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.

Well that escalated quickly. I was originally planning to do one giant review for the entire Redwall series because to be perfectly honest I wasn’t wild about the idea of my blog getting cluttered with Redwall reviews, but I know myself well, and I know perfectly well that there are a few problems with keeping everything in one massive post: (1) it’ll never get done if I have to wait till I’ve read every book to write the post because I’m going to forget things, and I also can’t guarantee that I’ll stay focused long enough to read the whole series this year; (2) if I take notes as I’m going, then the draft of the post will sit in my drafts folder for at least the next several months with no obvious end in sight, and that’ll annoy the fertilizer out of me; (3) I talk too much. Therefore, I am going to fill up my blog with Redwall books. I added a new category for children’s literature specifically because of this project. I may be having some slight regrets, but we won’t discuss that.

Anyway: Hello, and welcome to the first of my projected 20+ Redwall reviews, though it might actually be more like 18 reviews because I have extremely negative memories of the final five books and those might get bundled into one review at the end. If you’re worried that my front page is going to be flooded with reviews about mice and hares for the rest of the year, don’t be: the reviews will not be posted back to back because they most definitely won’t be written back to back, so there’s going to be some space from book to book. The good news is that I won’t run out of things to read in a hurry because there are 22 books in this series, starting with Redwall, the book that lured an entire generation into the world of Talking About Food. I will note that the food in this particular book doesn’t actually sound that great – it is essentially the pilot episode, and it was written before Jacques’s world-building really took off – but it is a stepping stone to the rest of the series, and it is still important.

Set in the heart of Mossflower Woods, Redwall is the story of Matthias, a young mouse (teenager-equivalent) hoping to be accepted into the order of mice who run Redwall Abbey. Named for the red sandstone with which it was built, Redwall was founded countless generations ago by the last surviving members of Loamhedge Abbey. They were driven from their home by a terrible plague, but gradually made their way north to Mossflower country. The order has since grown considerably, and the present-day Abbey is home to mice, squirrels, badgers, voles, otters, and more. Redwall mice are known throughout the general region for their healing skills and hospitality, both of which are offered freely to anyone in need; and they also use their bell, called the Joseph Bell, to warn non-residents of danger and offer sanctuary, though lately this hasn’t been necessary.

In the absence of genuine adversity, Matthias is the only Abbey inhabitant who grows up longing to become a warrior in the style of Martin the Warrior, one of the founding members of the Abbey and its best-known champion. War is a distant memory confined to history books and any kind of strife is unknown in this time, but Martin is memorialized through an elaborately woven tapestry that hangs in the Great Hall of the Abbey, from where it inspires would-be warriors and gives the more peaceful inhabitants a sense of identity and pride. This season – called the Summer of the Late Rose owing to the still-awaited blooming of Redwall’s roses – is particularly unwarlike, with the result that almost no one is ready to take any sort of threat seriously. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other things that need doing: there are fish to be caught and berries to be gathered, feasts to be given and new friends to be made. Matthias becomes quietly attracted to a pretty fieldmouse named Cornflower, and vice versa, and everything seems just peachy.

Into the middle of this season of peace and prosperity comes Cluny the Scourge, a giant rat with one eye, an unusually large tail, and a bad attitude. He arrives in Mossflower country at the head of an army of 500 rats gathered from various corners of the world, and, taking the Abbey for an easy target run by bumpkins, settles his horde in the neighboring St. Ninian’s Church in advance of attempting to negotiate with Abbey leadership. Negotiations go badly, leading to all-out war as the woodlanders fight to defend their Abbey while Cluny fights to maintain his reputation as the most fearsome rat in history. With the help of the ferrets, weasels, and stoats he recruits on-site, Cluny cycles through a number of plans to conquer the Abbey, from a battering ram to a siege tower to a tunnel, but he is thwarted by the woodlanders at every turn. His officers are both incompetent and easy to kill – either by their official enemies or by jealous rivals – and they drop like flies and are quickly replaced by others of even more dubious competence. Cluny himself comes very close to dying after being kicked off a makeshift bridge by Constance, the large badger who has been the bane of Cluny’s army since the moment they laid eyes on her; but life finds a way, and he recovers under the care of Sela the vixen, a gypsy fox from a local tribe, and her son Chickenhound. Sela, of course, has plans of her own, and she attempts to sell Cluny’s secrets to the Abbey, which backfires spectacularly when Cluny orders her and Chickenhound’s executions.

