse antagonist than Dragon the cat.

Small details enhance the impact of action scenes, too. At the mention of Mrs. Frisby's name,

an extraordinary change had come over the owl. He turned back to face her again and stared at her most intently. Indeed, he gave an agitated flutter of his wings and half flew, half hopped closer to her, bending forward until his great sharp beak was only a few inches from her face. Mrs. Frisby shrank back in fear. What had she done wrong! (55)
The reader shares her terror.

When Farmer Fitzgibbon backs the tractor out of the shed, he leaves the motor idling for a bit, then cuts it. The scene is stronger because O'Brien avoids having him rev it for sensationalistic effect. When Farmer Fitzgibbon discusses a problem involving a defective linch pin with his sons, the quietness enables Mrs. Frisby to hear what they say--five days to get a new pin--and to digest the implications--five days to trouble. When Nicodemus and his rat and mouse friends pry loose the screen that encloses the air duct under the NIMH lab floor, they must pry up and down incessantly, until "the wire bent a fraction of an inch. We did it again, prying down, then left, then right. The hole in the wire grew slowly bigger..." (141). The white mouse then wriggles through, and the details enable the reader to grasp the reality of the situation. Now the mice can escape, but can the rats! Will the mice be able to release the sliding bolt so that the rats can get out too! The problem is made clearly evident; tension runs high.

Careful detailing of the action creates pictures, builds suspense, and eliminates disbelief especially well in the episode in which the rats move Mrs. Frisby's house. Along with Mrs. Frisby, we watch the rats set up ladder-like structures to form a scaffolding from which they hang pulleys wound with strong cords fastened to hooks. By each of these stand five powerful rats.

"Heave!" called Arthur.

The twenty rats strained on the cords, and the block rose an inch. Each rat stepped back a pace.

"Heave!" Another inch.

Slowly, the heavy block rose from the hole until it hung two inches above level ground.

"Steady," said Arthur. "Get the rollers."

Eight rats, two from each group, ran to the round pieces of wood Mrs. Frisby had noticed earlier; these resembled sawed-up pieces of broom handle, each about a foot long. Two rats to a roller, they slipped four of these under the cinder block so that they lay athwart the hole, like bars across a window.

"Lower away," said Arthur, and the cinder block came to rest gently on the rollers.

"Let's see how it rolls."

They slipped the ropes free of the pulleys and rehooked two of them to the front of the block. Nine rats now manned each rope; two stayed behind, watching the rollers.


The rollers turned and the heavy block slid forward easily, like a truck on wheels, in the direction of the new hole. When it moved off the hindmost of the rollers, as it did every few inches, the two rats in the rear would quickly pick that one up and replace it under the front of the block. (204)

Mrs. Frisby notes that the "rats had planned carefully; they knew exactly what they were doing; they moved with precision and never wasted a motion" (205). The process continues until the cinder block occupies its intended location, and Mrs. Frisby cries, "it's done!" She felt like applauding, and so do we. This episode is important to Mrs. Frisby's future, and we can tell by the care with which O'Brien has drawn it that he takes it very seriously, too. Meticulous attention to the relative size of objects, strengthens point of view and further convinces the reader of the reality of the animals' situations. The tunnel entrance to Mrs. Frisby's little house has been "dug so that it was slightly larger than a mouse and slightly smaller than a cat's foreleg, (and] provided access, air, and even a fair amount of light to the living room" (4). The bedroom, formed by the second cinder block oval, remained dark even at midday. Here Mrs. Frisby and her family "slept close together in a bed of down, fluff, and bits of cloth...warm as a ball of fur" (5). Hens' eggs are too big for the little mousewife to cope with, but lettuce, hickory nuts, peanuts, and "dried, sweet- smelling mushrooms" (7) are manageable, the latter being especially light and desirable, and the eight large ears of corn she discovers in the hollow stump constitute a "noble supply for a mouse family" (7).

It takes Mrs. Frisby two hours to journey to Mr. Ages' house, since for safety's sake she must circle the whole wide farmyard, sticking close to its fringe of woods. Riding on the back of leremy the crow, she feels the "surge of power as the crow's broad wings beat down against the air" (47), then a sudden terror as the beating levels off. She relaxes a little when the crow informs her he's taking advantage of an updraft. More confident, she ventures to open her eyes and glimpses below the familiar garden patch, now the size of a postage stamp, and realizes that her children, if outside the cinder block and watching, would be much too small for her to see.

