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Brian Jacques: An Appreciation

Brian JacquesBrian Jacques died on February 5, 2011. He was 71, and he leaves behind him the legacy of a full and successful career: 39 published books, including 21 in his famous Redwall series (with another awaiting publication this year), legions of loyal fans, and a vision of a fantasy world that retains its power to entrap the reader.

It has been a long time since I picked up a book by Jacques, but the news of his death set me remembering. He was one of the first authors to help me discover that books can take you to another place.

I can’t remember how I found his works on the library bookshelf, but I know that it was not the recommendation of a friend, parent or teacher that got me hooked. No, Redwall was a place that I discovered for myself, around age eleven, and promptly began spending huge amounts of time there. I would curl up in a chair and read the books—always satisfyingly thick, for a story aimed at a young adult audience—for hours at a time. It used to drive my younger sister crazy because I was often so engrossed that it would take her yelling my name several times to get my attention.

While I was reading, the places of Mossflower country—from Redwall Abbey to the castle of Salamandastron—seemed to grow up around me. It came as no surprise to me when I learned recently that Brian Jacques began the first Redwall story for the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool; one of the best qualities of his stories is the way that they make you practically see the events he is describing.

Another great thing about the Redwall series, and something that it shares with the best fantasy books, is the way that Jacques built through it a large and fully realized world, with its own geography, history, politics, myths, and legends. This sense of a distinct and well-mapped other place, completely separate from our own world, yet compellingly rendered in our imaginations, is one of the most powerful inventions of fantastic literature. It is why we remember Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros, Discworld, and countless others. Jacques’s work appeals on the same level; it borrows from that world-building tradition, and—aimed as it is for a younger group—it helps train a reader’s taste for fantasy. Someone who reads Redwall at age twelve will probably be reading works by Tolkien in the next few years.

Redwall (cover)The Redwall books are tales out of the fantastic world canon, but they have other influences as well. On Jacques’s biographical website, he lists a range of authors who impressed him from a young age, including Daniel Defoe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Thomas Mallory, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Echoes of these stories of adventure—full of explorations, quests, treasure-hunts, and other kinds of daring do—are visible in many of his books, whose denouements often hinge on solving mysteries, defeating villainous overlords, rescuing the helpless, and seeing that justice is done. They are stories that you can get behind, and feature heroes you can identify with. This is not to say that they are tales without darker elements, or that the endings are all bright and happy. There is struggle and heartbreak as well. Martin the Warrior was the first book I read that caused me to not just cry, but sob when I finished it.

I also laughed while I was reading Jacques’s books. His use of a wide range of animal characters, each species with their own mannerisms and accents (many of them drawn from the different dialects of the British Isles), gave color and life to his works. The thick burr’s of the moles (“Oh, urrrh aye”) or the madcap banter of the hares (“Dontcha’ know, old bean”) tickled the senses and provided a lighter counterpoint to the serious business of fighting off evil.

One more aspect of the Redwall books that made them so appealing was their use of riddles and word games. In this, they take after many of the classics of children’s literature, from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland on down. As the millions of Harry Potter readers can attest, an author’s ability to play with words and to hide clues within puns and puzzles, adds to the reader’s enjoyment as he or she tries along with the main characters to ferret out hidden meanings. I can still remember the key line of the key riddle that helped resolve the plot of the first Jacques book I read: “I, am-that-is, two mice within Redwall.”

Of course, the fondness I still feel for the Redwall books does not mean that I remember them as being perfect. After reading up through The Bellmaker (seventh in the series), I stopped waiting for each new book. Many of the books I had read seemed to be rehashing themes from previous adventures. The struggle was always a Manichean one, with villains who were always evil to the point of insanity. I began to wish for more moral complexity. As I got older, I started to feel impatient with, and then troubled by, various aspects of Jacques’s world. Why are some species of animals “good,” while others are “bad?” Jacques explained on his website that, “The bad creatures are those which are traditionally bad in European folk lore and have come to be regarded as sly or mean or evil. The good creatures are mostly small and defenceless, with the exception of the badgers.” All well and good, but doesn’t it seem a little bit like racial profiling? I know Jacques addressed this problem in Outcast of Redwall, one of the books I have not yet read, but it was something that always bothered me.

Also, there is the question of women’s roles. The Redwall books always seemed to operate in a word where male protagonists were heroic, stalwart, and brave, and female romantic interests were mild and sweet. True, there was Mariel of Redwall, but she never even got to carry the sword of Martin the Warrior. Her sidekick Dandin did that, while she had to make do with an old piece of rope as a weapon. If the reader is being asked to imagine a mouse wielding a sword, I don’t see why he or she couldn’t imagine a mouse sword maiden just as easily.

Tapestry by chichapie

Ultimately, though, my memories of reading Jacques’s books are positive ones. When I look back on the world of Redwall, I see it as a fabled place—a little simpler, morally speaking, than the worlds I like to imagine now, but still powerful and entrancing. It is a place I would advise any young reader to visit in order to lose him or herself, as I did, in the adventure stories of Matthias, Martin the Warrior, Gonff the Mousethief, Mariel, and all the rest. They are great tales, and we are fortunate the Brian Jacques lived such a long, full life to be able to write so many of them.

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7 Comments

  1. Ken says:

    Brian Jacques and his books will always have a special place in my heart. Like the author, I picked up his books at around 11 or 12 and one of my favourite reads when I was at school. I look forward to the day when I have children of my own as I will share with them the stories of Redwall Abbey.

  2. Awesome article, Chloe. I’ve never read Brian Jacques, but this article makes me want to. Well done!

  3. Komal Verma says:

    Wonderful article – so amazing how it completely mirrored my own experience of reading the Redwall series – I think I came upon them when I was 10 years old and I remember ‘Martin the Warrior’ really moving me to tears as well – and yes, getting so engrossed in the books, my family members would give up calling me.

    I will always treasure Jacques’ books – they have inspired and brought so much joy to all young readers. Not to mention making my mouth water at all the wonderful food that was always described 😀

  4. Samoza says:

    One of the best children’s authors around. I read most of his books growing up, I always remember the eating scenes – he was very descriptive and the food sounded amazing.

  5. Davieboy says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. I remember reading the Redwall books to my son who now reads Game of Thrones, Abercrombie, Lynch etc.
    A fab way into fantasy fiction; what the Narnia stories did for me Jacques’ writing have no doubt done for a whole generation of readers.

  6. Merc_Rustad says:

    Thanks for this post. Nodding along because I found the Redwall books in much the same way–I think I was 9, and I loved them. (When I was a little older, though, the problems of speciesism were a big turn off, and then the later books with too-familiar plots. But I still read most of the series; the full-cast audio books are wonderful, too.)

    Jacques was definitely one of my inspirations to try writing, and when I met him once at a book signing, he was such an incredibly wonderful and friendly guy (took time for each fan to talk to them and connect). I always remember that fondly.

  7. Bibliotropic says:

    I’ve only read one of the Redwall novels, but that one I read twice, so it must have made enough of a positive impression on me to bring me back later on. Not sure why I haven’t read more of them, really, because I have easy access to almost the entire series between my own bookshelves and the library. What I remember of that one book tells me that it was a fun world to sink into and that it was quite richly detailed.

    Kind of sad to have fallen into the trap of “good/bad animals.” I can see basing it around folklore and human perception, but honestly, variety is the spice of life for a reason. More breaks from the mold are welcome things sometimes.

    Still, I’ve put aside worse objections to things I’ve read in other books, so that shouldn’t (and probably won’t) stop me from eventually reading more of the series someday.

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