Lord Brocktree
Brian Jacques

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers for this book, as well as for others in the Redwall series. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if I start talking about Redwall, the subject will invariably turn to Lord Brocktree. It might take five seconds or it might take thirty minutes, depending on who I am talking to – my brother and I can talk about Redwall for hours, specifically the food – but I always get there in the end. I have now read and loved thirteen Redwall books (lol, mostly), and yet this one remains my #1 all-time favorite. I consider it one of the greatest Redwall books of all time, and I will die on this hill.

Lord Brocktree opens on a wintry evening in Salamandastron, currently under the rule of Lord Russano the Wise. In the seasons since he first arrived at the mountain, he has married the Lady Rosalaun, and they have two cubs, Melanius and Snowstripe. In the absence of marauding vermin, Salamandastron is thriving. There is peace and plenty for all, and the mountain is filled with young hares of the same generation as Russano and Rosalaun’s children. It is partly for this reason that Russano has embarked upon the research project of a lifetime: wanting to teach the young badgers and hares something more about their own history, he has spent a considerable amount of time collecting information on the legendary Lord Brocktree, father of Boar the Fighter and grandfather of Sunflash the Mace. Though initially reluctant to present his research to the entire mountain, Russano relents upon learning that his story has been eagerly anticipated by the adult hares as much as the children. With a cozy winter wrapped around them and not much else to do but sit by the fire, eat things, and listen to stories (also, #goals), the hares of Salamandastron settle down happily to hear the story of Lord Brocktree and the founding of the Long Patrol.

The story of the Long Patrol begins with the story of one Dorothea “Dotti” Duckfontein Dillworthy, self-styled fatal beauty and daughter of the hares Daphne and Cramsy, who is as good as banished from her home following a series of low-grade misdemeanors. Her actual guilt is ambiguous, but her frazzled parents lose their minds when somebody sets her grandfather’s whiskers on fire and tears out the seat of her Uncle Septimus’s britches, and they pack her off with instructions to report to her Aunt Blench, currently employed at Salamandastron. To soften the blow (for Blench), Daphne writes a letter explaining everything, and encloses an heirloom shawl and a bottle of pale old cider. Dotti’s trip presumably goes well until she runs afoul of a gang of overweight stoats, who try to bully her into submission. During the battle that follows, the bottle of pale old cider gets broken over the rocklike head of one of the stoats, and Dotti is introduced to Lord Brocktree, who is himself en route to Salamandastron. Not knowing the way to the mountain, Dotti agrees to travel with Brocktree, and they are also joined by the otter Ruffgar “Ruff” Brookback and the mole Gurth. As they draw closer to their destination, Brocktree begins to dream of a wildcat, whom he knows he is fated to face in battle.

Meanwhile, Salamandastron is in serious trouble. It is run by the ancient Lord Stonepaw, father of Brocktree, who is a kind and competent ruler; however, the last several seasons have been peaceful, and the young hares have all left to seek their fortunes, leaving Stonepaw with 150 very elderly hares to guard the mountain. This would be fine in most scenarios, but the long peace comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of a horde of blue-furred vermin, led by a haughty ferret calling herself the Grand Fragorl. After failing to negotiate with Stonepaw, the Fragorl returns to her master, the wildcat Ungatt Trunn, son of King Mortspear and older brother of Verdauga Greeneye. Despite some troubling dreams about a giant male badger, Trunn believes he is destined to conquer Salamandastron – substantially helped along by a prophecy frequently read to him by his fox magician, Groddil – and therefore places the mountain under siege. The writing’s on the wall, but Stonepaw optimistically sends the hare Fleetscut in search of reinforcements shortly before Trunn’s horde (nicknamed “the bluebottoms”) swamps the mountain. Cornered and unable to escape, Stonepaw and eighteen of his surviving hares hide in the caves beneath Salamandastron. Eventually they are caught, and Stonepaw sacrifices himself to allow his hares to escape.

