I found out yesterday that one of my favourite authors, Brian Jacques, died suddenly a few days ago. The news shocked and saddened me, as he was only 71 and was still working (his most recent book is due for publication later on this year).
He is most famous, of course, for his Redwall series, although he has written other, unrelated novels. I have been reading the Redwall books since I was about eight or nine years old; I am only missing the most recent two out of the twenty-one published so far, as I don’t like reading hard back books so have to wait the extra year for the paperbacks to come out.
I wanted to pay tribute to Brian because his books have meant, and still mean, a great deal to me. If you ask most fantasy enthusiasts which author it was that first inspired them and opened their eyes to the genre, I suspect the most likely answer will be “David Gemmell” or “Tolkien, of course!”. For me, it is Brian Jacques.
The first Redwall book I read was Salamandastron. Published in 1992, I suspect my mother initially bought it intending for my older brother to read, dealing as it does with sieges, battles and so forth. Perhaps she thought it was more of a ‘boys’ book, I don’t know. What I do recall, is my brother read it and wasn’t all that fussed, whereas I read it and was captivated.
It is Brian’s writing style that draws you in at first. Everything is vividly described; even a child with little or no imagination would have no difficulty in visualising every scene. I came to understand, as I grew older, that the books are written in this way because they were originally written for the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind, so he could not rely on good illustrations to aid his storytelling.
The setting itself is incredibly appealing as well. The fictional world in which the books take place is dominated by the large and fertile Mossflower Wood, a deciduous woodland not unlike the natural habitat found in Britain. To the east lies the sea, to the south a separate ‘kingdom’ known as Southsward. To the north an inhospitable mountainous region; westward there are plains, swamps and then the coast. Some of the stories take place on tropical islands out in the Western sea. The full extent of the landmass is never explored, and the map develops organically along with the series. I used to try and draw my own version of it, incorporating elements from all of the books. An official map was published in 1998, but has now become outdated as further stories have expanded on the geography. The world is at once familiar (at least to British readers, as the general layout does resemble somewhat the geography of Britain) but also different and unique.
The characters are brought to life by the same descriptive style. The world is populated by anthropomorphic animals, mostly those indigenous to Britain. Brian established early on in the series that certain creatures are inherently “good” and others “evil”; this concept is so embedded into the series that you can tell as soon as character arrives which side of the line they should fall on. Broadly speaking, those woodland creatures who are generally portrayed as being cute and cuddly and worthy of being made into toys fall into the “good” bracket, e.g. mice, voles, shrews, hares, otters, squirrels and badgers. Carnivorous animals, such as rats, foxes, weasels and stoats, are branded as “evil”. The characters are further stereotyped by their names; “good” characters have nice, sensible names like ‘Martin’ or ‘Cornflower’, the “evil” characters appear to have mostly been named by a random evil name generator, piecing together names like “Darkclaw” and “Fangburn” and “Ragear”.
Equally, each individual species behaves according to stereotype. The mice are quiet and unassuming, mostly monk-like Abbeydwellers, with the occasional firebrand hero taking after the main hero, Martin the Warrior. They represent the children who read Brian’s books. Hares, on the other hand, are militaristic, posh types, all “Jolly good” and “Tally-ho”; very upper class English. They are based on the RAF. The shrews are based on the Merchant Navy who worked in Liverpool’s docks, and are therefore experts in all manners of boat building and sailing. Hedgehogs brew ale, moles are very rustic and speak with a thick West country accent. Birds of prey are haughty and noble. Badgers are fierce warriors, who suffer from a battle-rage known as the bloodlust (anyone who has experienced a real-life badger attack will understand why this is the case!), and almost represent the monarchy, as they are the Lords of Mossflower, ruling from the extinct volcano called Salamandastron. The “evil” species are split into two main groups, land-dwelling vermin and the sea-faring corsairs. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.
While some have criticised this simplistic approach, and accused Brian of demonstrating racist tendancies and encouraging class divides, I myself never had an issue with it, and always enjoyed the rarity of a character who doesn’t live up to his stereotyping (e.g. the character of Blaggut, in The Bellmaker, who is a rat who is actually “good”).
