Outcast of Redwall
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.
Yep, I still hate Outcast. More specifically, I hate that Skarlath dies, I hate Veil’s attitude, I hate the burden Bella and Meriam place upon Bryony, and I really hate that after everything he did, this book still made me cry when Veil died. (Those are slightly different reasons than the ones that made me hate it the first time I read it. But they are more articulate and more accurate, because during my first read I was a child, and all my thoughts boiled down to “I hate Veil.”) Oddly enough, I find this consistency reassuring: even if I have been unexpectedly loving the books I disdained as a child, at least I’ll always hate Outcast.
Outcast of Redwall is predominantly the story of the enmity between the Badger Lord Sunflash the Mace and the six-clawed ferret warlord Swartt Sixclaw. Born to Bella of Brockhall, Sunflash goes wandering long before even the events of Mossflower, but is later enslaved by Swartt. His fortunes change dramatically when he is able to free both himself and a young kestrel named Skarlath, whom Swartt caught unawares. He was so small when he left home that he no longer remembers his own name, but adopts the name Sunflash at Skarlath’s suggestion, owing to his golden head stripe. (Whatever anyone else says, he is definitely the prettiest Badger Lord.) Skarlath manages to talk Sunflash out of going after Swartt immediately, and they instead spend some time harassing Swartt’s band, picking them off and then vanishing before they can be caught. Sunflash also begins to gain a reputation as a savior, and songs are written about his heroic exploits as he stands up to bullies and protects the defenseless wherever he goes. After several seasons of guerrilla warfare, a fed-up Swartt finally deposes the warlord Bowfleg, a former ally of sorts, and uses his horde to bolster his own band, armoring himself against Sunflash’s wrath. To his own surprise, and in accordance with warlord tradition, he also acquires a wife: Bowfleg’s daughter Bluefen is given to him in marriage, though she never speaks and he barely notices her. As time goes on, Swartt continues to nurse a steady grudge against the golden-striped badger who permanently lamed his famous six-clawed paw during his escape, and he becomes obsessed with revenge.
Long seasons pass, and eventually Sunflash and Skarlath befriend a group of moles and hedgehogs, whom they rescue from a family of foxes. They are invited to stay for as long as they like, and find that they enjoy the domestic life: Sunflash discovers a love of farming, while Skarlath learns to make cheese. Though they find peace with their new friends, Sunflash’s thoughts begin to turn towards the mountain Salamandastron, as well as to the mother he never really knew, and he finally sets out to find the mountain of his forefathers. Upon arrival, he befriends the hares who have been waiting for him and makes several surprising improvements, from creating a handful of jobs out of thin air to covering the mountain with gardens to introducing the concept of afternoon tea. (The hares love him.) Meanwhile, Swartt – now a warlord, a widower, and the father of an infant he never bothered to name – spends several more seasons thrashing around the countryside looking for Salamandastron himself, because apparently it’s really hard to find a giant mountain sticking out of the beach and I did not know that. He and his horde come perilously close to Redwall Abbey during their wanderings but are quickly redirected by a band of squirrels and otters, and finally make their way to the shores of Salamandastron, abandoning his infant son. Left in a ditch, the baby is soon found by the Redwallers, who take him back to the Abbey.
The Abbey has come a long way since Abbess Germaine started the initial sketches in Mossflower. It is now inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founders, and it also still has Bella, one of the original founders and the Abbey’s first badgermum. The elderly Bella provides guidance to the current Abbess, Meriam, and it is the pair of them who first receive Swartt’s forgotten son when he is brought to the gates of Redwall. Despite their private misgivings, they delegate him to the young mouse Bryony (literally child-equivalent, so maybe about eight or nine in human years, what in the cinnamon toast fuck were they thinking, can you tell I am furious about this). Tasked with Veil’s upbringing, Bryony embraces motherhood wholeheartedly and doggedly defends him against the vast majority of Redwallers, who consider him untrustworthy. It is unclear whether they distrust him solely on account of his species because he is undeniably the son of Swartt Sixclaw, and he takes after him in the worst ways possible. His childhood is marred by a series of increasingly serious crimes, which culminate in his attempt to murder Friar Bunfold. Bryony tries to defend him, insisting that she can still change him, but Meriam realizes that Veil can no longer be reformed, and she banishes him from the Abbey. Having nowhere else to go, Veil sets out in search of the father he never knew. Bryony follows him, intending to bring him back to live with her outside of Redwall, which will theoretically enable her to prove to the Redwallers that he really does have a good heart. Her mole friend Togget tags along, but their rescue plan does not go particularly well, and, though they manage to talk to Veil a couple of times, he always runs away from them.
Back at Salamandastron, Sunflash and Swartt wage war upon each other, but neither gets close to killing the other. When Sunflash and his hares are joined by a force of otters and squirrels, who completely smash the bulk of Swartt’s army, Swartt and his surviving bandmembers flee the battle. Along the way they enrage Sunflash further by killing Skarlath, who was helping to coordinate attacks against them, and he pursues them all the way to the nearby mountains. Here Swartt meets his long-lost son, who has gotten thoroughly lost on his way to Salamandastron. Their reunion never gets off the ground: Swartt is no more interested in his son than he was when Veil was first born, and Veil is openly disappointed with his negligent father. Nevertheless, he tags along out of sheer spite, and thus is present when Swartt finally manages to capture Sunflash and drag him to the top of the mountain. Unbeknownst to both ferrets, Sunflash befriended Bryony and Togget on his way up the mountain, and they grow concerned when he doesn’t come back. Upon finding Sunflash captive on the mountaintop, Bryony frees him; Swartt tries to kill her, but Veil throws himself in front of the spear that was meant for her. While Sunflash kills Swartt, Bryony holds Veil as he dies, though he berates her with his final breaths. When all is said and done, Sunflash returns to Redwall with Bryony and Togget, where he meets his mother for the first time since he left Brockhall. (Real talk: this book could just as easily have been called How I Met My Mother.)