Outside of the mountain, Fleetscut first befriends and then antagonizes a tribe of squirrels led by the no-nonsense Jukka the Sling. After an acrimonious argument, Jukka vows to help Fleetscut raise an army to take on the bluebottoms, solely for the purpose of proving him wrong. Their squabbling quest takes them from the shores of Salamandastron to the camp of a rabble of rowdy hedgehogs, and then to the court of Bucko Bigbones, a self-proclaimed hare king who has gathered an army but now doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Here they run into Brocktree, Dotti, and Ruff, who are now accompanied by a tribe of Guosim shrews led by Log a Log Grenn. The two parties get off to a rocky start as they clash over Skittles, the runaway toddler son of Fleetscut’s new hedgehog friends, but they settle their differences and quickly unite behind Dotti as she challenges Bucko on Brocktree’s behalf. Upon her decisive victory, Fleetscut reminds the Salamandastron-born hares of their duty to the Badger Lords and persuades them and the rest of the army to follow Brocktree, and they all set out for Salamandastron.

Back at the mountain, Trunn is still in charge, but it isn’t exactly what he thought it would be. His massive horde takes quite a bit of feeding, which means they’ve already run through the supplies left by the fleeing hares, and their attempts to collect more food have been wildly unsuccessful because the escaped hares have teamed up with a local tribe of sea otters led by Skipper Brogalaw (“Brog”) to form the Bark Crew, the terror of the bluebottoms. With the Bark Crew harassing and attacking every foraging party, food is low, morale is lower, and mutiny bubbles beneath the surface of every conversation as Trunn and his army slowly starve. Worse – at least from Trunn’s point of view – his nightmares have been growing progressively more frightening, and he becomes obsessed with the badger who stalks his dreams. Desperate for a victory, he tries to fix his Bark Crew problem, but this fails hideously when Brocktree and his army arrive in time to rescue the cornered Bark Crew. As a final insult, the Grand Fragorl deserts, taking a third of the bluebottoms with her; Groddil is already gone, having seized an earlier opportunity to escape, and Trunn’s remaining officers are a victory-killing cocktail of insolence, treachery, and incompetence. Having begun by driving Stonepaw from the mountain, Trunn now finds himself fleeing it, leaving Brocktree in possession.

This is not, of course, the end: Trunn still commands an army of bluebottoms, somewhat reduced and underfed but significantly larger than Brocktree’s army. Knowing that he cannot win on the field, Brocktree challenges Trunn to single combat. Trunn eagerly accepts, but, out of an abundance of caution, arranges for Brocktree’s assassination and his own escape in the event that he loses. Even this final plan is snatched from his paws when Brocktree foils the assassin and snaps Trunn’s spine before throwing him into the sea with due ceremony. Following Trunn’s humiliating defeat, his two remaining officers desert him without a backward glance, and the bluebottom soldiers completely lose whatever fight they had left. With the threat of the blue horde neutralized, Brocktree sets about restoring Salamandastron to its former glory. Word of the new Badger Lord quickly spreads, and young hares flock to the mountain to join the newly created Long Patrol under the command of Patrol General Dotti. At the very end, when he has become no more than a bad memory for those who suffered under his rule, Trunn washes up on the shore just north of Salamandastron, frozen and almost completely paralyzed. He is found by Groddil, who ignores his pleas for help and pushes him back into the sea, then watches as the currents carry him away for good.

I don’t generally side with the vermin (even though under other circumstances I typically root for the bad guys), but I really have to give it to Groddil. That ending was perfect. Groddil is a bit different from the average Redwall villain, in that he has a history and a personality. While there are other minor villains in this series with hearts and minds of their own – Blaggut and Romsca come to mind – the majority of vermin underlings are not really fleshed out in a way that makes them seem like more than sword-wielding plot vehicles. And I’m fine with that, because the side villains are not what I come to this series for, but I do enjoy those smaller antagonists who actually have something to say. I wouldn’t say Groddil is a good creature by any stretch of the imagination, and I somehow doubt that he came from, say, a family of peaceful farmers, but I am glad he gets his revenge against Trunn, who murdered Groddil’s entire family long before the events of the story. After all the abuse inflicted on him, he absolutely deserved to be the one to kill Trunn, even if Brocktree cleared the way for him. I hope he finds a healthy way to recover from his trauma.

