The Dark Portal | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

But the last, Twit noted with horror, had one of his claws missing and in its place, bound tightly to the stump, was something that made the fieldmouse squeal like his cousin – a peeler.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Poor Arthur Brown never gets much of a look-in when people talk about the Deptford Mice, but as far as I’m concerned it’s his unremarkable nature that makes him so likeable. As our heroine’s jollier, sturdier brother, it’s his duty to bring a bit of common sense and stability to proceedings. In this chapter as during the mousebrass-giving, he does this with aplomb, comforting his mother and rallying his friends when it becomes clear that Audrey is well and truly missing.

Here we also get a clearer look at Twit and Oswald; two of my absolute favourite characters out of any of Robin’s books. Twit especially is cleverly unfolded as the series goes on as a rather complex character, but his sunny personality remains genuine, as we see when he discusses his countryside home. The put-upon Oswald; gawky, bescarfed, and jittering, is the sort of character with whom we can probably all identify to some extent, if only because most of us certainly know ‘an Oswald’ in our own lives.

Between them, Arthur, Twit, and Oswald make up Audrey’s rescue party, and it is through their frightened but courageous eyes that we come nose-to-snout with One-Eyed Jake and his cronies. One rung down from Morgan, this band of bloodstained scoundrels are delightfully, slaveringly wicked, and thus immensely fun to read. I can recall one reviewer of The Dark Portal from a few years ago commenting that even the lowliest of Mr Jarvis’ rats would make Cluny the Scourge, the infamous warlord of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, drop his whip-like tail and flee in terror. I have to admit I concur – Cluny is very sinister, but you can’t beat a snickering, leering gang of red-eyed murderers closing in on our helpless heroes, deliberating whom they are going to make a ‘raw head and bloody-bones’ of first!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m a fan of horror films, so I love the way Robin has worked in the classic horror movie trope into a kids’ story: One person goes missing in some dark, forbidding place. Other friends say, ‘Let’s go find them!’ And then everyone ends up in trouble. (He does, however, avoid that other cliché of horror stories, where somebody suggests the never-sensible idea of splitting up.)

This is also an introduction to a bunch of classic Jarvis ‘nasties’: they’re the bad guys who work for the ultra-villain and they’re nearly always ugly, sadistic and violent. I’m sure this got many parents and teachers riled up back in the day (and apologies to any parents and teachers reading this who are riled up still) but this is actually what makes his books so intense: the villains are so, well, vile, compared with the innocence of the heroes, that it makes the story that much more compelling.

Nobody has any special combat skills to battle these kind of bad guys. It just comes down to courage and tenacity. Which will be sorely tested in the chapters to come …

Final Pedantic Note: Reading the Hodder silver-coloured edition, I noticed that the book alternated between spelling the old piece of metal in the cellar as ‘Grille’ and ‘Grill’, sometimes within paragraphs of each other. To sort this one out, I went to the source. It’s now officially ‘the Grill’.

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14 thoughts on “The Dark Portal | Chapter 4

  1. Place your bets, everyone, because it’s rats vs mice in Chapter Four of The Dark Portal! So who emerges as the victor from this throw-down? Our ragtag band of misfit mice survive their encounter with One-Eyed Jake and his bloodthirsty crew. But let’s just say that it’s a narrow squeak. (Sorry. No really, I’m sincerely sorry for that. No idea what came over me. Won’t do it again, I promise.)

    As Matt pointed out, Arthur really tends to be overshadowed by Audrey. I can understand why considering what this unfolding tale holds in store for his sister but he really is an unsung hero. All he really wants is to be left alone but the sinister forces amassed beyond The Grille conspire to scupper his dreams of a peaceful existence in the Skirtings. What commends him to me is how he rises to the occasion when Audrey disappears without a trace. Rallying Twit and Oswald to his sides, he leaves no stone unturned during The Case Of The Missing Sister, searching the house from top-to-bottom and even venturing into the alien landscape of the back-yard. As omniscient readers who are privy to the whole story, we know where his search is leading him. Down the cellar steps, through the rusted hole in the corner of The Grille and into the sewers. All this and he has not even eaten breakfast yet. Arthur may be reluctant but there’s no mistaking what a hero he is in his own right. Neither should it be doubted that in Twit and Oswald, he has two loyal friends who will stand by him no matter what the danger although it must be said that Oswald will probably do everything in his power to talk the other two out of whatever life-threatening escapade they’re planning before sighing and resigning himself to the madness. Just remember, everyone, he’s doing this under protest.

