Sunday, January 30, 2011


by Brian Jacques
Star Rating: 3 out of 4
Book 1 in the Redwall series

I have a hyooooge weakness for books centered around sentient animal characters. Watership Down has been one of my favorite books for years. I already reviewed one of the Bunnicula series on this blog, as well as Zoo Story, which was nonfiction but still demonstrated the natural intelligence of many animals. And now, ladeez and germs, I give you yet another animal book, one of the staples of my childhood: Redwall.

Redwall Abbey is a warm, welcoming place of plenty in Mossflower Wood, filled with animals committed to peace. Many of them are members of the abbey's order, though beyond being nice and helping others, not much actual religiosity is evident. The abbey creatures iconically revere their patron, Martin the Warrior, a mouse who in olden days helped free Mossflower from cruel oppression. (That story is chronicled in another book of the series, Mossflower.) All is well at the abbey until the arrival of a famed and feared rat, Cluny the Scourge. Cluny's hoarde lays siege to Redwall in the hopes of conquering it even as one mouse within, Matthias, discovers his own strength in opposing Cluny and unravels ancient clues to his own destiny.

I think as a child I used to skip Jacques' descriptions of nature, sort of how I'd skip parts in Anne of Green Gables when Anne or the narrator would start waxing poetic about birches and purple sunsets. For Anne I think this was exactly the correct approach, but in Redwall, I missed some of Jacques' best work:
The new day dawned in a haze of soft sunlight. It crept across the countryside suddenly to expand and burst forth over all the peaceful woods and meadowland. Blue-gold tinged with pink, each dewdrop turned into a scintillating jewel, spiders' webs became glittering filigree, birdsong rang out as if there had never been a day as fresh and beautiful as this one.
It takes a confident author to use words like "scintillating" and "filigree" in a children's book. He does this throughout, and I found myself smiling in gleeful appreciation when words like "myriad" and "resuscitating" would pop up. Jacques trusts the intelligence of his child readers more than some YA or even adult fiction authors I've read recently, and it elevates the story tremendously. And of course, Jacques is rightly famous for his descriptions of the foods at Redwall feasts. I won't spoil the glories by revealing them here, but be sure to have some snacks handy while you're reading, because he's sure to make you hungry.

So much for the writing - now for the characters! Almost every one is a delight. Jacques depicts Cluny the Scourge in all his tactical brilliance: Cluny intimidates, deceives, infiltrates, manipulates, tunnels, towers, and batters Redwall with a tenacity that would've made knights of the Crusades proud. Every species within Redwall has particular characteristics: Constance the badger is strong and fearless, Jess the squirrel quick and clever, and Foremole the mole is hardworking and speaks in a different dialect ("molespeech"). But by far the crowning character achievement of the book is Basil Stag Hare, an irrepressible hare who ducks and bobs about the book like a cheery old British war veteran:
"Hmm, rats. I knew they'd come eventually, through intelligence on me grapevine, y'knkow. Could feel it in the old ears, too. As for Redwall, I know it well. Excellent type, Abbot Mortimer. Splendid chap. I heard the Joseph Bell tolling out the sanctuary message. Huh, even had some cheeky old hedghog telling me to run for it. Couldn't go, of course. Dear me, no. That'd never do. Chap deserting his post; bit of a bad show, what, what?..."
Framed against the siege is the story of Matthias, a bumbling young novitiate at the beginning of the book who is gradually transformed into a warrior imbued by the spirit of Martin. The book very clearly espouses the ideas of destiny and fate, both for Matthias and for the species in general. Having read many of the Redwall series, I can truthfully say that Jacques recycles character types according to species, and once you know the blueprint, you know the character: hares will be garrolous, otters brawny, and hedgehogs always on the lookout for some rich October ale. All the aforementioned species are also "good" types, while rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, foxes, and ravens are almost universally "evil". It's a very simplistic moral scheme that led to a problem for me as a reader: it suggests the idea that good and evil are determined by race. This is a premise of the entire series, but in this book takes form particularly in Matthias.

Matthias is clearly destined to be heroic, but as soon as he discovers his intended identity he gets puffed up and self-important. His behavior toward other creatures can be superior and occasionally reprehensible: at one point the abbey captures a sparrow, clearly a sentient creature (though warlike), and Matthias leads the bird around on a collar feeding her candied hazelnuts when she behaves, like he's training a dog. He and his old advisor Methuselah refer to her as a horror and a "little beast," and later another character calls her a "heathen savage". The snobbery is incredibly repugnant, and in my opinion, smacks of old British imperialism. Once upon a time, belief in British superiority/destiny was used as an excuse to conquer and enslave, and Matthias' perspective strays dangerously in that direction. Aside from his dedication to the abbey's credo, sometimes Matthias is not so different from Cluny.

And unfortunately, it's all through the book. At one point an injured fox appears at the abbey, and Abbot Mortimer accepts him into their care, suggesting that all characters are not necessarily prejudiced by race. Of course, the fox then takes advantage of their hospitality, steals a bag of loot, and murders an abbey creature in his escape, which does nothing to improve our opinion about the nature of foxes. Matthias, in the course of his fated quest, comes to appreciate and even befriend sparrows in their diversity. All well and good! Only later he runs into a creature of an unfamiliar species on his travels, whom he tries to bully out of his way with his Very Important Wariorness, and then refers to the whole species as "hooligans". Um. Way to not generalize the lesson there, Matthias.

Being familiar with the series, I know that Jacques follows his mice good, rats bad formula devotedly. In one of the more recent Redwall installments, Taggerung, Jacques' hero is an otter raised by evil rats who maintains his innate goodness and heroism despite his nasty upbringing. (You can guess on which side of the nature vs. nurture debate Jacques falls.) But while the smug undertones of the Redwall universe didn't leave a good taste in my mouth, I will say that the story, plot pacing, and writing all hold up splendidly, and I would recommend the book.

I have one final nitpick: at one point in the book, a mouse prepares a meal with goat cheese. I want to know where the goat is. And who in the world milks it?

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