In general I would say Lord Brocktree has some of my favorite characters in the series, partly because I love otters and this book has a lot of them. But this book also did a particularly good job with its female characters, especially as it is the first – and, to my knowledge, only – book to feature a female Log a Log. I love the boys, but the girls are my special favorites. I’m not particularly bothered by the nonstop references to Dotti’s physical beauty: (1) it’s part of her personal brand, as she is a self-described fatal beauty; (2) she’s still an ass-kicking badass, and I love that she becomes the first officer of the Long Patrol; and (3) it’s not as obnoxious as it was in The Legend of Luke. I also love Jukka, and it kills me that she dies. I like that she and Fleetscut die as friends, but, like, couldn’t somebody else have kicked the bucket in her place? Why couldn’t we have lost Ripfang instead? I wouldn’t miss Ripfang. (Yes, yes, I know Ripfang has a destiny to fulfill in Mossflower. I know he’s not supposed to die until Boar the Fighter gets his paws on him. All the same, I wouldn’t miss him.)

With that being said, I want to note that Fleetscut is very much not my special favorite, but he could’ve been if he weren’t such a shit around Jukka and her squirrels. Whatever their motives, the squirrels are doing him a pretty hefty favor, and I would’ve liked to see him acknowledge that. While it is true that the squirrels would eventually have been in danger from Trunn and his horde, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to try to keep one’s family and friends out of a fight that is guaranteed to end in death and defeat, and I don’t feel that Fleetscut is entitled to their support, the way he seems to think he is. I also find it slightly odd that he is so thoroughly offended by the squirrels’ habit of stripping their dead enemies. So what if they take some armor and weapons? Dead vermin have no need of either. It’s unclear whether they also strip their dead allies, but, either way, at least they’re not wasteful. Even if Fleetscut and Jukka eventually find their way to an understanding, it’s too little too late. The hostility of their relationship is so completely unnecessary, and I wish they could’ve sorted out their differences without having to die.

This makes me just a little bit sad, because it is the only blemish in a book that is otherwise sheer Redwally perfection. We don’t need the Abbey for the vibes: Lord Brocktree is pure Redwall even though at this point in history Loamhedge Abbey should still be standing. My favorite Redwall books are the ones with the deepest ties to other parts of the series, and on that score at least this book is immaculate. It is chronologically the first book in the series, but one of its greatest charms is its ties to other Redwall books – mostly Mossflower, but also The Long Patrol, even if only briefly. It feels like a solid part of the Redwallverse; it feels like it could plausibly have been written before the books it references. (I am confident that it wasn’t, but it feels like it could have been.) Even if it suffers from the same omniscience-related problem as The Legend of Luke, it’s so well done that I don’t particularly care. I am perfectly content to think that Russano interviewed some psychic creature who really was privy to the internal workings of the days of Ungatt Trunn.

Earlier I said that Jacques has a remarkable ability to keep me hooked with twenty-two books that are all largely the same and I stand by that, but the fact that he can keep pulling the same story-within-a-story device without me getting fed up, especially when the general structure of the stories changes so little from book to book, is nothing short of a miracle. Admittedly a large part of this might have to do with my childhood affection for these books, but it doesn’t matter. I will drop what I’m doing and sit down with the good creatures of Mossflower Woods every time they want to tell me a story, no questions asked. If I could crawl into the world of Redwall and live out the rest of my days as a squirrel, I would do it. The books are not perfect by any means, but they’re cozy and they’re comforting while still giving me a completely excellent adventure, and, in this absolute shitshow of a decade, they are exactly what I need.