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.

Okay, but I’m still going to dislike Outcast, right? This reread has been going so eerily well that it almost feels wrong. I kind of hate to admit it, but I’m already planning to go through the entire series again next year, only in order of series chronology rather than publication date. Yeah, it’s obsessive, but the series has been that good. Salamandastron is the latest in a run of books that were expected to bore me to tears, and it is one of the Redwall books I read more recently, though admittedly “recently” in this case means about eleven years ago. I don’t know what my objections were in 2012, because this book is classic Redwall.

Salamandastron opens with an elderly dormouse telling a fantastical story to an inquisitive molebabe. (I mean, is there any other kind?) The story begins with Ferahgo the Assassin, a blue-eyed weasel at the head of his personal vermin army, which he calls the Corpsemakers. He has just murdered the badgers Urthound and Urthrun, and, with their deaths, has eliminated the last shred of opposition in the Southwest Forest. In the wreckage of the badgers’ den, the Corpsemakers find Urthstripe and Urthwyte, the infant sons of Urthound and Urthrun, but Ferahgo chooses to leave them alive, reasoning that they will die soon enough without their parents. Urthwyte will later be found and raised by Urthound’s mother, Loambudd; Urthstripe, however, disappears. Though he is still dependent on his mother’s milk at the time of her death, he somehow survives to adulthood, and becomes known as Urthstripe the Strong.

Several seasons later, the adult Urthstripe has become the ruler of Salamandastron. With the help of his forty fighting hares, he guards the western shores from vermin, but his greatest challenge comes from his teenaged daughter, Mara, a young badger he adopted when his hares found her wandering and lost. Though they used to be close, their relationship has become estranged as Mara has grown older: Urthstripe’s efforts to raise her as a proper badger lady are not going particularly well, and he has no idea how to handle her loneliness or her boredom. He is at once too harsh and too lenient with her, and all attempts at instilling her with the military discipline required by Salamandastron have thus far failed. She is encouraged in her surly rebellions by her best and only friend, Pikkle Ffolger, a similarly undisciplined hare; however, as they have nowhere else to go (and as Pikkle keeps eating all their food before they can get more than a day away from the mountain), all of their attempts to run away have ended in failure. This changes when they meet Klitch, the son of Ferahgo, who is about their age and bamboozles them both with his dazzling independence. Though Ferahgo is willing to go to any lengths to get to the legendary badger treasure rumored to be stowed somewhere in the vastness of Salamandastron, his plan to use Mara and Pikkle as hostages goes badly awry when Sergeant Sapwood and Big Oxeye of the Long Patrol intervene. While Sapwood and Oxeye act as a diversion, Mara and Pikkle manage to escape, but are unable to return to Salamandastron before it is besieged by the Corpsemaker army.

Miles away in the heart of Mossflower Woods, Redwall Abbey is – per usual – happy and thriving. The Redwallers are now led by Abbess Vale, who assumed the mantle of leadership after Abbot Saxtus passed, but they have not had a resident badger since the death of Mother Mellus. In the absence of a dedicated badgermum, the Abbey’s most battle-ready residents are the otter siblings Thrugg and Thrugann. The rest of the inhabitants feel their lack of a badger Guardian, but get along well enough without; Redwall has seen a long spell of peace since the events of The Bellmaker, and its biggest headaches are currently the well-meaning but trigger-happy squirrel Samkim and his best friend, the molemaid Arula. Despite his habit of practicing archery at bad moments, Samkim begins to receive dreamy visitations from the spirit of Martin the Warrior: Martin has a way of foreseeing danger, and, having chosen Samkim as his next successor, he grants him his own badger-forged sword, which has been strapped to the weathervane at the top of the Abbey since the end of Mariel of Redwall.

As always, Martin has his reasons, but the anticipated danger is largely theoretical until one of the brothers of Redwall is accidentally murdered by dimwitted runaway stoats Dingeye and Thura, who deserted the Corpsemakers and managed to get themselves briefly adopted by the good creatures of Redwall. Immediately after the murder, they steal Martin’s sword and make a run for it, escaping into the woods before the Redwallers can discover their crime. Given his history of carelessly firing arrows all over the place, Samkim is initially blamed for the murder, and, though the accusation is quickly rescinded, he and Arula set out into Mossflower Woods to recover the sword and bring the murderers to justice. Meanwhile, the Abbey’s population is decimated by Dryditch Fever, a seemingly unstoppable plague whose only cure is – according to legend – the Flowers of Icetor that grow in the mountains to the north of Mossflower country. With no other options, Thrugg volunteers to find the flowers. Accompanied by the baby dormouse Dumble, he treks to the mountains with the help of an injured falcon and meets with the eagle king MacPhearsome, who – despite a capricious temper – is not actually a bad fellow. With the cure in paw and a flock of feathery new friends, Dumble and Thrugg return to the Abbey in triumph, and life begins to return to normal.

