A Personal Reflection on Brian Jacques

Always the tide comes flowing in.
Ever it goes out again.
Sleep ’neath the shore evermore,
Free from hunger and pain.
Morning light will bring the sun;
Seasons go rolling on.
Questing ever far from home,
For Salamandastron.

—Gonff the Mousethief, Mossflower

Students were allowed to check out two books at a time from my elementary school library, with one exception. Students could only check out one Redwall book at a time—they were just too popular. At times the librarian, a tower of hardbacks in her arms, would sit us in beanbag chairs in the reading corner and dole out the big books with the mice on their covers. There were seven books then, and I had come late to the party. As the other fourth grade boys fought over who got to read Martin the Warrior next, the only thing they could all agree on was that I had to read Mossflower first. It wasn’t the first book in the series, but it was the earliest chronologically, and it was everyone’s favorite.

As an adult, what strikes me as odd about this scenario is that young boys displayed this degree of adoration for a series of novels, as opposed to what would be expected to garner such devotion and obsession—sports or video games. The Redwall series, in clear and simple language, tapped into how a boy sees the world: a place of stunning natural beauty ripe for grand adventures interspersed with even grander meals. The books never seemed to talk down to their readers, and so thoughtfully wove together action, mystery, and human drama (even though none of the characters was human) that the pages kept turning, turning, turning.

Explained simply, Redwall books are medieval fantasy adventure stories featuring anthropomorphic woodland creatures.

Like millions of fans, I was deeply saddened to hear of the recent passing of beloved author Brian Jacques. I will forever picture him as I suppose he would be pleased to be remembered, sitting in his garden and writing longhand, with his neatly trimmed beard and warm eyes. Those fortunate enough to have heard him read will perhaps remember him as the great raconteur he was, an orator of the finest quality. No one could do mole-speak better.

A noted teller of ghost stories, Jacques incorporated many mature elements into the Redwall series; there were frightening deaths, assassinations, wars, torture, betrayal, and more than a few intoxicating beverages. Most books featured monsters, but not the dragons and ogres of traditional fantasy fare. The heroes faced crabs, pikes, sharks, and sssssssssssssssnakes. He was not afraid to kill the innocent. At least one book ends in tragedy. This complexity is but one example of how Redwall enriched our lives.

The Redwall books established my love of rapscallions. There were many throughout the series, but none so iconic or beloved as Gonff the Mousethief. He is funny, and very good at what he does, and he gets the girl! Who wouldn’t want to be a rogue like that? He is like a furry Han Solo with a tail. This comparison raises an interesting point about the volume of the Redwall books. Each is a swashbuckling epic on the scale of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And there are twenty-one of them.

The fourth book in the series, Mariel of Redwall, stands out for having a tough warrior female as a protagonist. It was the first time I was introduced to such a character. As Salamandastron, Pearls of Lutra, and Triss indicate, Mariel was not the last time a Redwall story told the tale of a brave young woman.

Reading over the comments on Tor.com’s earlier obit, it is nice to see how many parents have shared Redwall with their children. I had the reverse experience of sharing Redwall with my parents. As I recall my mother was very sick when I suggested she read Redwall, which she did immediately, in one sitting. I would poke my head into her room periodically as she read, and ask the questions everyone asks when someone you love is reading something you love: “Where are you? Have you met so-and-so yet? What’s your favorite part?” She told me she thought the hare was very funny, and she hoped those foxes got what they deserved. When she finished, I remember having an animated conversation about the book. Reading lifted her spirits.

Perhaps everyone is partial to the first book they read in a series, and I am no different. I have always had a preference for Mossflower, mainly because of its many iconic scenes, from the solving of the riddle of Brockhall, to Boar’s fall among the searat horde, to the flooding of Kotir, and that brutal final battle between Martin and Tsarmina the Wildcat. I’m curious to hear what others’ favorite books are, and favorite scenes. My favorites from other books include Matthias facing Asmodeus in Redwall, Swartt poisoning Bowfleg in Outcast of Redwall, and when Urthstripe floods the tunnel in Salamandastron with boiling water. There is also this passage from the original Redwall:

Cornflower and Matthias had become quite friendly. They were young mice of the same age. Though their temperaments were different, the found something in common—an interest in Tim and Tess, the twin church mice. They had passed a pleasant evening, joking and playing games with the little creatures. Tess had clambered onto Matthias’s lap and fallen asleep, whereupon baby Tim did likewise in the velvety fair of Cornflower. She smiled at Matthias as she stroked Tim’s small head. “Aw, bless their little paws. Don’t they look peaceful?” Matthias nodded contentedly in agreement.

Which somehow encompasses everything there is to understand about young love, how when caught in a moment with someone, a look can overwhelm you, or inspire you to take on a rat army.

Somewhere Jacques is slurping hotroot soup and eating a big slice of deeper’n’ever pie, rinsing it down with Dandelion Cordial and October Ale, and crunching dozens of candied chestnuts for dessert. So please, share your thoughts and fond memories in the comments.

Matt London is an author and columnist because a long time ago he wanted to tell stories the way Brian Jacques did.


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