I read this book shortly after it came out. I had heard it was kinda like a kid's science fiction book with a touch of suspense. It did not disappoint. It was later --several years later --that I learned the author had loosely based the idea on something that was actually real! Oh my! I saw the movie and was disappointed. It lacks the terror and the intensity of the book. I guess the mice were just too cute, and the villain wasn't scary enough. Get ready!
"Mrs. Frisby & The Rats of Nimh" a Horror Story?
From Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse to Stuart Little by E.B. White, the idea of adorable, heroic rodents doing miniaturized versions of human things has enthralled generations of kids. And then you have Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which should actually be classified as a horror story.
Robert C. O’Brien, a journalist for National Geographic, was inspired to write the 1971 tale about Mrs. Frisby’s quest after reading a study conducted by behavioral sciences researcher John Calhoun.
Dr. Calhoun spent the better part of a 40-year career working at the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, conducting various experiments and studies on mice to see what would happen when their population grew too big for their environment.
His most famous experiment placed four pairs of mice into a mouse universe he called “Universe 25,” a 9-foot-by-9-foot metal pen with tunnels, nesting boxes, and food and water dispensers. The population doubled every couple of months, until it reached 620 mice on day 315. By day 560, there were 2,200 mice crammed into that 9x9 space—and things got pretty ugly.
Mother mice kicked their babies out of the nest before the young were ready. Other mice wounded and even killed the babies. Males lost the ability to protect their females. Fighting and cannibalism broke out amongst non-dominant males. Dominant males retreated into themselves, preferring to spend their time eating, drinking, and grooming. Calhoun called these guys “the Beautiful Ones.” Eventually, the mice stopped reproducing entirely, and the mouse society came to an end.
Now, here’s the scary part. Calhoun believed that the results of his studies on mice overpopulation directly predicted what would eventually happen with humans in an overpopulated world.
So ... think about that the next time you break out Mrs. Frisby for a bedtime story.
- Air-Vent Passageway: The rats use the air vents to escape NIMH. It's portrayed realistically with the rats spending over a week exploring the vents with a spool of thread before they know the way out well enough to escape. Rats of course, are also much smaller, lighter and make less noise than humans, which makes the trope more plausible in that respect as well. Even things like the fans used to provide air movement are taken into account. They're not giant and looming, but the strong wind they provide actually blows away lighter animals into other passages and ducts where they can't be reached or even found. The mesh on outside of the vent to prevent debris from entering the ducts provides a significant obstacle, as well, as the rats have much trouble removing it from the inside and are only able to pry open a small enough hole for mice to fit through.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Yes, NIMH did (and does) actually exist.
- Amplified Animal Aptitude: The relative intelligence of ordinary animals presented here is an interesting thought. The non-uplifted animals aren't as dumb as the scientists at NIMH would have thought, though the NIMH experiments did help the rats grow even more. As an example, Mrs Frisby may understand concepts of marriage, moving or eating something to make you better, but she doesn't know how to actually make the medicine, work a cage door or even a light switch—things the uplifted animals show they have learned.
- It is mentioned Jonathan managed to teach her to read but only through a lot of work, and she still isn't that good at it. Which, however, he learns perfectly as an uplifted NIMH subject.
- Animal Talk: The animals can understand humans and each other, but can't or don't talk to humans. This leads to a bit of Fridge Logic as to where exactly all these animals picked up English (justified for the rats, as they were taught it in the lab, but not for any of the others), and whether they can understand other human languages automatically as well.
- Anthropomorphic Shift: The chapters in the original book involving Mrs. Frisby have animals that are more anthropomorphic than the ones involving the rats of NIMH. Ordinary rodents are seen using tools and can understand some very human concepts without much difficulty. It's possible that this is because the NIMH chapters are from the rats' perspective while the rest are from relatively normal Mrs. Frisby's perspective. One would expect Mrs. Frisby to see her fellow non-uplifted animals as being fairly bright.
- Arcadia: What the rats eventually want to live in.
- Ascended Extra:
- Jenner, who is the leader of a dissenting faction of rats, is only described in flashbacks and not even very well. He's killed offscreen and given a passing mention. In the movie, he's given the role of major antagonist and full-on villain, despite him only being pessimistic and argumentative in the novel. Robert C. O'Brien's daughter, and the author of the sequel novels, was highly influenced by The Secret Of Nimh, which led her to RetconJenner's death and promote him to a major part of a new character's backstory in the first sequel. He's even shown to be the father of a major character in one novel, which the character tries to hide due to worries over Jenner's controversial opinions. However, he still turns up very rarely, mostly in flashbacks, and is killed off-page during the climax of Racso.
- Jenner's henchman Sullivan existed in the book, but only had one single speaking line, although it was an important one. note
- Isabella, a very minor character from the first novel who is a major supporting character in Racso and R-T.
- Christopher was a minor character in Racso, and the main character in R-T.
- Buried Treasure: By field mouse standards, the stash of food Mrs. Frisby finds is this.
