Every once in a while, literature provides us with a hero. A hero who dazzles, who exposes the hypocrisy of hierarchy, who inspires the small and downtrodden. A hero who burns bright as a thousand flames. Think brave cake-finisher Bruce Bogtrotter, The Very Brilliant and Very Hungry Caterpillar, fearless and intrepid Augustus Gloop, charming chicken and cider thief Fantastic Mr Fox, and Sid of not one, not two, but Six Dinners.
The great heroes of children’s literature guzzle and gulp with pride. Enter the Highway Rat, Julia Donaldson’s buck-toothed, rapier-wielding rodent, who made his way to BBC One this Christmas Day. The press releases were so promising. “The Highway Rat tells the tale of a ravenous rat who craves buns, biscuits and all sweet things,” the BBC declared. So far, so sold. The rat is now my idol.
The rat is clearly a stone cold bad bitch.
But it continues: “Tearing along the highway, he searches for sugary treats to steal… until his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky end.” If you’re getting a distinctly unpleasant whiff of moral superiority with base notes of food shaming and just a hint of fatphobia – well congrats to you on those noble, powerful nostrils of yours.
Yum yum yum, carrot sticks in ratty’s tum.
The Highway Rat is just the latest in a long and proud tradition of culinary rats, following in the footsteps of such illustrious gourmet rodents as Rizzo the Rat and Remy from Ratatouille. But the animated adaptation of Donaldson’s picture book (a parody of the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman”) immediately presents the Highway Rat as a villain. First, by having him voiced by known Top Gear guest David Tennant. Secondly, by introducing him putting on a black cape and bandit’s mask while narrator Rob Brydon chants: “The Highway Rat was a baddie. The Highway Rat was a beast.”
Alright ratty you treat yourself to that pretty unicorn cupcake you deserve it lad.
Why is our rat so beastly? Simply put: “His life was one long feast.” He binges on baked goods and anything else he can get his little paws on, and he’s not ashamed in the slightest. “Give me your pastries and puddings! Give me your chocolate and cake!” he exclaims. “Give me your buns and your biscuits! Give me your chocolate eclairs! [….] Give me your sweets and your lollies! Give me your toffees and chews!”
Who amongst us cannot relate? A reminder: The Highway Rat aired on Christmas Day at 4:45pm, the point in the day where you’ve eaten your way through mountains of roast dinner, a brandy-soaked wobbly pud, and are half-way through a nice big tin of Quality Street. When The Highway Rat aired, we were all The Highway Rat: which makes its grim message of anti-sugar propaganda and moralistic preaching of eating only in moderation all the more miserable. The Highway Rat is definitely NOT in the spirit of Christmas.
Deliciously Bunny sits atop a throne of lies.
The Highway Rat procures his dinners by stealing them from other woodland creatures, which, in fairness to the Highway haters, does seem rude. But there is surely a metaphor at work here. Glimpsing what looks like a sweet treat in their baskets, he is often disappointed to find vegetables lurking their instead. What seems to be piles of purple icing is actually a bunch of clovers, nice iced buns are in reality big ol’ nuts, spotted pink cupcakes turn out to be wild mushrooms. It’s a familiar disappointment for anyone who has fallen foul of health trend – stumbling upon 100 per cent raw cacao disguised as milk chocolate, spiralizer courgette posing as pasta. These bourgeois, paleo dieting, clean eating, forest foragers had it coming from the start.
Just say no to clover.
The Highway Rat’s sweet tooth is portrayed as a slippery slope that leads him down a dark spiral of crime: “With never a please or a thank you, / Thе Rat carried on in this way / Flies from a spider! Milk from a cat! / He once stole his own horse’s hay!” The narrator despises the Highway Rat’s now bulky form: “The creatures who travelled the highway / Grew thinner and thinner and thinner, / While the highway rat grew horribly fat / From eating up everyone’s dinner.”Selfish and evil (and, seemingly worst of all, fat): see where the simple enjoyment of cakes can lead you?!
A proud and handsome ratter.
Eventually, an evil duck sporting a witchy headscarf leads our antihero astray by luring him into a cave with the promise of “biscuits and buns a-plenty”, stealing his horse and all his food, and leaving him to die alone in the dark. The woodland creatures have their veggies back, and have a “feast”: “For now they could live in freedom, / Safe from the Highway Rat.”
The evil witch presents her Fake News.
The rat nearly starves to death before he escapes, and is reformed by the trauma. The narrator celebrates this “thinner and greyer and meeker Rat”, but for the audience he has been robbed of his many charms. He works in a cake shop, torturing himself by staring all day at cakes he will no longer permit himself to eat, nibbling the odd crumb from the floor or licking a stray bit of icing that makes it onto his fingers. It’s a gloomy portrait, a hollow shell of the once glorious rat. Relocated and reformed, he is unable to even refer to himself as The Rat of The Highway. Identityless, hungry, and now a worker chained to a nightmarish system of capitalism, the Highway Rat is a sad shadow of his former self.
A pathetic and obsequious rat imposter.
All this makes The Highway Rat at odds with the true meaning of Christmas, which everyone knows is: Eat, all ye hungry. Eat whatever the fuck you want, and as much as you humanly can. Even you, Tiny Tim. God bless us, every tum.