Mouse Guard is an epic tale of minuscule proportions. Literally. The heroes of this series are mice; the aforementioned Mouse Guard are those who protect mice travelling in the wilderness between mouse cities. It’s a fascinating concept that reads like a cross between folk tales, a Greek odyssey, and fables for children. Mouse Guard is not for the faint of heart though: it has brutal moments of loss to accompany each all-too-short celebration. Life is not easy for these small creatures, but they exhibit exceptional fortitude and courage throughout the series. That doesn’t stop them from having the same societal issues that plague humanity: civilization comes at a cost and there are always those who are willing to upset any peace or harmony that has been achieved. It’s a grandiose mythos and this latest chapter, Mouse Guard: The Black Axe, does not disappoint.
Taking place long before the events of Fall 1152 and Winter 1152, Mouse Guard: The Black Axe tells the tale of this fabled weapon that played a large role in both books. Thankfully for new readers, you don’t need to be up to date with the series to jump in on this latest installment. Readers both old and new should pick up The Black Axe, as it may be the strongest chapter so far.
The narrative is ambitious, reading like ancient lore without falling prey to being corny or cliché. The story of the Axe begins with Celanawe and Em, last of their line in the long history of axe bearers. Their lineage goes back all the way to Farrer, the mouse who originally forged The Black Axe out of his sorrow at the loss of his family. It was intended to be a powerful implement that would right the wrongs that befell his line. Handed from heir to heir through history, it was somehow lost along the way and its current whereabouts are unknown. Em has spent years searching for it and tracks Celanawe down to assist in her quest. As the last two heirs of this legendary weapon, they are tasked with its recovery and Em has secured leave from the Mouse Territories’ current matriarch Branwyn, in order to officially enlist Celanawe. He is of the Mouse Guard order and his loyalty for his matriarch is only outmatched by his secret love for Branwyn. He begins the tale willing to follow Em to the ends of the earth at Branwyn’s behest, and only towards the end does he truly begin to realize the importance of the mythical implement they seek.
David Petersen’s vision of the Mouse Guard world is stunningly intricate and well thought out. The scope of the story could easily seem too elaborate or opulent for such small characters, but he manages to ground the mice in a humble way that will quickly endear them to readers. As both writer and illustrator for this series, every chapter is cohesive, with new elements of mystery and intrigue added to our tiny protagonist’s lives. Celanawe and Em are honourable, courageous mice that we grow to care for very quickly. Danger is ever present in their world and Petersen illustrates their peril with precision: each snap of a ferret’s teeth or cry from a besieged crow makes the reader’s guts churn in dread for their pint sized heroes’ well being. Surely these mice are more capable than any others you’re likely to meet but they are still the smallest of the mammals in this story, equally at the whim of nature’s fury and other beasts’ hunger. They press on nonetheless, an inspiration to even humankind. Mouse Guard is more than just a tale of mice: it holds enduring lessons for readers of all ages and astonishing art to accompany it. Every page brings a vivid realism to their world and truly makes these mice larger-than-life.
Issue #6 of The Black Axe is out on February 13, completing Celanawe’s tale filled with adventure, friendship, love and loss. Though this story ties into the overall Mouse Guard mythos, The Black Axe is a wonderful stand-alone tale that holds up remarkably well compared to other fables with far more history. Do you have the fortitude to uncover the history of The Black Axe?
“Hail all those who are able, any mouse can, any mouse will, but the Guard prevail.”