- Bus Crash: A splinter group of rats, which includes Jenner, is killed by an accident at a hardware store. Said group departed even before the main storyline; the event is only described by some tertiary characters and is never shown.
- Carnivore Confusion:
- The owl declines to eat Mrs. Frisby, and even gives her advice on how to save her son. In Racso And The Rats Of NIMH, he nearly kills Timothy by snatching him up to eat until he realizes that Timothy is Mrs. Frisby's son. Timothy is really, really hurt badly.
- Moreover, Mrs. Frisby's neighbor and apparent friend is a shrew, and shrews also eat mice. So do crows.
- Cats Are Mean: Dragon. A recurring saying among the animals is, "We all help one another against the cat.". Even the owl goes by this.
- Death Equals Redemption: In Racso and the Rats of NIMH, Jenner is revealed to have survived his apparent first death and gained some perspective from it (as well as, understandably, a fear of technology and electricity), suggesting he has to some degree learned his lesson. But when it comes to his son, he is willing to risk dealing with it again, even to save Thorn Valley (which he does not hate, precisely, but certainly is far less disposed to stick his neck out for). The result is an offscreen Heroic Sacrifice for them all, but mostly for his son.
- The Dragon : The Fizgibbons' cat, appropriately named Dragon. It was an Ironic Nickname at first, but he grew into it.
- Elaborate Underground Base: The rats have one of these, complete with electricity, machinery and running water stolen from the humans that live nearby.
- Even Owls Have Standards: The old owl who lives deep in the forest preys on rodents, and could most likely make short work of a cat, but he is still of the opinion that Dragon is something that animals should help each other out against. The owl also has a personal sense of hospitality that prevents him from harming visitors in his home, no matter how edible.
- Of course, he might be choosing to help small animals avoid the cat so that he can eat them later, once he's actually hungry...
- Exact Eavesdropping: While held captive by the humans, Mrs. Frisby just happens to overhear a conversation about 'mechanized rats' killed trying to steal a motor, and how some scientist type is interested in coming to see the farm's rat colony.
- Eyepatch of Power: Nicodemus wears one; subverted by it not being a scar of combat, but of a mundane injury—one that, by his own admission, significantly impaired the eyesight in his "good" eye as well as rendering the other eye completely blind.
- Gone Horribly Right: The result of the experiment on the rats and mice of NIMH — the rats became strong and smart enough to revolt.
- Grumpy Bear: Jenner was an advocate of continuing to live off humans. He didn't believe that they should curb their stealing to avoid discovery because he didn't think there was any way that humans could truly exterminate all the Uplifted Rats. Neither did he have any faith in the ability of the rats to start and maintain a working civilization. Because of his dissenting opinion he left the rat colony with a number of supporters, before the start of the book, to create a new colony that was more dependent on humans. It ended badly.
- House Squatting: The titular rats take shelter in a luxurious mansion called the Boniface Estate not long after escaping from NIMH. The owners of the mansion are wealthy newlyweds who went on a trip around the world, leaving the estate unoccupied. The rats take caution not to be discovered by the groundskeeper who maintains the lawn and garden; they hide during his visits, clean the house, and haul their garbage far off into the nearby woods to avoid detection.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: Rats see humans like this in a way, because of their vehement and perhaps irrational hatred of rats.
- Also, y'know, because of all that sticking them with needles and shocking them through their feet.
- Idiot Ball: Let's capture some rats and make them hyper intelligent. Then we should make cages that they can physically open and then put written instructions on how to open the cages on them. And heck, while we're at it we should also teach them how to read.
- Immortality Begins at 20: The offspring of the laboratory-altered rats of NIMH all age at a normal rate for a rat. If they do exhibit the longevity of their parents, it will be the kind that begins at sexual maturity. On the other hand and depending on how you interpret the text, mice exhibit the extended lifespan (perhaps to a lesser extent) from day one. Mrs. Frisby's children are still children at over a year old, a fact that goes unremarked by their mother.
- Informed Flaw: The unintelligence of non-NIMH experimented animals for one.
- Intellectual Animal: The entire cast.
- Kansas City Shuffle: When the NIMH agents come to bulldoze the rosebush on the Fitzgibbon farm, the rats don't defend, fortify or fight for their nest. The rats allow NIMH to destroy their base, but they dig an extra tunnel leading into the forest and use it to evacuate all the rats before NIMH arrives. They then task a handful of rats to run backinto the nest through the tunnel, escape through the main entrance, and then run back into the tunnel and out again. This leads the exterminators to believe that they have killed or at least scattered a large number of rats, even though they only saw the same six or seven over and over again. On top of this, the rats destroyed their Elaborate Underground Base before they evacuated, so that it resembled an ordinary rat's nest. The net outcome was that even though the rats lost their former home, it caused NIMH to mistakenly believe they had taken care of the rat problem and that the rat escapees weren't very intelligent to begin with.
