The Dark Portal | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Be it great or small, tall and dangerous, meek and futile?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Possibly one of the most well-known of Mr Jarvis’ inventions is the mousebrass. These humble circles of shining metal – based on the horse brasses of rural 19th Century England – each bear a different motif that matches the wearer’s personality and life path. The symbol moulded into one’s mousebrass is as significant to the Deptford Mice as the Hogwarts Houses to the pupils of magic in the Harry Potter books, or the colour of one’s district in William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire Trilogy. Like many ‘sorting’ conventions in fantasy, when all is said and done it is not the prescribed symbol, house, or district which truly matters; but the ways in which the characters confirm or defy the role they are assigned.

As well as meeting our heroine and being introduced to the Skirtings community, in this chapter we also get our first glimpse of the wonderfully inventive esotericism which is Robin’s trademark. The manifestation of the Green Mouse is skilfully set up by having Arthur’s mousebrass ceremony be reassuringly ordinary. He goes in ahead of Audrey through the paper streamers and painted props of the Chambers of Winter and Summer, and receives his brass in the same manner as every other mouse before him.

This in turn makes Audrey’s experience all the more alarming and awe-inspiring. The scene where she passes through the Chamber of Winter is, to me, one of the most chilling in the entire novel, and is a clever bit of foreshadowing to certain events in The Final Reckoning. Even for the mice of the Skirtings in their cosy abandoned house, the powers of nature are something to be feared and revered; the Midwinter Death is still a threat, but the Green Mouse is just as real and tangible. Faced with her destiny in the form of the brass He offers her, Audrey gives a hero’s protest. ‘On my life I dare not take it’, she says, but of course in the end she does, and now she must confirm or defy accordingly.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: If you’re like me, you might have rushed through this chapter so you can get to the action, but I would almost recommend reading it slowly, because, really, this is the closest thing that we get to a ‘nice’ chapter in this book. At the risk of sounding like Lemony Snicket, it’s all going to get more miserable from here onward.

For me, this is the equivalent of the opening of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien sets up his idyllic hobbit community. (However, Mr Jarvis mercifully spares us a 10-page prologue describing the Deptford Mice and their tobacco preferences.) It’s simultaneously completely new  – the Green Mouse, mousebrasses, the Chambers of Summer and Winter are all phenomenal fictional inventions – but at the same time it immediately feels like ancient English community and paganism. (There’s something to be said for living in a country where so many strands of mythology have been passed down over the years!)

And, finally, Robin introduces three more characters who all become memorable as the series goes on: Audrey, who increasingly reminds me of my wife and daughter. (The latter of whom at age three already had ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ as part of her vocabulary.) Twit, who I love more and more for his spirit of kindness.

And Oswald. In an American cartoon, I feel like he would be one of those clumsy, less-than-bright characters that are inserted for gags, but Robin characterises him much more as an over-anxious out-of-place sort of person. Which I could completely relate to growing up.

Anyway, I won’t spoil anything, but one of the best things about The Deptford Mice is watching the arc all three go through, not just in this book, but over the course of the trilogy.

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21 thoughts on “The Dark Portal | Chapter 2

  1. Matt and Aufward have proven themselves to be insightful readers of The Deptford Mice once more as we make our way through the Chambers of the Seasons and discover the incredible secret that waits for us behind the gleaming sun. The most out-of-the-ordinary thing about Arthur’s mouse brass presentation is that Master Oldnose has to warn him not to touch the decorative cheese hanging from the ceiling (and keeping in mind that the crotchety old tutor could not possibly have seen Arthur eyeing the cheese from where he stood waiting behind the sun, the implication would seem to be that the cheese is regularly filched during the ceremony each year and he’s getting fed up with it). When Audrey’s turn comes to step nervously into the grotto, it turns out that she’s got a much more memorable experience ahead of her which culminates with the deity of the mice showing up in person to call down her destiny. Which kinda hints that there’s something special in store for this sassy mouse girl, wouldn’t you say?

