Martin the Warrior
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.
Welp. In my last Redwall review I said Martin the Warrior was going to ruin my life and plow my optimism into the ground, and I was not wrong. I first read this book in middle school – in fact, I think it was the first Redwall book I ever read, which is why it has a stranglehold on my heart – but, even though I have read it more times than I can remember, the ending destroys me every time. I’m pretty sure it made me cry long before I really got going on the whole I-cry-over-books thing, and this reread was no exception.
Martin the Warrior opens on a wintry afternoon during the reign of Abbot Saxtus. The continuity is slightly odd – otter twins Bagg and Runn, along with their mole friend Grubb, are still very young while Saxtus is older than he probably should be – but my best guess is that it falls midway between Mariel of Redwall and The Bellmaker. The uneventful winter is livened by the arrival of Aubretia and Bultip, a mouse and a hedgehog who travel to the Abbey from the distant community of Noonvale. They arrive at a very good time: the Redwallers’ primary wintertime activities are eating, sleeping, and storytelling, but they have told all of their own stories a thousand times over and are eager for new material. After the customary feast, all repair to Cavern Hole, where the Redwallers request a story and get more than they ever dreamed of when Aubretia begins to tell them about the early life of their hero and co-founder, Martin the Warrior.
Many seasons before the founding of the Abbey, the northern lands are terrorized by a ruthless stoat calling himself Badrang the Tyrant. He starts his career as a corsair, but eventually decides to settle down in one place. Backed by a horde of ruthless killers, he drives a column of slaves to the northeast coast and forces them to build the fortress that will come to be known as Marshank. Among his slaves are Martin, son of Luke the Warrior, whose sword Badrang stole; Felldoh, a squirrel; and Keyla, an otter. There are many others, of course, but these three become the faces of the growing rebellion as Martin and Felldoh begin to defy Badrang and his minions. When Martin defends Felldoh’s elderly father Barkjon against slavemaster Hisk, Badrang orders him tied to the top of the gates of Marshank as a snack for the seabirds; however, fate intervenes in the form of Laterose (“Rose”), daughter of Urran Voh and Aryah of Noonvale, and her mole friend Grumm Trencher. One thing leads to another, and Rose and Grumm manage to free Martin, Felldoh, and Rose’s wayward younger brother Brome, for whose sake they came to Marshank in the first place.
The escape goes off without a hitch until Marshank is attacked by the corsair Captain Tramun Josiah Cuttlefish Clogg, another stoat with a mighty grudge against Badrang. While Badrang sets fire to Clogg’s ship and Clogg takes a battering ram to the gates of Marshank, Martin and his friends manage to steal one of Clogg’s longboats and put out to sea, but find that Badrang’s soldiers have already knocked a hole in it to prevent the corsairs from escaping. The boat completely falls apart during their getaway, and Felldoh and Brome are swept away from the others, washing up on an unfamiliar patch of shore. Here they are adopted by the Rambling Rosehip Players, a troupe of itinerant actors led by a hare named Ballaw de Quincewold and a badger named Rowanoak. The kind-hearted Rosehips volunteer to help Felldoh and Brome free the rest of the slaves, and, though it takes a couple of tries, they do manage to get all of them out, leaving Marshank completely without any kind of labor force aside from Clogg, who is enslaved by Badrang following an ill-conceived attempt to take over Marshank. Despite their successes, Felldoh’s rage continues to grow, until he finally goes back to Marshank alone to challenge Badrang. Badrang quickly loses the fight and gets beaten to a pulp by his former slave, but manages to survive when his soldiers combine to take Felldoh down. The Rosehips arrive too late to save him, and are shortly trapped themselves when Badrang’s horde cuts off their every escape route.
Farther along the same coast, Martin, Rose, and Grumm are enslaved almost upon arrival by a tribe of pigmy shrews. Fortunately, their captivity is short: the shrew queen grants them their freedom after Martin saves the life of her bratty son, and even lets him keep her sword. Accompanied by Pallum, a hedgehog who has served the pigmy shrews for most of his life, they strike out for Noonvale, hoping to bring back reinforcements against Marshank. Their journey is not without its perils – they run afoul of cannibal lizards and a violent tribe of squirrels known as the Gawtrybe – but there are also moments of sweetness: Martin and Rose begin to fall in love, and the group befriends a mole named Polleekin and a short-eared owl named Boldred, both of whom prove to be instrumental in their quest. Bolstered by an army of otters, shrews, hedgehogs, and squirrels, they return to Marshank in time to rescue the Rosehip Players, but their euphoric victory turns bitter in a heartbeat when Badrang kills Rose. Martin is unable to save her, and, though he kills Badrang and reclaims his father’s sword, he is never quite the same. Knowing he can never return to Noonvale, which holds too many memories, Martin chooses to wander south instead. His wanderings will take him far from the north, eventually leading him to Mossflower Woods, where he will defeat the wildcat Tsarmina with a badger-forged sword made from a fallen star and begin to make his way into mouse lore as one of the greatest warriors who ever lived – but that is another story. At the end of all things Badrang-related, Clogg giddily sets to work burying the dead, half insane and completely alone as the sole survivor of Marshank.