From her mouse's eye level she notices that thorns have been removed from those branches of the rosebush that brush the ground, a clue that the humans, peering down from their relatively great height, had not detected. She observes the Fitzgibbons' preparations for plowing in safety from inside a thick fencepost that had "a few inches above the ground, a convenient knot hole with a hollow place behind it in which she could hide" (33), and watches the exterminators from a hickory limb whose scaly bark provides a natural camouflage. For her the limb of the owl's ancient beech is "almost as wide as a sidewalk" (49). When she is in Billy Fitzgibbon's cage, she "could watch them [the humans], looking down, but if she retreated to the far side of the cage, they could not see her, nor she them," because the cage frame hides her tiny body (189).

Though humanized, Mrs. Frisby remains essentially a mouse throughout the story. After early establishing her biological nature, O'Brien never falters. For instance, he informs us quite early on that Mrs. Frisby has fashioned a crude carrying bag with her forepaws and sharp teeth. This is at the time seemingly unimportant, but this carefully noted achievement influences our perceptions of the animals' capabilities thereafter.

Similarly Mrs. Frisby and the rats never lose their biological relationship to their environment. Even these super-rats fear exterminators, bulldozers, caretakers, boys, and house cats, and can be killed by electric shock. As Mrs. Frisby creeps the woods, she must always be on the alert for owls, foxes, weasels, and strange wild cats, and snakes occupy her thoughts to such an extent that they become elements in similies. She is fascinated by the river, which she sees for the first time from jeremy's back, like a "wide, fearsome snake, blue-green in color, coiling through the woods" 148). The long, dark cable she sees the rats pulling through the farmyard is likened to a big black snake. Before entering the owl's house, Mrs. Frisby remembers "something of the dietary habits of owls, and she did not much like the idea of being trapped in his house" (50). In the air duct under the lab floor, lustin the rat unravels a ball of thread like Theseus, so that he will not lose his way in the labyrinth of associated ducts. When the ventilator fan comes on, the rats arejust big enough to withstand its force, but the mice "blew away like dead leaves" (140), reports Nicodemus, who has already described how one slid past him, driven before the wind, "clawing uselessly with his small nails at the smooth metal beneath him" (139).

The description of Dragon, the Fitzgibbon cat, would seem melodramatic and sensationalized, were it not that we are seeing him as Arch-Enemy through the eyes of the rodents who are his natural prey:

He was enormous with a huge, broad head and a large mouth full of curving fangs, needle sharp. He had seven claws on each foot and a thick, furry tail, which lashed angrily from side to side. In color he was orange and white, with glaring yellow eyes; and when he leaped to kill, he gave a high, strangled screem that froze his victims where they stood. (21)

So much adventure and excitement made so plausible would be enough to give almost any book lasting popularity, but underlying the story for story's sake in Mrs. Frisby are important themes of courage, survival, self-respect, and cooperation, as well as a subtle commentary on contemporary human mores and ecological concerns. The rats, for example, seek to avoid getting caught up in the moral and social tangle they call the "People Race." They have decided to live in closer harmony with their natural surroundings. Instead of exploiting the environment and consuming without regard for consequences, they will respect and conserve what nature offers. These themes are weighty, but the book is big enough to sustain them. Furthermore, they never get in the way of the entertainment value of the story, and those readers who don't see them or choose not to think about them need not apologize.

In spite of the book's shifting plot and its lack of character development, then, O'Brien's skill with detail makes it easy to suspend disbelief in these small farmyard beings and the dilemmas that confront them. It simply doesn't matter whose story this is, the rats' or Mrs. Frisby's. And in spite of the weak characterization, this little�community has become so real that when Mrs. Frisby's sons consider the possibility of some day journeying to Thorn Valley to see how the rats are faring and whether or not justin made it to safety, we are quite certain that that is indeed where the rats will be found, proud and dignified, free and prospering.


  • O'Brien, Robert C. The Silver Crown. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. New York: Atheneum, 1971.