To continue in the Christmastime theme of stories that hearken back to childhood, I want to talk about the one that has probably affected my life more fundamentally than any other. It got to me early on and set in motion my love of fantasy and my desire to be a writer.
And as a fantasy fan, you might reasonably assume, I was first inspired by the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia or something like that, yes?
Well, no. Those things were a part of my life in one way or another, but what tipped the balance was something less well-known: Brian Jacques’ Redwall.
Written by a Liverpool truck driver, Redwall was the first full-length novel I ever read. It takes us to the forest of Mossflower and Redwall Abbey, a monastery inhabited by an order of mice.
Yes, mice. The characters are anthropomorphic animals. Humans don’t exist in this world like they do in, say, Wind in the Willows. The world of Redwall is populated solely by creatures of the English countryside; soft-spoken mice, stout hedgehogs, foppish hares, vicious rats, devious weasels, and insidious adders.
The monastic denizens of Redwall are charitable protectors. Founded by the hero of old Martin the Warrior, they provide safe haven and medicine to the forest-dwellers around them, and invite all and sundry to their famous feast days, generally living in peace, material simplicity and natural plenty.
Matthias, a young mouse and novice of the Redwall order, has a longing for the adventure and action of the long-dead Martin’s era, though Redwall has been at peace for many seasons, and Matthias can only experience these things through the record of the abbey’s famous tapestry.
He’s about to get more action than he bargained for; the ravening horde of the rat warlord Cluny is on the road to Redwall, and the peaceful denizens of Mossflower will have to learn to defend themselves. Matthias, helped by the abbey’s aged loremaster, seeks to give Redwall back its fighting spirit by recovering the lost sword of Martin, a quest which will take Matthias into the darkest corners of the abbey and into faraway lands in search of clues and allies.
The story is a riveting quest with airs of the Sword in the Stone or the Hobbit, with the storybook charm of the aforementioned Wind in the Willows or Beatrix Potter woven in as well. Songs and especially riddles form a key part of Brian Jacques’ writing, and you’ll grapple with them along with Matthias as he confronts terrifying villains and confounding mysteries in his efforts to save his home.
This is a kids’ book, of course, so the themes are standard unity in difference, innocence to experience and hero’s journey fare, but they’re presented with an imagination and charm that gives them great zest.
Brian Jacques once described writing as ‘painting pictures with words’ and few can claim to paint pictures so vivid. The characters, the landscape and the medieval aesthetic of the setting leap off the page, especially if history is something you’re into anyway. Any Anglophile will get a kick out of the hare’s aristocratic military dialect, ending sentences with exclamations of ‘what, what!’ or the moles, whose indecipherable Somerset accents are hilarious to read aloud. He also had a great skill at selecting resonant names for characters. The lavish feast days at Redwall will make your mouth water – you can even find Redwall recipes out there. I recommend the Deeper n’ Ever Pie, myself. Despite the fact that the characters live in a monastery, no religious associations are made, so you don’t need to be Christian to get the experience.
Another thing that makes Jacques great as a children’s author is that he didn’t pull too many punches. This was the series that first taught me that good guys die too, and not just in heroic sacrifices or peacefully in bed, but sometimes unexpectedly, pointlessly and tragically. Victory feels real and hard-won as a result.
Redwall ultimately spawned a vast set of sequels. The first were Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra, which follow later quests and crises suffered by Matthias’ descendants, some of which are fallout of the events in Redwall. Others deal with characters connected to but outside of Redwall. Of these, Mariel of Redwall and the Bellmaker are the best in my opinion. The books also cross generations, so a character who is a child in one book will sometimes turn up again elderly in the next.
As I got older, though, the effect of the books started to wane. They became very formulaic. You start to wonder why Redwall is ever surprised to find itself under siege. One branch goes back in time to follow ancestral characters like Martin, but I found these characters much more effective as historical ideals than as real people, and it spoiled their mystique somewhat. The divide between someone who is a member of the Redwall order and someone who just seems to live there starts getting fuzzy, and the frequency of great feasts starts to seem a little bizarre (although perhaps not, given how many Saints’ Days there are in real life). Despite the series covering seemingly hundreds of years Mossflower and Redwall are usually pretty much the same, and the world feels weirdly static. Mossflower and the Bellmaker are the only books that seem to defy that trend.
Jacques also wasn’t very good at moral ambiguity. Every now and again a mouse, vole, or other ‘good guy’ would go over to the bad guys, and in the Bellmaker a rat came over to the good guys, but the good/evil divide was so inflexible that it was actually a little offensive, especially in Outcast of Redwall. It’s by far my least favourite instalment and marked the beginning of the end of my passion for the series.
Some later books like the Long Patrol and Marlfox still held up. But for a kid, the formulaic structure is likely to be a plus, and the dividing of characters into recognizable types appeals greatly to a young mind, giving them clear rules to learn. It’s a bit like a fantasy starter before trying to tackle intricate epics like the Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, it lacks the all-ages accessibility of Harry Potter or the Hobbit. I’ve referred to other stories as probably inaccessible to readers below a certain age. Redwall books, on the other hand, will probably be lost on you if you’re over about thirteen.
For all that, Redwall itself, and Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra as well, are terrific. The world is vivid and sumptuous, the stories are classic and the emotional arcs are very intense. This was the series that taught me the power of books to affect your feelings. Jacques’ visual style and his love of children shine through and warm your heart. The feast (in every sense) it provides to the mind’s eye will thrill young readers, especially if they’re budding historians. If you have kids, or are one, then this is a great way to get into reading and offers a young person a great stepping stone into more mature literature.
RIP Mr. Jacques, and Merry Christmas to all.