    Way back in the day, I’m sorry to say that I was too young and stupid to appreciate Audrey Brown as she truly deserved. And now? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Audrey the Amazing who I’m now wise enough to recognize deserves to be crowned the queen of everything! Not only is she outspoken and determined, she’s presented that way as she walks around clad in pink ribbons and a lacy skirt, proving that you don’t need to choose between whether you’re going to be a tomboy or a girly girl! You can totally be tough and feminine which Audrey proves with everything she does and says! Our first taste of her spice comes when she’s confronted by Mrs Chitter who makes a big show of offering sympathy for her missing father with little regard for how much this upsets Audrey’s mother.
    In Audrey’s place, I’d probably nod silently while gritting my teeth but not our leading lady who firmly tells her nosy neighbor that she has faith her father will find his way back to her.Just as she knows who she is and isn’t afraid to show it, she knows her own mind and speaks it loud and clearly. Of course, the pride we feel in the fiercely outspoken Miss Brown is overshadowed by our knowledge that she is so wrong. Her father won’t come home in time to be there for her during the ceremony. He won’t be coming back at all. And pain is waiting to strike at the moment she finds this out,

    As an aside, is it me or does the argument Arthur and Oswald get into about whether the mouse brasses handed out by Master Oldnose really do come from The Green Mouse remind anyone else of two human children debating whether or not Santa Claus is real? And while we happen to be on the topic of mouse brasses, the time has come for me to make a rather sheepish confession. You see, even though I denounced the Hodder’s Childrens Books edition of The Deptford Mice trilogy for the unforgivable sin of leaving out the illustrations for each chapter, looking at the front cover of the edition for The Dark Portal brought me to the sense-shattering realization that I had been picturing mouse brasses completely wrong up until then. I thought that the brasses were pendants with the design engraved on the front of them and so I felt like a prize-winning goober when the brass on the front cover was revealed to be a circle with the design formed by loops on the inside. What a moment of revelation that was for me after all those years of reading the Deptford Mice.

    Oswald and Twit are here! So much yayness for the albino and the field-mouse! You know what’s funny? I mentioned before that I wanted to be Piccadilly while reading this as a child but if I’m going to be honest, I was actually much closer to Twit. I’ll explain why when we reach a particular later chapter…

    Now you come to mention it, there is a surprising amount of foreshadowing going on within this chapter of The Dark Portal. I don’t want to run the risk of giving anything away for any new newcomers who are joining us but I’ll just say that this and another chapter later on will blow your minds once you’ve reached the conclusion of the trilogy and come back to read it again. The author said on his website that he planned out The Deptford Mice from beginning to end before he sat down and wrote it and the fiendish hints that are squirreled away here prove it.

    Chapter One truly is the calm before the storm. But as we are reminded when Audrey glances casually at the picture her brother has messily painted on the grotto wall and realizes that the face she sees is none other than Jupiter, the storm is approaching and terrible things happen in Deptford when it rains.

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  2. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Audrey Brown is one of the best characters Robin has written. EVER. She is gutsy, intelligent, fierce, and wildly loyal to her family and close friends. As a kid, I loved pretty things. But I was also very outspoken. I liked my school shoes shiny and my Hello Kitty hair clips… excessive. But I used my long nails for scratching boys that came too close. Audrey Brown showed me what Hermione Granger failed to: that you can be smart and resourceful, unafraid to get your paws dirty, and do it all with your hair tied up in a ribbon.

    I’m not sure Robin always writes good female characters. But those he does well, he does excellently, and Audrey is a perfect example!

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  3. You both make excellent points about Audrey. I’m a casual fan of 1980s fantasy films, and it occurred to me on reread that Audrey is a very 1980s heroine.

    (Mild spoilers for Legend (1985) and Labyrinth (1986) ahead!)

    Look at Princess Lily from Ridley Scott’s ‘Legend’, for example. There she floats among sparkling unicorns, begowned in white, flowers in her hair and thoughts of her handsome betrothed in her heart. Yet when Darkness comes calling to threaten her happiness, it is she, not the hero, who outwits that devilish figure. Similarly, Sarah in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ still treasures her dolls and childhood fairytales, and yet she spends the entire film in a battle of wills with the fantastical prince charming of her dreams; a battle she wins without sacrificing the imagination and integrity that is part of who she is.

    Audrey is perhaps a little more prickly than Lily or Sarah, but the imprint of the feisty and feminine 1980s fantasy heroine is there. For me, Audrey was one of the first heroines I came across in any piece of media who was delicate and frilly and sharp as a peeling knife. Now, having read around in the ‘talking animal’ genre, I love her all the more for being a breaker of moulds, even today.

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    • You just described Audrey perfectly! Woe betide any fool who thinks she’s a demure mouse maiden for her tongue is wrought from tempered steel and she’s not afraid to unsheathe it and slice her would-be oppressors to ribbons!