- Lamarck Was Right: Averted. The book is actually very good about this. The injections given to the rodents at NIMH to enhance intelligence altered their DNA, and thus the Uplifted Animal trait was passed on to the next generation. The injection to increase lifespan was steroid based, and therefore the rats are uncertain if the effects will be inherited. If they are indeed, then it's a case of Immortality Begins at 20 for the younger generation because they have up until that point at least grown up at a normal rate of aging.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Non-lethal version — when the rats free Mrs. Frisby from the birdcage, they loosen the door hinges to make it look like she pushed her way out on her own (rather than open the lock directly, which she would never be able to do).
- Malignant Plot Tumor: The B plot giving the backstory of the rats of NIMH, which is easily the best-written and most fascinating part of the book.
- Married Animals: Mrs. Frisby is a normal-enough mouse living in a Mouse World. She was married, but is now a widow.
- Mayfly–December Romance: Subverted. The experimental treatment given to Jonathan Frisby greatly increased his lifespan, and potentially those of his offspring as well. He would have outlived his wife by quite a number of years, had he not been killed by Dragon, the cat before the start of the story.
- Most Writers Are Human: The anthropomorphic qualities of the rats of NIMH can be excused due to their greater intelligence and time spent with humans, but even ordinary animals tend to act a lot like people. Mrs. Frisby occasionally mentions marriage and the proper age to marry as if they applied to her, and other rodents in general.
- Mouse World
- Mr. Exposition: Nicodemus.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Dragon, the cat, if you're a mouse.
- No Control Group: Averted.
- Noodle Incident: Nicodemus mentions an incident in which he lost his eye. What exactly happened is never explained.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The rats of NIMH must exhibit this and pretend to be ordinary rats at all times, lest their intelligence lead to discovery and recapture. When moving out of their Elaborate Underground Base, they go to great pains to disguise it as an ordinary rat's nest. They move out all the machinery, destroy all the fancy architecture and fill the whole base with garbage. This was a rush job, and given enough time they would have even destroyed the machinery. In another instance Justin declines to release Mrs. Frisby from a birdcage the conventional way. Instead he opts to disguise her escape as a flaw of the cage rather than opening it deliberately.
- The Owl-Knowing One: He can even envision his own death. When Mrs. Frisby asks why he doesn't just fly away and escape his failing home, he explains that it's all he's ever known, and "When this tree falls I shall fall with it."
- Precocious Crush: Isabella's crush on Justin. Introduced in the original novel and a significant sub-plot in the first sequel. He does not encourage and
- Rosebush Technology
- Ret-Canon: The book's sequel, Racso and the Rats of NIMH, makes several references to elements exclusive to the movie adaptation, such as Mrs. Brisby's red cape and the characterization of Jeremy. Ironically very little of the book (aside from Timmy venturing to Thorn Valley) was put into mind for the film's sequel. The sequel takes some very minor elements from the original book, such as referring to Brutus's gentler real persona and the number of mice that survived the escape from NIMH (though this also causes a contradiction with the first film).
- Retcon: Jenner's death in the sequels written by O'Brien's daughter.
- Rodents of Unusual Size: While the rats of NIMH are nowhere near enormous, they are much bigger than ordinary rats and in fact Mrs. Frisby describes the rat Brutus as being close in size to a tomcat.
- Sacred Hospitality: The Owl eats mice all the time, but when Mrs. Frisby comes to his home to ask his advice he treats her as a guest and does her no harm.
- Sdrawkcab Alias: Racso, because 'Oscar' doesn't sound nearly as cool.
- Sequel Hook: Martin pledges to visit the valley where the rats end up settling one day, possibly with the help of Jeremy the crow. Sadly this was unable to be realized by the original author because of his untimely death.
- The Scientific Method: Shown accurately in the first book. They even use a control group!
- Shouldn't You Stop Stealing?: Nicodemus and the vast majority of rats recognize that stealing electricity and such is highly conspicuous and will only get more conspicuous as their population increases. They've even discovered a way to live without having to hijack resources from humans, but it would be harder and less comfortable at first. A dissenting group doesn't fear the repercussions and would rather continue stealing.
- Shown Their Work: The section narrated by Nicodemus at least. It's very detailed and accurate about The Scientific Method, the inherited effects of the experiments and the psychology of rats.
- Truth in Television: Part of the reason the section about NIMH is so realistic is because the section was inspired an actual series of experiments done on rodents at NIMH, which is even an actual place
- Uplifted Animal: The rats of NIMH, Jonathan Frisby and Mr. Ages are all as intelligent as or even more intelligent than humans.
- What Measure Is A Nonhuman: Nicodemus discusses this issue and postulates that human dependency and the lack of tool use are the reasons rats have stagnated in terms of intelligence and civilization. He theorizes that perpetual stealing from humans would just make life too easy and put rats back into a rut where they don't progress at all and live in total dependency on humans.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: It's not clear if this is an error on the writer's part or on the character's, but Mrs. Frisby noticed that Jeremy was a young crow, only about a year old, but she doesn't notice that her children are over a year old and are still children.