Back at the Abbey in the present day, Aubretia’s story concludes after a night and a day. Bultip reveals that Aubretia is a direct descendant of Brome, while he himself is a descendant of Pallum. Having grown up hearing travelers’ stories about Martin and Redwall, Aubretia and Bultip made the long journey from Noonvale to see the Abbey for themselves, bringing with them a cutting from the rose planted over Rose’s grave. Nurtured by the creatures of Redwall, the rose will become one of the symbols of the Abbey, a memorial to Rose as much as the Great Hall tapestry is a memorial to Martin. In time, its bloomings will grow more symbolic, as during the Summer of the Late Rose, when it only blooms after the defeat of Cluny the Scourge. All of that is in the future, however, and for now the story ends with Saxtus inviting Aubretia and Bultip to stay at the Abbey for as long as they like: the doors are always open, and Redwall is a friend to all.
I have loved all six of the Redwall books I’ve reread thus far, but Martin the Warrior marks the first addition to my deserted island list. It remains one of my favorite Redwall books of all time. Am I slightly annoyed at the old-fashioned emphasis on the physical beauty of the younger female characters? Yes, I am. But this particular irritant is characteristic of the Redwall books in general, and, while I don’t think it’s necessary, neither is it a strike against this specific book. That being said, any time Jacques wants to stop making every young female character appallingly pretty is just fine with me. (A little late now, I know. I’m just putting that thought out there into the universe.) I wouldn’t say it’s offensive or detrimental to the story, it’s just a distraction that gets steadily more grating over time. I am grateful, however, that there are no breathless descriptions of these pulchritudinous rodents. The most description we get is when the soft fur and white teeth of the pretty fieldmouse Cornflower are briefly mentioned in Redwall; otherwise Jacques is more restrained. I am also glad that such beauty is not the subject of any contest. The female characters are not pitted against each other, though some are pointedly described as beautiful while others are not. Physical beauty is sometimes a distraction for the male characters, but exclusively for comic relief: in Mariel of Redwall, for instance, the pretty squirrel Treerose has a way of setting the young mice topsy-turvy. I suppose we can think of it more as observation than judgment – I can’t think of a single Redwall character who wastes even just a second wishing she were prettier.
On the other hand, I can’t really hold such observations against the books, because the female characters are not treated as decoration. They are actual characters with minds and abilities of their own. The plot would suffer if you replaced Rose with a sexy lamp. I swear I cry every time she dies. Even if she’s not a warrior, she is competent in other ways, and she’s tough as hell. When we first meet her, she single-handedly drives off the seabirds attacking Martin. I have no hesitation in saying that he would’ve been bird chow without her. During the final battle, she goes up against a known murderer armed with nothing but a sling and actually beats the crap out of him before he kills her, like, holy shit I want whatever they’re drinking at Noonvale. I don’t believe for a second that she genuinely expected to kill him by herself, but she went for it and I respect the shit out of that. While I wish she had had more of a role outside of supporting her boyfriend and her brother, that’s not really the point of the book. It isn’t Rose the Warrior. (But also, sign me up for that book.) Aside from Rose, Rowanoak is also wonderful, though admittedly I am a sucker for badass badger ladies; and I don’t even mind Celandine, a frivolous – and, it goes without saying, pretty – squirrel actress. She’s a bit shallow, but she owns it, and she at least has the sense to get off her tail and run if pirates are coming after her. Nor is she useless: she was one of the ones pushing the Rosehips’ cart when they were fleeing Marshank with a bunch of runaway slaves in tow. Long story short, her frivolity is a function of her character and is not indicative of the general treatment of Redwall women, and I have no objections.
I will say that Martin the Warrior is possibly the saddest book in the series, aside from The Legend of Luke. That can’t entirely be helped: anything to do with Martin, exactly as he was before he became an icon for generations of young woodlanders, is bound to have a more serious tone, though I can’t really put my finger on why. It’s not that the other books don’t feature betrayal and murder and the loss of family and friends. They do. Such tragedies are a fairly standard feature of Redwall books. But for some reason Martin and Luke hit harder, perhaps because their protagonists have had so little happiness in their lives compared to other Redwall warriors. And, of course, Martin does eventually find happiness with the discovery of new friends and the founding of Redwall, but it takes him a while to get there and it’s not the same without all of the older friends who should be there, but aren’t.
I don’t mean to suggest that Martin is not a creature of destiny, somewhat along the lines of the brave but frequently ill-fated Badger Lords. Everything happens for a reason, at least in the Redwallverse, and I can’t really argue with that. It’s just that there will always be this teeny-tiny little corner of me that wishes that Rose could have gone to Mossflower too.