      Did you ever read the official novelization of The Labyrinth? The author also penned a novel version of The Dark Crystal and both of them add so much to the stories the films on which they are based!

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    • Sorry Aufwader! Due to some quirk, your first go at the comment had to await moderation and now that I’ve clicked that, you now have two of the same comment …

      It’s a bit rough getting moderated on your own blog … ah, the quirks of WordPress.

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  4. I believe I came across the novelisation of Labyrinth in the past, but I sadly never had the opportunity to read it, nor the book of Dark Crystal. Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll have to look into those!

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  5. (Whoops, I just noticed that my original post was a little incomplete! I typed the paragraphs below out but somehow forget to include them! Thankfully I still had them on notepad!)

    Meeting the family robbed so cruelly of a husband and father, some might be startled by how quickly his wife and son seem to have resigned themselves to his loss. Their acceptance of the situation brings home that this is the world of mice in which love can last an eternity but the ones we love can be lost in a heartbeat. Where a human girl would be encouraged to hold out hope that no news is good news and that her daddy is going to be just fine, she’ll see, here it is Audrey who seems strange compared to her mother and sibling because she refuses to even accept the possibility that her beloved father may be gone forever.

    The excellent world-building continues as the mouse brass presentation ceremony gives us the opportunity to take an enthralling look at the spiritual beliefs of the mice. Something I’ve come to notice about Robin Jarvis is that he includes religion as a theme in several of his books. Within the mouse community, religion manifests in a rather pagan form which actually makes a lot of sense for small furry critters who are close to the natural world and don’t have reality TV to distract them from it. One should note, however, that it’s not made crystal clear as to whether the mice of the Skirtings practice their worship of the Mouse In The Green in a way that mice across the world embrace. Are there communities out there who have different practices and beliefs?

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      • The extreme likelihood that you must be dead if you go missing for longer than a few days surely must be an accepted part of life when your species has so many enemies. And when you have a gateway to Hell lurking in the basement.

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    • I don’t believe so. My understanding was that the mice in the story all live in one old lady’s house. From there, they then talk about those who live in ‘the Skirtings’ – our main characters – and ‘the other mice upstairs’.

      The geography of the house is never clearly laid out, but I was always assuming that the Brown / Chitter / etc families lived in the skirting boards of the downstairs level. (For example, you can see some very nice skirting boards in this upmarket Notting Hill place: http://www.houzz.com.au/photos/5393936/notting-hill-flat-modern-hall-london). And them presumably the other mice live somewhere upstairs.

      So I could easily imagine them gnawing out mouseholes in the skirting boards and living in there. The question is – where did they hold all these big celebrations, like the dancing and the Spring Celebration? It seems you’d need some sort of big open space for that where it wouldn’t be destroyed. So did they sneak out in the middle of the night, set it all up in the hallway, and then retreat back into their holes by nightfall? Was there an empty space somewhere in the house that the old lady never went into?

      I could never quite work this out in my head. In the end, I decided that I was happy to accept without question that these mice could talk, make brasses, wear (some) clothing and play musical instruments. It was thus probably best just to assume that they had some physical space in which to have a Spring Celebration!

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    • Reading Robin Jarvis, it seems clearer that The Skirtings are IN that old house, and part of it; I could quote the sentences, but the book is not in front of me. Read the sentences word for word and they demonstrate that the abandoned house INCLUDES the ‘skirtings.’

      Of course some sources/webpages online add to the confusion by writing about “an old house, called The Skirtings.”

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      • Sorry, Aron, you’re quite right. I was attempting to answer the question without the book in my hand! Looking at the Prologue, it’s quite clear that the mice live in an empty boarded-up house, and the old lady lives next door.

        Which then answers my own question about why they have so much floorspace to spread out and hold festivals and such – because there’s no one living in the house.

        So essentially, it’s a mouse-infested deathtrap in the middle of Deptford and that’s where they all live.

        Note to self: If in doubt, pay attention to the book …

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  6. It recently occurred to me that Audrey is a very fitting name for a character who loves lace and ribbons. Why? Because the historical St. Etheldreda (or Audrey) had festivals given in her honour in Ely years ago, where lace goods would be sold. Eventually they fell out of fashion and were seen as cheap. This is the origin of the word ‘tawdry’ from ‘St. Audrey’s lace’. I’m not sure if this is why Robin named the character Audrey, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

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