The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread is a quirky, charming, and imaginative story about an odd mouse named Despereaux, a beautiful princess named Pea, a good rat turned bad named Roscuro, and an unfortunate servant girl named Miggery Sow.
The dialogue is engaging and the narrator wittily addresses the reader. The story has a great message about the power of love, hope and forgiveness.
The story is divided into four sections. "Book the First: A Mouse is Born" opens with the title character. Despereaux is born in a castle and he is "the only one of his litter to be born alive." His sister Merlot comments that his ears are too big and his brother Furlough notes that his eyes open, saying "They shouldn't be open." His family doesn't think he is going to survive. But "Despereaux Tilling lived." He is noted for being the smallest mouse the members of the mouse community have ever seen. Despereaux likes to listen to sounds and stand still instead of scurrying around like other mice. He also loves to stare at the bright colors that shined through the stained glass windows of the castle. His siblings tried to make him behave like the rest of the mice. Despereaux wouldn't nibble paper in a book because "it would ruin the story." After a while they stopped trying to teach him and let him roam free through the castle.
One day Despereaux hears music and listened to King Phillip play the guitar and sing to Princess Pea before bedtime. Princess Pea sees Despereaux and asks the King to play music for him. Despereaux moves closer and sits at the foot of the King. When Princess Pea smiles at Despereaux he falls in love with her. Princess Pea picks up Despereaux and compliments his ears. She wants to keep him, but the King objects. Before Despereaux leaves he tells Princess Pea his name and tells her "I honor you!." Furlough witnesses Pea touching Despereaux and runs away to tell his father. His father is mortified and says that Despereaux must have a trial with the Mouse Council.
Despereaux is brought before the Mouse Council and the Most Very Honored Head Mouse questions Despereaux about his actions with the King and the Princess. Despereaux is sentenced to be sent to the dungeon, where no mouse has ever survived. The Mouse Council tells Despereaux to renounce his actions, but he refuses. Two hooded mice escort Despereaux to the dungeon after he visits the threadmaster to be bound. One of the hooded mice is his own brother Furlough. After Despereaux is left in the dungeon an old jailer named Gregory tells him that rats will eat him. Despereaux tells the jailer that he cannot die because he is in love and it is his duty to save the Princess. Gregory says he will save Despereaux if he tells him a story.
"Book the Second: Chiaroscuro" transitions to a rat named Roscuro who is obsessed with light. His friend Botticelli tries to convince him that a rat's life purpose is "suffering, specifically the suffering of others" and he tells him how he should deceive and manipulate prisoners to have fun. Roscuro tries to convince himself that he doesn't like light and he's just a rat. In an attempt to follow Botticelli's advice Roscuro talks to a prisoner who reveals that he sold his daughter for a red tablecloth, a hen, and a handful of cigarettes. Roscuro steals the tablecloth from the prisoner thinking that causing him pain would be fun, but he realizes that he needs to see light. He decides to go upstairs out of the dungeon. He goes to the door of the banquet hall in the castle where King Phillip, Queen Rosemary, Princess Pea, and noblemen are having a party. He sees a lot of light and is ecstatic. He thinks to himself "This is too extraordinary. This is too wonderful. I must tell Botticelli that he was wrong. Suffering is not the answer. Light is the answer."
Roscuro enters the party and gets so excited that he climbs onto a chandelier and watches the party from above to take in all the light. Princess Pea sees him and shouts "A rat is hanging from the chandelier!" Roscuro is disturbed by hearing the word rat and falls from the chandelier into the queen's soup. The queen says "There is a rat in my soup" then has a heart attack and dies. The King's men try to save her but it is too late. Roscuro scurries away to escape, but when he looks back and sees Princess Pea glaring at him his heart breaks. Roscuro changes and decides to get revenge on Pea for the way she looked at him. Meanwhile the King outlaws soup, spoons, bowls and kettles in his despair over the Queen's death.
