I come to this, a review I’ve been building to ever since I started this blog about a year ago, at an inconvenient time. I finished reading Brian Jacques’ first published novel, 1986’s Redwall about three weeks ago but due to a combination of working long hours and spending a week in New York for my brother’s wedding haven’t had the opportunity to review it until now. I prefer to review something very soon after finishing with it so that it’s fresh in my mind but in the circumstances will have to do my best to convey why I consider this to be my favourite book, the work of fiction that inspired my lifelong dream to be an author.
Redwall and its twenty-one sequels and prequels is set in an imaginary period world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals including mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, moles, rats, ferrets, foxes and many more besides. The central setting of the series is Redwall Abbey, a marvellous red sandstone structure home to a peaceful order of healer mice who thrive in simple happiness. Hero of this opening chapter in the lengthy saga is Matthias, a young orphan mouse struggling to fit in among the serene and composed Abbeydwellers who idolises the legendary Marin the Warrior, one of the abbey founders, a brave and mighty warrior mouse of long ago immortalised by his likeness in the abbey’s famous tapestry.
It is the Summer of the Late Rose and the woodland creatures are enjoying Abbot Mortimer’s Jubilee celebrations in the traditional Redwall way, with a hearty feast. Following the merriment when Matthias is escorting the Fieldmouse family home to the nearby St Ninian’s Church they witness a hay cart full of hundreds of murderous rats headed by one particularly fearsome vermin tearing past on the road. This hellish rat is Cluny the Scourge, an evil warlord so legendary and feared that his is the name mothers use to scare their children into behaving. Cluny and his cutthroat army take up residence in St Ninian’s and lay down plans to conquer Redwall Abbey. So begins a siege story full of daring rescues perilous questing, fiendish riddles and unforgettable characters.
What strikes you as you read Jacques’ first book is just how different it is from the rest of the series. The same basic formula applies but it is delivered in a noticeably less regimented style. His earliest work is actually his best written filled with linguistic touches and turns of phrase that might be deemed more advanced than what most of his subsequent work offers. But more than that it is clear that Jacques hadn’t yet fully defined his fantasy world at this point. There are moments in the story that subtly suggest that we might be in a world similar to one of Jacques greatest influences The Wind in the Willows which places these anthropomorphic characters alongside regular humans. No humans feature in the book but there are faint suggestions of them in innocuous little moments that would probably go over the heads of anyone but a long-time fan of the series. St Ninian’s Church, for example seems to be a run-down place abandoned by the humans that built it before it became home to mice. There is even the sense that the building might be as huge as a church would be compared to a real mouse. One thing it is not is a functioning place of worship. These things are only inferred – there is no explicit evidence that Jacques’ early intentions for his Narnia to be populated by humans at all. One unquestionable detail is the presence of non-anthropomorphic animals, namely the horse that pulls the rat horde’s cart near the beginning as seen on the vivid and dramatic cover art. Another character, a cat named Squire Julian Gingivere, possibly a descendent of Mossflower’s Gingivere seems to be much larger than Matthias the mouse and apparently walks on four paws. There are no other non-anthropomorphic characters like this anywhere else in the series and there are a few other species mentioned that never recur, such as the abbey’s unnamed resident beaver, and references to dogs and stags. It’s an oddity to read about these things that didn’t continue in the series and lends the first book an air of mystery and depth absent from the later entries. Although in many ways these details seem evident of a setting not fully thought through they do not detract at all from a quite brilliant adventure tale and it is important to remember that this book laid the foundations for twenty-one followers.
Almost every series convention that repeated again and again throughout the series started here. Apart from introducing Redwall itself and the peaceful nature of its inhabitants this was the first book to involve a siege story; established the importance of Martin the Warrior and his sword; laid out the various important roles within the abbey and the particular species usually seen occupying them (badger mother, cellerhog, etc.); determined the recurring characteristics of each of those species, such as the quaint speech of the friendly moles and the upper-class English-accented gluttonous hares; introduced the concept of the Guerrilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower or Guosim and their argumentative ways; established the mystical gypsy-like qualities commonly endowed to female foxes; gave us the first terrifying monster character in Asmodeus the Adder and features the series’ first and best riddles. Most importantly it gave us the concept of the vermin horde, the nasty, murderous gangs of filthy rodent creatures, mainly rats who kill and plunder under the command of an almighty and evil warlord. Every villain in the series is some imitation or variation on Cluny the Scourge, possible the series’ most memorable character, a truly crazed and vicious villain who treats his own subordinates with as much cruelty as those he strives to conquer. The villains drive every story in the series and Cluny’s contribution is inestimable.
So what is it that makes Redwall stand out above every other book in the series including the magnificent Mossflower, which, lest we forget, told the story of Martin the Warrior himself and related the events that led up to the founding of the abbey and was the subject of my first ever review of any kind? The answer is pretty simple. This is the best story and has the best characters. Matthias may be slightly overshadowed by the ancient hero he adores in the wider context of the series as a whole but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a hugely likeable second-best hero and the kind of spirited underdog anyone can root for. His efforts which follow his various attempts to thwart Cluny’s invasion and the search for Martin’s long lost sword form the backbone of the plot. The story moves quickly from episode to episode. If one thing above all others holds back the quality of the later books in the series it’s that not enough of interest happens. Jacques crams these four hundred odd pages with incident from the exciting chapter in which the mysterious Shadow steals Martin’s likeness to the moment Matthias’ love interest Cornflower foils an invasion attempt by burning down the horde’s siege tower there’s never a dull moment. The best part is the endlessly engaging quest for the sword which is where the riddles come in. These riddles have long been a Redwall staple and serve as a brilliant way to immerse you in the story as you try to work out the clues for yourself but the journey Matthias faces is what will really stay with you. The section where the young hero must make his way to the abbey roof by following a route up inside the building is a particular highlight.
One approach that particularly characterises Jacques’ work is the amount of time given to his villains. Half the chapters cast the villainous Cluny as the main character as we learn all about his plans and follow large portions of the many attack sequences from the point of view of him and his horde. The army itself is also interesting. Since these unpleasant minor baddies fulfil the same role in every book their characters never change much but it’s their names that paint the most vivid picture. With monikers like Darkclaw, Scumnose, Redtooth and Mangefur they make for brilliantly comic creations, some with their own diverting story arc’s such as Cheesethief’s rivalry with Scragg the weasel.
The decent characters too prove consistently memorable, such as the severe female badger Constance, the ancient recorder and scholar Methuselah, and the brilliantly eccentric campaigner Basil Stag Hare. Many of these figures recur in spirit throughout the series but there are some that remain unique such as the feisty sparrow Warbeak and the brilliantly amusing infant squirrel Silent Sam. It’s a terrific cast.
Possibly the most important reason why Redwall had such a vast influence on me however is the setting. Redwall Abbey is an absolutely vivid creation, the equal, in my opinion, of J K Rowling’s Hogwarts. A magical place of peace and plenty that houses many mysteries and adventures. Setting is one of the most important elements of adventure storytelling and Redwall remained strong and constant through a very lengthy series. In this first novel nothing is more important as the whole plot revolves around the sandstone structure. It’s also just about the only book in the series that takes place almost entirely in one place with very limited wandering to other locations. It’s a superb creation and the stories that have been set there have been wonderful. But none more so than the first.
Brian Jacques’ first book remains his best. It’s an eventful story filled to the brim with exciting twists and turns great characters and enticing mystery. Only a debut as strong as this could possibly lay the foundation for another twenty-one books.