I was first introduced to the Redwall series by my brother, who was intellectually an early bloomer than I, both by dint of his elder status and, I suspect, a more genuine intellect. At the time—I was perhaps 11—the Redwall serious was a big leap from what I had previously been reading. They were somewhat simplistic fantasy fare by most standards, but they were significantly longer, darker, and more complex than I was accustomed. I actually read the second book, Mossflower, first, by his recommendation, but the whole series started with Redwall, which was, as I understand, the work of many years by Brian Jacques, writing and reading short stories for/to blind children.
Jacques has created a world filled with anthropomorphic rodents and other creates who live and behave as humans. It is the spiritual successor to Watership Down, a famous book about anthropomorphic rabbits. Redwall, the first book in the series and named after the epicenter of its action, an ancient abbey populated by peaceful mice, hedgehogs, and various and sundry herbivorous animals, distinguishes itself from its sequels by its rough edges. In Redwall and none of its successors will you find harsh language (“hell” and “damn”) as well as religious references (“hell”, a Church of St. Ninian) and the only reference to real-world locales (the titular badguy, Cluny, is said to be a “Portuguese rat”).
Much of what I say now is by way of an introduction to the series, rather than this particular book, but I think it important since it sets a context for all the books that come after it. While Redwall may have certain peculiarities that Jacques has ironed out by the second book, I’ve noticed that Jacques does a particularly good job at continuity in his created world, jumping to and fro chronologically without missing a beat. His ultimate care in creating the world of Redwall is part of what makes the series so damned good, to say nothing of his talent and inventiveness as a storyteller.
As I mentioned before, Redwall is an ancient abbey1. Its long and storied history includes that of Martin the Warrior, a fearsome warrior mouse who helped found the abbey many generations ago. In contemporary times, a young, somewhat clumsy mouse named Matthias is suddenly thrust into the heart of the action when a hoard of rats, ferrets, stoats, and weasels2, lead by a legendary sea rat, Cluny the Scourge, attempt to invade the abbey.
The Redwall series will reach 20 books by the end of 2008, but in retrospect it is remarkable just how much canon Jacques established within the first book alone: there are particular stereotypes assigned to species, as well as codified legend that well eventually be fleshed out in later books. The fearsomeness and largeness of badgers; the humorous nature, British speech, and fearful fighting abilities of hares; the fleetness and natural archery of squirrels, the digging ability of moles; the general evilness of meat-eating animals. One thing that continues to puzzle me is the sense of proportion between animals and environment, which Jacques either ignores or bends at will, which is ultimately unimportant, or so I believe.
I have the distinct impression that the Redwall series is less popular today than it was, say, 10 years ago, which I think is a shame, because it’s an excellent series for young teenagers. It’s got plenty of action, warfare, puzzles, and adventures, without particularly glorifying violence3.
Anyway, Redwall the book is a romping adventure which establishes Jacques’ formula, begins the Redwall canon, and forecasts the absolutely amazing literary world to come. Admittedly, it’s a book for young teenagers (generally between 350 and 450 pages per book), so it might be of little interest to many of my readers. However, I recently acquired an entire hardcover collection of the entire series so far, and decided to reread it in tribute of the books which gave me so much joy as an adolescent, and which I have not revisited in far too long. If it interests you, stay tuned to this meme in the coming weeks; if not, forgive what is likely to be a long series of Redwall reviews (but, importantly, punctuated by other books as well).
- I should note that though I say “abbey,” the abbeys of Redwall’s world are secular affairs, Jacques taking care to generally avoid recognizable religious references from his world. The animals’ conception of death, for instance, is more in line with the ancient Greek concept: it’s the “Dark Forest,” some semi-physical place where dead animals go. This concept is explored more thoroughly in later books[↩]
- Generally, any carnivorous animals serve as bad guys in the Redwall series, while herbivorous animals are generally—but not always—good guys[↩]
- It will, however, make you want to eat a lot—those who have read the series know what I’m talking about[↩]