For those who have not discovered Brian Jacques delightful and exciting REDWALL series, you’re in for a real treat. Though aimed at the young (I first enjoyed the first book at age eleven), it can easily be enjoyed by adults as long as its intentions are understood (I read it this year, and though the experience was not the same, I still enjoyed it). A combination of animal and heroic fantasy, Jacques transforms the meadowlands and forest into an epic landscape where mice, badgers, shrews, moles, hares, foxes, stoats, and all variety of woodland creatures live in pastoral harmony, fighting for survival when evil looms. The series now standing at twenty-two books in total, the first, entitled Redwall, was published in 1986 and is the subject of this review.
Redwall Abbey is a brick structure standing in the middle of Mossflower Wood. A place of safety and tranquility, woodland creatures come and go, meet with friends, receive medical attention, or just enjoy a good meal with the brothers and sisters safe behind its high walls. (Thankfully, there is no religion at Redwall Abbey despite the setting.) All is well in the Summer of the Late Rose until Cluny the Scourge, a bilge rat, comes careening up the road in a cart laden with rough-cut mercenaries and an eye to making the Abbey his new home. Father Mortimer unwilling to simply hand over the keys, the normally bucolic Abbey finds itself in a fight for its life against the treacherous villain.
And what a fight it is. Cluny’s siege, while classic in terms of epic fantasy, is nevertheless made singular by Jacques; claw and fur add a whole new dimension to the sword fights, climbing, bows and arrows, and digging. Utilizing another classic trope, the quest, Jacques likewise imbues in colors of his own. Facing the ruthless assault of Cluny’s hordes, the situation seems dire until a mouse named Matthias discovers a tattered document telling the location of the sword of the Abbey’s hero, Martin the Warrior. His quest to recover the sword taking him through hidden myths and legends of the Abbey, to places high and low, above ground and below ground, Matthias’ is a search you watch through your fingers.
Despite the rather standard fantasy setup described thus far, there are many things that set Redwall apart. Along with the animal perspective, woodland life is colored along many interesting and, dare I say, exotic lines. From the “hurrah burrah…” of mole speech to the incredible menu of dishes and drinks — meadow cream pie, nutbrown ale, summer salad — available on Abbey tables, Jacques makes his world unique. Each species having its own style of speaking and mannerisms (Basil Stag Hare is fabulous — wot, wot!), the menu continually varied, and the interaction of the animals, each are channeled through the various physical aspects to make the book something special. The anthropomorphization of the animals is perhaps the strongest element of Redwall and one of the reasons it is such a good read.
But the strongest reason is the story. Matthias’s quest to recover Martin the Warrior’s lost sword takes him on a journey every bit as epic as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but every bit as organic as Watership Down. The parallel storyline of Cluny and his assault on Redwall Abbey works to every degree — suspense, adventure, and fun filling both story arcs. Presenting all sides, readers will find themselves enjoying time with Cluny as much as those in the Abbey, with Cheesethief, Ditchpaw and the other minions as captivating as Brother Alf, Jess Squirrel and the other Abbey dwellers. Though written for young adults, Jacques is not exactly easy on his readers. Not all the good guys survive, and not all the bad guys die. Never gory, there is, however, a weight that hangs over the narrative when important characters pass on.
In the end, Redwall is as fun and battle-some as young adult fantasy gets. Taking the idea of Watership Down and transforming it into a story far more anthropomorphic and epic, the quest Matthias goes on for the good of Redwall Abbey is classic heroic fantasy as much as it is Jacques’ own. But it is the depth and layering of story, as well as the manner in which the author paints facets of animal life in human colors that likewise make the book enjoyable for adults alongside their children. The hero’s tale in an animal world.