While Cluny deals with a conquest, a fraying army, and two treacherous foxes, Matthias works with the elderly Abbey recorder, Methuselah, to find the lost sword of Martin the Warrior. Fortunately, Martin foresaw both Matthias’s birth and Cluny’s invasion, and, as he had no heirs, he named Matthias his successor and left him clues to help him find the sword. The quest takes Matthias from the secret catacombs beneath the Abbey to the attic court run by the Sparra, a warlike clan of sparrows, and eventually into the surrounding forest. Along the way he befriends Warbeak, a young sparrow warrior who will go on to become the queen of the Sparra, and later meets the Guerrilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower (Guosim), who argue a lot but do eventually help him recover the sword from the giant adder who stole it from the sparrows, who stole it from the Abbey in the first place. (I promise it makes sense when you read it.) Buoyed by the success of his quest and backed by an army of shrews and sparrows, Matthias returns to the Abbey in time to challenge Cluny, who has finally made it past the front gates and onto Abbey grounds. After a final, bloody battle, Matthias severs the rope holding the Joseph Bell and drops it directly on top of Cluny, killing him instantly. The woodlanders win a decisive victory, but it is bittersweet: Methuselah is already gone, and Abbot Mortimer, leader of the Abbey, was mortally wounded by Cluny just before Matthias’s return. With his dying breaths, Mortimer tells the sparrows and the shrews that they will always have a home at the Abbey, then names Matthias Champion of Redwall and encourages him to marry Cornflower. Aided by their new friends, the Abbey residents begin to set their home to rights, bolstered by the blooming of the late rose. In a brief epilogue a year on, the new Abbey recorder details the residents’ activities over the past year and tells us that the Joseph Bell – which split in two when it encountered Cluny’s skull – has been recast into two smaller bells, named Matthias and Methuselah.

It really is amazing what sticks with you. Going into this reread, I thought I would remember almost none of it, but each little detail came back to me as I was reading, and – more surprisingly – the recovered memories were accurate. The last time I read this must have been in high school at the latest, but it was like I had a little lantern with me, illuminating the path as I went, even if I couldn’t see the full picture all at once. It was very pleasant. While Redwall was never my favorite of the series and thus was not reread as frequently as, say, Lord Brocktree, I was pleased to see that it never truly left me. And I truly had forgotten how much I love this series, from the characters to the setting to the food. As I say, this was written before the world of Mossflower really took off, so there are some inconsistencies between this book and the rest of the series – the language is slightly more religious, as there are multiple references to Hell and the Devil, and the order of Redwall is a little more exclusive than I remember it being – but it is an excellent entry point for any reader. The grim realities of Cluny’s conquest are balanced by a delightful humor as much as by the kindness of the Redwallers, who still try to carry out their mission of providing assistance to all even in the midst of war, even if “all” is a category that includes the half-dead fox at their gates. (About that half-dead fox: he’ll be important in Mattimeo.) Yet their kindness never makes them helpless or weak, and, when it comes down to it, they understand perfectly well that in this war it is kill or be killed, and that one is far preferable to the other.