The stories are, for the most part, broadly similar as well. An Evil Villain and his horde descend on Mossflower Wood, threatening the Abbey and its inhabitants. The spirit of Martin the Warrior (the series’s only nod to religion/magic) appears and uses riddles/dreams to guide a group of bold young heroes to go on a quest. While they are off questing, the gentle woodland creatures must band together and defend their home from the Evil Horde. Lots of stuff happens, involving random encounters in the wilderness with such evil creatures as toads, newts and snakes, at some point the Abbeydwellers hold a massive feast, and eventually there is some sort of battle, all the Evil Horde are destroyed, the questers return victorious, the new Abbey Champion slays the Evil Villain and all is well. At least two or three (but generally no more than that) of the good guys will die during the tale.
Laid out like that, they don’t sound like much, do they? Brian has been criticised for repetition in his work, particularly in the later books, but I don’t think he is any more guilty of it than other authors. All of David Gemmell’s books are the same, but you don’t hear people complaining about that, do you?
No words of mine will do them justice, however. They are incredible works. They rouse so much emotion. I will quite happily confess to blubbing like a baby every time he kills of one of my favourite characters, even on the 10th or 11th re-read. In fact, there is one character death that got to me so much, I don’t even have to read the book, if I so much as think about it for more than a couple of seconds, I start welling up.
The adventures are on an epic scale. The battles are remarkably well described; gory enough to excite the reader without giving nightmares afterwards (important, when your readers are only ten years old). Food receives special attention; Brian goes to great length to describe in minute detail the food his characters eat, especially at the famed Redwall feasts. This, I understand, is down in part to Brian’s experiences of rationing after the Second World War. His “good” characters are all vegetarians with a side order of fish on special occasions. He recreates all manner of foods, using only the natural ingredients that his characters could reasonably be expected to obtain; fruit, nuts, grasses, tubers. The main focus has to be on the desserts though, towering cakes and trifles feature heavily.
Another feature of the books, which is something I have always loved, is the reliance by Brian on poetry and song to move a story along. Songs are often used to develop characters, or to provide a wider insight into the world in which his characters move. There are songs for feast-times, full of laughter and delight; songs for mourning, when funerals are held for the “good” characters that die along the way. And then there are the riddles, used as a device for showing the heroes what to do. A great example of this is in The Pearls of Lutra, where our Abbeydwelling heroes have to solve a series of riddles to find the pearls. Each riddle is beautifully written, and designed in such a way that the readers themselves are able to solve it before the characters do, should they wish to.
It surprises me that so many of my peers somehow missed out on these books as children, or did not fall in love with them as much as I did. At the very least, I can hope than my fellow twenty-somethings will rediscover these books when their own children reach an appropriate age to enjoy them. I know I am looking forward to reading Redwall with my children, when the time comes.
It is hard for me to choose a favourite of the series, although I must confess to a fondness for the stories which focus on the otters and the hares, my favourite characters in the whole series. Because of this, The Pearls of Lutra (heroine is an otter) and The Long Patrol (heroes are all hares) are definitely at the top of my list, although The Bellmaker has a soft spot in my heart because Finnbarr Galedeep, the sea otter, is also one of my favourite characters overall. Martin the Warrior and Outcast of Redwall tie for “death that makes me cry the most”.
I guess there isn’t much else I can say really, other than “if you haven’t already read and loved these books, get yourself down to the library right now and read them”. My words are wholly insufficient to express how I feel at Brian’s untimely death, so I will use his own words instead. This is from The Pearls of Lutra.
Fare you well upon your journey
To the bright lands far away
Where beside the peaceful rivers
You may linger any day
In the forests warm at noontide
See the flow’rs bloom in the glades
Meet the friends who’ve gone before you
To the calm of quiet shades
There you’ll wait, oh my beloved
Never knowing want or care
And when I have seen my seasons
We shall walk together, there.
Brian Jacques (1939 – 2011)