Now. I actually loved this book in most respects, where “most” is a euphemism for “the parts that didn’t include Veil.” Sunflash might just have become my favorite Badger Lord of all time. I had forgotten that he prizes farming and peace above war, and, though he does suffer from the traditional badger Bloodwrath, he is happiest when he is making things grow, cooking good food, and spending time with his friends, particularly if they have little ones. When faced with a crotchety cook during his first week at Salamandastron, he calmly talks him down, and, after a gentle conversation, appoints the former cook to a position much more suited to his interests. Later in life, he changes his name to Sunstripe because it sounds less violent. He is such a gentle giant, and I wish him long seasons of peace and happiness. Of course it would have been better if Skarlath had been alive enough to share in those seasons of peace and happiness hellsteeth I am still so mad that he dies that was so unnecessary literally just let him be alive and eat cheese. Aside from Sunflash himself, I also love his otter buddies, the cheerful bachelors Folrig and Ruddle, and I love that he is able to live at the Abbey during his mother’s final seasons, even though I have serious beef with Bella. Overall I found this book more cohesive and more satisfying than The Bellmaker, and I don’t regret rereading it.
The problem is that Veil’s story hasn’t gotten any more compelling than it was when I was in middle school. If I didn’t exactly hate Bryony as a child, I didn’t love her either, because she gets so stuck on Veil that I ended up blaming her for most of the problems I had with the book. I wasn’t old enough to understand what her own guardians had done to her in making her Veil’s sole caretaker, and the single point of contact for Abbeydwellers who happen to have any sort of grievance with him. As an adult, I am so angry that Bella and Meriam thought it was a good idea to stick her with a lifelong task that they knew would be difficult, if not impossible, from the beginning. There’s no real logic to this decision, other than the clear fact that neither of them can be bothered to do it themselves, or to find someone more suitable. It makes me furious that Bella suspected that Veil wouldn’t turn out well, but she set Bryony up for failure anyway while offering zero material support.
I cannot overstate this: Bryony is a child. Of course she doesn’t handle Veil’s upbringing well: he is a difficult charge, and she is too young to be raising anybody. I don’t know if anyone in the Abbey would have been equipped to deal with Veil, and it was unreasonable to expect Bryony to do well. Worse, Bella and Meriam are directly responsible for the dangerous quest she undertakes, because they impress upon her – again, when she is at an impressionable age – that Veil is her responsibility without fully understanding how seriously she will take that responsibility. Even if they try to encourage her to let him go after he poisons Bunfold, the damage has already been done. It’s no good shutting the barn door after the horse has gone. As for Veil himself, he is what he is, and what he is is his father’s son. I can’t blame him for that any more than I can blame Bryony for her infuriating refusal to accept reality in the face of all evidence. However, I very much can blame the grown-ups who for some reason absolved themselves of any form of responsibility. I don’t care if they’re old and tired. They cannot possibly have been too tired to find a better solution, because almost any solution would have been better than the one they found.
And, in the end, I don’t know if Veil’s turn towards good was genuine. I don’t have enough faith in him to believe that he truly wanted to protect Bryony; it seems more likely to me that he saw that his father wanted her dead, and he disliked his father enough to oppose whatever he was trying to do. Having spent half of the book watching him push Bryony away while also taking advantage of her love for him, I don’t think he would have jumped in front of her if he’d known he would end up taking the spear that was meant for her. I don’t know if, as his final words lightly suggest, he tried to drive her away after his expulsion because he wanted to keep her away from the chaos that follows him everywhere. If this is the case, it’s a hard sell. As Bryony says herself, Veil never performs a single act of kindness. I can believe that he might have had the slightest hint of affection for Bryony, who is the only mother he ever knows and the only Redwaller who is consistently on his side, but I find it hard to believe that he would so suddenly discover a core of goodness at such a convenient time. As Wuntch says when she sees deodorant, I’m not buying it.
My strongest feeling is that Veil’s story did not need to happen. I don’t think it added anything to the Redwallverse; certainly it didn’t improve woodlander-vermin relations. The thing is, I don’t know what we’re supposed to have learned. You could technically say it’s a story that explores nature vs. nurture and the (eventual) triumph of good over evil, but – as Bryony also says – the world is a better place without either Swartt or Veil. What, then, was the point of all this? If we have a character who has been failed by both his nature and his nurturers, what is the closing argument? Are we supposed to go forward understanding that a loving caretaker is not necessarily a good parent in other ways, and that an affectionate upbringing is not always effective when faced with almost the literal spawn of Satan? Or is Veil’s story merely a springboard for Bryony to mature enough to become Meriam’s successor, which is arguably worse?
I have no idea where Jacques was going with any of this, but I’m willing to bet that what I read wasn’t in the same neighborhood as what he intended. Maybe his point was merely that little corners of goodness can be found anywhere and in anyone, even if it isn’t obvious from their general behavior, but that such people do not always deserve a second chance. This seems like an odd message for a children’s book, particularly in a series that prizes friendship, community, and redemption – except for vermin, of course. Or maybe it’s just a story, and there was no point. Either way, I’m glad Veil doesn’t make a reappearance in later books, and that this is – as far as I remember – the only vermin-related experiment in the series. Jacques tried, but it didn’t work, and maybe that’s for the better.