Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: ‘Goto The Rats’


  1. pasture: an area of land used for grazing livestock.
  2. feasible: possible to do easily or conveniently.
  3. solution: a means of solving a problem or dealing with a difficult situation.
  4. agitated: feeling or appearing troubled or nervous.
  5. conceivably: in a way that is conceivable or imaginable.
  6. Deference: respectful submission or yielding to the judgment, opinion, will, etc., of another.
  7. extraordinary: very unusual or remarkable.
  8. inevitably: as is certain to happen or be the case.
  9. ploughing: the process of turning over the soil, especially before planting, to loosen and break up the earth.
  10. surroundings: the things and conditions around a person or thing.

‘Goto The Rats’

Mrs Frisby began nervously, trying to arrange her thoughts:

‘It’s about my youngest son, Timothy. He is sick, too sick to leave his bed. And Moving Day is only five days off.’

‘Wait,’ said the owl. ‘Moving from where? Moving to where?’

‘From the garden patch, where we’re living, to the edge of the pasture by the stream.’

‘Which garden?’ It had not occurred to Mrs Frisby until now that a bird, flying freely over miles of countryside, would look down on many gardens.

‘It belongs to Mr Fitzgibbon.’

‘The one with the large stone?’

‘Yes. My house is near the stone.’

‘What makes you so sure Moving Day will come in five days?’

Mrs Frisby told him about the tractor, and what Mr Fitzgibbon had said: five days until ploughing. ‘Of course,’ she added, ‘it might turn cold again, and freeze, or even snow…”

‘No,’ said the owl, sounding quite sure, ‘it will not. The wild onions are already up in the pastures.’ He asked her then what kind of house she had, and exactly where it was in relation to the big stone; apparently he knew the spot well.

But the more she talked to him, the more Mrs Frisby became convinced that he would produce no solution to her problem. It had been foolish of her to think he could, foolish of her to come at all. Because, she thought, there really was no solution. At last she fell silent, and the owl asked no more questions. Finally he said:

‘Lying where it does, your house will inevitably be turned up by the plough, and probably broken to bits in the process. There is no feasible way to prevent this. My only advice to you is this: If you stay in the house you will surely be crushed and killed, all of you. Therefore, it is better to take your chances with moving. Wrap your son Timothy up as warmly as you can, help him as much as possible on the journey, and hope for warm weather on Moving Day. That way you are at least sure to save yourself and the other children.’

The owl paused, turned away from her and looked again at the entrance to his hollow; the patch of light it admitted was growing steadily dimmer.

‘And now, if you will excuse me – the night is falling, and I have no more time to spare. I regret that I can not give you a more satisfactory solution to your problem. Good evening, Mrs…’ he paused. ‘I don’t believe you told me your name.’

‘Mrs Frisby.’ The poor mouse spoke with a sob in her throat, for the owl had said exactly what she feared he would say. And she had no real hope for Timothy. The owl had said, in effect: Either Timothy alone must die, or they must all die together. Even if Moving Day should be extraordinarily warm, the nights were sure to be frosty, and that would be the end of him. Still, one must be polite, and she added sadly: ‘I thank you, sir, for listening to me.’

But at the mention of her 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?

‘Did you say Mrs Frisby?’

‘Yes. You asked my name.’

‘Related to Jonathan Frisby?’

‘Yes. He was my husband. He died last summer. He was Timothy’s father. But how did you know about him?’

‘That is not important,’ said the owl, drawing back a little and looking at her in a new way – almost as if with deference. ‘I will say this: His name was not unknown in these woods. And if you are his widow, that puts matters in a different light.’

Something in the way he said this caused Mrs Frisby’s hopes to lift a little.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘I mean, madame, that there is a way that your son’s life might just possibly be saved. I did not mention it to you because I saw no way you could conceivably do it, and I did not want to arouse false hope. But if you are Jonathan Frisby’s widow – then perhaps it can be done.’

‘I don’t understand at all,’ said Mrs Frisby. ‘What is this thing?’

‘It is not a thing that I can do myself. You must go to the rats.’

‘To the rats? But I don’t know any rats. They have nothing to do with me.’

‘I don’t doubt that. They have little to do with anyone except themselves, and will have less as time goes on. Nonetheless, I think they will help you, and if they will, they can.’

‘But what can they do?’

‘They must move your house to a place where it will be safe from the plough.’

Now Mrs Frisby’s spirits fell again, and she said, almost bitterly:

‘You are joking, sir; you are not serious. No rat could move my house. It is far too heavy, much too big.’

‘The rats on Mr Fitzgibbon’s farm have – things -ways – you know nothing about. They are not like the rest of us. They are not, I think, even like most other rats. They work at night, in secret. Mrs Frisby, do you know their main entrance?’

‘In the rosebush? Yes.’