"Book the Third: Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow" is about a young girl named Miggery Sow who was sold by her father for a red tablecloth, a hen, and a handful of cigarettes. The man who purchased her, who Miggery calls Uncle, makes her do all the housework and hit her in the ears often for insignificant reasons. Miggery's ears turned into cauliflower shapes and she lost a lot of her hearing from the abuse. On Miggery's 7th birthday she saw the royal family passing by on horses while she was outside on the field. Princess Pea waves at her, but Miggery is too awestruck to wave back. From that day on Miggery dreams of being a princess. After the King outlaws soup-related items, a soldier comes to Miggery's house to collect them and he figures out that Miggery is illegally owned. He takes Miggery to the castle and she becomes a serving girl. Miggery meets Princess Pea and speaks with her while on an errand to deliver her a spool of thread. The head of the serving staff gives Miggery the job of delivering the jailer his noonday meals because Miggery is very clumsy and often lazy with her other tasks.
Roscuro overhears Miggery telling the jailer "Someday I will be a princess" and formulates a revenge plan using Miggery. Roscuro approaches Miggery as she is leaving the dungeon and tells her that together they can make her dream "of becoming a princess a reality." He begins to tell her his plan as the third book ends, and Miggery naively agrees to work with him, not knowing that his true plan is "to bring the princess to darkness."
"Book the Fourth: Recalled to the Light" returns to the main character Despereaux and the jailer Gregory. After Despereaux tells him stories, Gregory places him in a napkin on the tray that Miggery returns to the kitchen upstairs. The cook sees Despereaux and tries to kill him, snapping off his tail in the attempt, but he escapes. He cries because he lost his tail, but recovers once he learns that Princess Pea is in danger. Roscuro has manipulated Miggery into participating in his evil plan of forcing Princess Pea to go down in the dungeon and stay there forever. Miggery and Roscuro take Princes Pea to the dungeon. The King is distraught because his daughter is missing and none of his men can find her. Despereaux tries to tell the King that Princess Pea is in the dungeon but the King refuses to listen to a mouse. Despereaux decides to rescue Princess Pea on his own. Despereaux gets thread from Hovis the threadmaster and tells him he is going on a quest. Hovis is shocked that a mouse survived going down into the dungeon and is going back. But Despereaux is different because he is saving someone he loves.
While Despereaux is going back through the dungeon he is frightened, but he sings to keep his spirits up. After he loses his spool of thread Botticelli finds him and offers to help him find the princess. Botticelli leads Despereaux through the dungeon intending to eat him after Despereaux sees the princess. In the dungeon Princess Pea gives Miggery her crown to put on. Roscuro laughs at Miggery and tells her that she'll never look like a princess and will never be one. Miggery starts crying. Princess Pea is empathetic and asks Miggery what she wants. Miggery wails "I want my ma!" Miggery decides not to chain Pea and Roscuro says they'll both stay down there. Miggery and Pea sit together for a long time until Despereaux arrives and announces "PRINCESS! Princess, I have come to save you."
Roscuro smells soup and he breaks down, crying "It will never work. All I wanted was some light. That is why I brought the princess down here, really, just for some beauty... some light of my own." The Princess promises to give Roscuro soup if he leads them out of the dungeon. Roscuro tearfully agrees and leads Miggery, Pea and Despereaux out of the dungeon. Princess Pea gives Roscuro permission to roam around the upstairs of the castle. Roscuro tells Pea about Miggery's father, the prisoner, and Pea releases Miggery's father who reunites with his daughter. He treats Miggery like a princess for the rest of her life. Despereaux and the princess become good friends and even went on adventures together. In the last scene of the book King Phillip, Princess Pea, Miggery, Roscuro, and Despereaux eat at a table together in the banquet hall around a great kettle of soup. Despereaux's mother, father, and brother witness this and are amazed, while Hovis the threadmaster smiles knowingly saying "Just so."