The thing is, it’s a bit of a bummer sometimes when you’re an adult reading things you loved as a child, and this happened to be one of those times. I have some questions that I don’t think even Jacques would be able to answer, even supposing I was able to summon his spirit with a bowl of meadowcream. Foremost among these questions: exactly how big are these characters? Growing up, I always pictured them as human-equivalent. So did my youngest brother. Our mother pictured them as their actual real-world size, which does make the most sense and is supported by such details as acorn-sized cups but doesn’t quite fit with the information we are given in the book. My first problem is Cluny’s grand entrance, which is made in a haycart pulled by a terrified horse. A haycart doesn’t seat 501 people, let alone 501 human-sized rats. This suggests that the rats are rat-sized, or it would if the horse were not scared out of its wits. (I mean, I suppose I’d be slightly worried about 501 talking rats, but I would buy into this terror more if the rats were human-sized.) The haycart is described as driverless, but a rat-sized rat could not drive a haycart, which suggests that either the rats are human-sized, or humans exist in this iteration of the world of Mossflower.

Later, Jess the squirrel climbs onto the roof of the Abbey, battling strong gusts of wind to do so. A mouse-sized Abbey would not be tall enough for Jess to be battered by the elements. It wouldn’t reach above the level of the trees; it wouldn’t need to, particularly as the sandstone used to build the Abbey was hand-quarried a significant distance from the building site. But on the other hand, the mice have access to cauldrons that are capable of holding several gallons of water, as we learn when they destroy Cluny’s tunnel, and they also regularly gather mushrooms and berries and carry them around in baskets, which would almost certainly not be possible at their real-world size; but on the other other hand, if the mice are more or less the size of humans, then the birds of prey would be the size of dragons, and would therefore be unsustainable if we are also assuming that the trees are at their usual scale. Every time I think it’s one way, I immediately think of something else that disproves me.

This is the point where my mother informed me that I was overthinking things a bit and that the mice are mice and the birds are birds, but it bugs me, mama. Taken together, all of the above suggests to me that we are in an alternate universe in which mice are mice and birds are birds, but their environment is scaled in such a way that the mice – and various other woodland creatures, I mean, let’s be inclusive here – still interact with the world the way humans do, e.g., by gathering berries and mushrooms that are an appropriate size to be carried around in mouse-sized baskets. Horses only ever make an appearance in this one book, as far as I recall; likewise haycarts. Obviously the real explanation is that Jacques probably hadn’t decided if humans were going to make an appearance in this world at the time that he wrote Redwall, so he left the door open but later began to lean more heavily into the animals-only angle, which I feel was the right decision. I don’t want humans mucking up this world. We’ve made enough of a mess of our own world. All the same, the inconsistency is jarring, and it continues at least through Mossflower. It remains to be seen whether this will bother me for the rest of the series.

In general I feel that this particular printing has been very poorly edited, which I don’t quite remember being the case from my earlier readings, though of course at that time I hadn’t yet got my editor’s eyes in. The bulk of the words are spelled right and the grammar and punctuation are mostly fine, but there is a rather glaring issue with the ambiguously gendered ferret Killconey, who is mostly male but sometimes referred to as female. I am assuming that Killconey was supposed to be male, but, again, this is something that should have been caught by any halfway competent editor. I have completely discounted the possibility that there are two Killconeys, one of each gender, unless Jacques genuinely intended to have two ferrets with exaggerated Irish accents who frequently talk about their old mothers and are experienced tunnelers and never appear together in the same scene. If anyone can provide me with proof that this is the case, I will drop my objection immediately and unconditionally.

Ultimately and as usual, everything I’ve discussed above is a distraction from the actual story, which is lovely. I am a sucker for stories about woodland creatures living their lives and banding together against common threats (yes, really), and, well, Jacques obligingly provided me with 22 such stories, so I can’t really complain. While I do take issue with the assumption that creatures from specific species are inherently “bad” or more naturally inclined to villainy than the honest woodlanders, this idea hasn’t quite taken root yet. It will become more entrenched over time, and with each successive book; I seem to remember that Outcast of Redwall was a particularly egregious example. And that’s not to say that there aren’t also bad woodlanders, but they are far fewer in number, and I can tell you that the number of good vermin is even smaller than the number of genuinely bad woodlanders, whose population I can count on one hand. That’s a bridge I’ll cross when I come to it: my memory of the series is far from perfect, and it may yet surprise me. Regardless, Redwall and its successors all still have a mansion in my heart, and I am excited to revisit the rest of the series.