    Oswald and Twit are such different mice that it’s hard to believe they’re family. The two of them are like night and day in appearance and demeanour. Completely opposites though they are, the townmouse and the countrymouse are so much fun to read about as they bumble through the house on their quest to bring the wayward Audrey home. What’s interesting about the search is that it starts off as a lark for the three friends who use it as an excuse to hang out and have fun, comfortably certain that Audrey will show up before long. Then it takes an ominous turn as they are forced to conclude that there’s only one place they haven’t searched and suddenly they find themselves in a terrifying chase through the darkness, their pursuers a group of sadistic killers who are having the time of their lives as they toy with the brave but foolish intruders. As scary as they are, it must be said that One-Eyed Jake and the other rats have such cool character designs! Their leader has a leather eyepatch and one of them has a blade strapped to his mutilated wrist! These ravenous rovers are like pirates! Pirates of the sewer! Twit is made of sterner stuff than me. If I was standing with my back against a tunnel wall and a rat with a blade for an arm leering at the prospect of frying my ears for supper, I would have fainted on the spot. Make no mistake about it, the boys came this close to a hideous fate. I will forever love how the members of the rescue party were the ones who wound up being rescued and by the very mouse maid they had set out to rescue, no less. Audrey is so casual about the whole thing as she saunters up to her gobsmacked brother and critiques the taste of One-Eyed Jake’s ear, having nearly chewed it off during the struggle, that you’d think she does this kind of thing every morning. Audrey Brown, I love you! You are officially the most badass girl mouse who ever wore a lacy skirt! If only you didn’t go and leave your mouse brass in the sewer, forgotten in the excitement and bound to lead to further trouble down the line…

    Well, look at that! Do the rest of you see what I see? Now that Piccadilly and Audrey have met up with Arthur, Oswald and Twit, all the characters who appear on the front cover are now assembled! Can you guess what this means? The story is about to shift into a higher gear! Fasten your seat-belts, folks, because we are booked for the ride of our lives! Believe me when I say that this is going to be somewhat…exhilarating!

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  2. This chapter is sweet. At the start, anyway. It reminds me of being a kid, going on tiny adventures with my friends.** The dynamic between Arthur, Oswald and Twit is established swiftly and with little fuss.

    My girl Audrey wastes no time. This girl isn’t about to lose her brother and her friends as well as her dad! What was Piccadilly even doing while she was up biting rats??? Staring at her in awe?? Fear?? Admiration??

    **I suppose I should add that my childhood adventures did not (often) end with a gang of rats trying to eat me.

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    • We really do learn so much about the mice and the world they live in during these early chapters. And the best thing about it is that the information never bogs down the story which continues flowing smoothly.

      I have no trouble imagining Piccadilly beginning to chase Skinner, stick in paw, then glancing over his shoulder and forgetting all about it as his mouth falls open at the sight of Audrey growling between her teeth as she fights the leader of the crew single-handed. No trouble at all.

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  3. Zoinks! I’m 3 blog-posts behind already so I’m going to catch them all up here.
    1. Audrey Brown – I really appreciates reading everybody else’s comments in this character. You all raise a very good point that she is a clever juxtaposition of fierceness and lace. Clever though it is, she’s still my least-favourite character. She drives me nuts. Once – just once in one book somewhere – I’d like to see a strong female character who doesn’t have an acid tongue. 😳
    2. Arthur Brown – I too love his understated strength of character and reliability – he is actually much like his father before him, Albert Brown, and its kind of cool to see that though Albert might be gone, he definitely leaves his legacy behind in his young son Arthur.
    (As a total side note, where on earth does Audrey get all that sass from? She doesn’t seem to take after Albert or Gwen 🤔)
    3. Twit & Oswald – I confess when I was younger I didn’t appreciate Twit at all, and I really disliked poor Oswald – most likely because, if I were to be completely honest, Oswald would be the character I most closely resembled when I was a young teenager 😳 And of course nobody likes to find out they are the cowardly runt of the story. Fast-forward 20 years though and I have tremendous respect for Oswald – and of course I realise that he is no coward, but is, in fact, possibly braver than all the other characters put together, as he descends into the sewers even in the face of his (completely rational) fears.
    4. Madame Akkikiyu – one of my favourite things about books (that is so much harder to pull off in say, a 2-hour movie) is the complexity of characters that can be achieved, and Madame Akkikiyu is just one of these. Is she good? Is she bad? Somewhere in between the truth lies, and characters like this are awesome for their unpredictability – what will she bring to the rest of the book? Who knows? That’s the kind of thing that keeps you turning the page. Jarvis does a great job of simultaneously painting her as an essentially-good-but-stuck-in-the-hard-world-of-rats fortune teller, but also gives glimpses of her not-so-good streak with phrases like “also make them a little bit dead” and “power and knowledge of evil things were what she had always craved…”.
    (As another side note, why is Akkikiyu the only female rat for a hundred miles? What on earth does the rat population do with their females. They must have some, otherwise there would be no rat population. 🤔 Which then gives me the very hilarious idea for a short fan-fic about One-Eyed Jake and his wife living in domestic bliss – before he gets recruited by Jupiter.)
    5. The Rats – ohhh Lordy the rats. Vile, wicked repulsive – and yet so, so fascinating, these are the guys that make this series so truly memorable. For me, when I hear the words “Deptford Mice” or “Dark Portal”, I immediately think of “that book with the feral rat bad guys” 😂😂😂😂 A hero is only as memorable as the villains they must defeat, and Jarvis understands this perfectly. And it’s not just one memorable rat-villain – there’s a whole pack each with their own distinct personalities – but for me Skinner is the standout. The one-armed rat with the permanently-attached mouse-peeler cuts a truly terrifying figure against the mice.
    And so the stage is set – unlikely heroes vs larger-than-life villains – strap in for the ride readers. 😈