‘Go there. You will find a sentry guarding the door. His name is Justin. Tell him who you are, and that you came at my request. Tell him that you want to see a rat named Nicodemus. I think they will let you in, though they may insist on swearing you to secrecy. If they should ask that, you must of course use your own judgement; but my advice would be to do as they ask.’

Mrs Frisby was close to complete bewilderment.

‘Secrecy,’ she said. ‘Secrecy about what?’

‘That I cannot reveal. I, too, have agreed to it. Also, there is much I do not know, though I have given advice on certain aspects of their – projects.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs Frisby, ‘I don’t understand at all. But if it might save Timothy, I will try to do what you say.’

‘Tell them,’ added the owl,’that I suggest moving the house into the lee of the stone. Remember that – the lee of the stone. Also, do not forget the names: Justin and Nicodemus.’

‘Justin. Nicodemus. The lee of the stone,’ repeated Mrs Frisby. ‘I will remember.’ She was now so entirely puzzled that she did not think to ask -what the phrase meant. Presumably the rats would know.

‘And, Mrs Frisby,’ said the owl, moving again towards the entrance to the hollow, ‘please understand: I was an admirer of your late husband, though I never met him in person, I wish you well. I hope your son’s life can be saved. You see, I can understand your particular need, for I face a similar problem.’

‘You?’ said Mrs Frisby. ‘But you have no Moving Day.’

‘I have lived in this tree, in this same hollow,’ the owl said, ‘for more years than anyone can remember. But now, when the wind blows hard in winter and rocks the forest, I sit here in the dark, and from deep down in the bole, down near the roots, I hear a new sound. It is the sound of strands of wood creaking in the cold and snapping one by one. The limbs are falling; the tree is old, and it is dying. Yet I cannot bring myself, after so many years, to leave, to find a new home and move into it, perhaps to fight for it. I, too, have grown old. One of these days, one of these years, the tree will fall and when it does, if I am still alive, I will fall with it.’

With this sad prediction the owl stepped through his doorway, spread his great wings and was gone, soaring silently downward into the shadowy woods below.

Mrs Frisby followed him out on to the limb. To her relief, Jeremy was still waiting where she had left him, though not very patiently.

‘We must hurry,’ he said. ‘It’s almost dark. I’m not supposed to be out so late.’ Mrs Frisby, who had the same feeling, climbed on his back, much less afraid now for two reasons: First, she was getting used to air travel; second, since the woods below them were dark, she could no longer see how far away the ground was.

‘He talked to you for a long time,’ said Jeremy as they flew. ‘Did he tell you anything that will help?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Mrs Frisby. Since the owl had brought up the matter of secrecy, and had, in fact, been secretive himself, she was not sure just how much she should tell Jeremy.

‘Why don’t you know?’

‘I mean, he told me some things, but I don’t know whether they’ll help or not.’ She decided to counter with a question of her own. ‘What does “in the lee” mean?’

Jeremy, being like all birds knowledgeable about the wind, knew the answer to that. ‘It means the calm side, the side the wind doesn’t blow from. When there’s a strong wind, you fly up to the barn from the lee, so you don’t get bashed into the wall. My father taught me that.’

‘I see,’ said Mrs Frisby, and she became more puzzled than ever. What had the wind to do with it?

‘He told me,’ she said finally, deciding it could do no harm,’to go and see the rats.’

‘The rats?’ Jeremy was startled. ‘But they don’t have anything to do with us.’

‘I know. But he thought they might help.’

‘What could they do?’

‘He thought they might move my whole house. But how they could do it, I can’t imagine.’

‘Oh, I don’t doubt that they could,’ said Jeremy. ‘Everyone knows – at least all the birds know – that the rats can do things. They’re up to something; nobody is quite sure what. For one thing, they’re building themselves a new house, way back in the woods, over the mountains. They’ve even made quite a big clearing near it. I’d show you, but it’s too dark now.

‘They used to carry food, like the rest of us. But now we see them with other things – pieces of metal, and bits of machinery, and things I can’t even recognize. They take them into that rosebush, and what happens to them I don’t know. But the owl knows more than most. I expect he’s had some dealings with them. Just the same, I’ve never heard of their helping anybody but themselves.’

‘Neither have I. But I’m going to ask them anyway. There isn’t anyone else to ask.’

By the time they reached the garden, it had gone almost completely dark, and Jeremy could not linger.

‘Good night, Jeremy,’ said Mrs Frisby, feeling almost affectionate towards the crow. ‘Thank you for taking me, and for waiting to bring me back.’

‘You’re welcome,’ said Jeremy. ‘If you need me again, just ask. After all, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here to ask.’ And he flew off into the darkness, the last crow to get home that night.

Paul Hoets is a freelance maker who lives in South Korea. If you liked this article and would like to contribute to his empire of dirt, silicon and tech. education, buy him a coffee!