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    • I hadn’t stopped to think about where all the female rats were … It’s a bit like orcs in Lord of the Rings. They all seem to be male and villainous. But what sort of domestic life do they have?

      My theory on where Audrey gets her feisty streak is that it comes from Gwen but we’ll talk about her more in future chapters.

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      • I think the conclusion I came to regarding the absence of female rats (or rat children, for that matter) is that the ‘main’ area of the sewers must not be their usual domain. Too high and bright for them. Probably, I thought, they prefer deeper, darker places, further out from Jupiter’s lair and smaller, for hiding evil secrets in. The side-passages and narrow tunnels which lead off from the vaulted brick caverns would make a loathsome, snuggly nook for a rat family.

        As for why there are no bloodthirsty ratwenches in One-eyed Jake’s band, well, you’ve no excuse there, Mr Jarvis. Personally I’d like to see a distaff equal to One-Eyed Jake – with the exception of Madame Akkikuyu, who doesn’t quite count as all-out evil, all our villains are male so far. What about a gnarled old ratwitch out for Morgan’s top spot under Jupiter? I’d like to hear about her!

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  4. You make a great point, Aufwader. I enjoy the Redwall books but can’t deny that the bad guys simply lack the fearsome bite of the rats of Deptford. I honestly can’t even remember the names of Cluny the Scourge’s acolytes who come across as faceless minions whereas Morgan, One-Eyed Jake and Fletch are bad guys who will never let you forget them.

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  5. By the way, there’s an observation I must make about Akkikuyu’s spat with Morgan before she has an audience with Jupiter. One of the things Morgan hisses is that he remembers what she was before she became ‘too old and ugly’. Hmm! Now what do you suppose the piebald rat could be insinuating with that remark?

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    • Oh yeesh, I actually thought about bringing that up but wasn’t quite sure how to put it. The fact is that Mr Jarvis seems to have a special gift for getting family-unfriendly stuff under the parent/teacher radar, and that scene with Morgan and Akkikuyu definitely counts as one of those. (As I recall, Morgan also calls her a ‘trollop’, a word that I surmise a few young readers have surreptitiously looked up in the dictionary over the years). And to think, he hasn’t even got started yet!

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      • Ah, I was trying to to think of a way to reply to that comment that would be appropriate for a website discussing children’s books. I think you nailed it, Aufwader.

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  6. Here’s a question I’m keen to hear your thoughts regarding. How close was Audrey to the boys before all this began? Was she a full-fledged member of their circle of friends or was she Arthur’s sister who fraternized with them every now and then? Did she have any other friends among the mice of The Skirtings? I would dearly love to receive a glimpse into the lives of Audrey, Arthur, Oswald and Twit before they were drawn into the fight against Jupiter and his legion of rats.

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  7. To be honest, I think Twit actually lives up to his nickname for once in this chapter. He, Oswald, and Arthur enter the sewers looking for Audrey and he knows full well that bloodthirsty rats are about and could easily hear him, so what does he do? He shouts her name at the top of his lungs! The others even warn him beforehand but still he does it, and naturally the rats do appear. They’re almost killed before they happen to be saved by Audrey and Piccadilly. I know he was concerned about Audrey but he should have had the sense to know that yelling her name out loud in the sewers was a bad idea!

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