While Samkim and Arula pursue the sword of Martin and Thrugg and Dumble pursue the Flowers of Icetor, Mara and Pikkle embark upon a long quest to get home, which begins with them meeting a small army of shrews belonging to the Guerrilla Union of South Stream Shrews of Mossflower (Guosssom) and eventually takes them to a remote island in the middle of a sea-like lake. Here they meet Loambudd, Urthwyte, and a crotchety old squirrel named Ashnin, and almost come to blows until they realize that Urthwyte is a rather simple giant who doesn’t like fighting. Upon learning that Urthstripe is alive and in trouble, the three from the island accompany Mara, Pikkle, and the Guosssom on the remainder of their journey. Along the way they pick up Samkim, Arula, and their crew, and they all arrive at Salamandastron in time to find the Corpsemaker army invading the mountain. This is far from Salamandastron’s biggest problem: the invasion might not be so bad if Urthstripe hadn’t put himself out of commission when he sneaked out of a window to take on the Corpsemakers single-pawed, and it might not have happened at all if the hares hadn’t had to dismantle one of their lower barricades in order to drag him back to safety.

In the bloody melee that follows, the shrews take the Corpsemakers from both directions; half attack from the bottom of the mountain, while Urthwyte leads the rest in a brutal climb that carries them all the way up to the lip of Salamandastron’s crater. The tide of the battle takes a decisive downward turn for the Corpsemakers when the injured Urthstripe wakes up and hurls himself to his death from the top of the mountain, taking Ferahgo with him, without ever realizing that his long-lost brother is leading the relief force. Maddened with rage and grief upon his first and only glimpse of his brother alive, Urthwyte goes berserk and smashes the surviving Corpsemakers. Klitch survives the battle by hiding under the bodies of two Corpsemakers, but later makes his way down to the bowels of Salamandastron, where he drinks water that was poisoned earlier by one of Ferahgo’s creatures. He then tries to escape over the top of the mountain, but dies before he can reach safety. In the aftermath of the battle, Mara grieves Urthstripe’s death, bitterly regretting that she did not arrive sooner, and finally acknowledges him as her true father. In accordance with his wishes, Urthstripe is buried in the treasure cave tucked deep within the mountain, where he becomes the guardian spirit of the badgers’ wealth, while Urthwyte becomes the new lord of Salamandastron. Unwilling to stay at Salamandastron, which holds too many sad memories, Mara takes up residence at Redwall as the Abbey’s Guardian badger. The story closes with Burrem, grandson of Arula, being taken off to bed after listening to the now-elderly Dumble’s story.

Looking back, I think I might have disliked Salamandastron because I was still young enough that Mara seemed unbearably bratty. With the benefit of distance and age, I can confidently tell my younger self to go jump in a lake. Mara and Pikkle might not be the best-behaved, but they’re really good kids. I am slightly bothered by Urthwyte’s sudden transition from simple peace-lover to full-blown badger lord; however, I expect he will still retain his general simplicity, and he also has his tough-as-nails grandma to advise him, so that might be part of the reason for the change. I feel like I say this with every Redwall review, but the characters and the vibe are really what make this series. If the characters are somewhat archetypal and the stories all follow the same outline, it doesn’t bother me the way it would in other series. Consistency is perhaps Redwall’s greatest charm, because I know I can expect both globe-trotting adventures and cozy homebody vibes from every Redwall book. Friendship is the biggest theme in each story, excepting of course the vermin, who are uniformly villainous. Even if I’m not comfortable with the growing push towards villainizing every member of every verminous species, I love that the series is forgiving in other ways. In this particular book, the shrew Tubgutt starts as an antagonist, but he has a complete change of heart after Mara saves his life and he goes on to become one of her most loyal friends, and I love it.

If there’s one thing I would love to see from this series – and that I don’t remember ever seeing, but this is only book five so I’m still holding out on a flimsy hope – it is a vermin soldier, preferably one whose crimes aren’t too bad, who has a genuine change of heart upon being taken in by Redwall. Had it not been for the murder, Dingeye and Thura might actually have filled this role. They weren’t completely unreasonable. I really, really, really want a reformed former searat or something who fully integrates with Abbey life, who learns to love baths and helps out in the kitchen of their own accord and uses their experience to defend the Abbey from assault and becomes the Dibbuns’ favorite storyteller. I want their descendants to grow up happily and cleanly, far from the influences of other vermin and loved by their fellow Redwallers. I want to know that the vermin are not villainous solely because they are vermin. Jacques comes close to this idea in The Bellmaker with the searat Blaggut, who turns on his former captain and takes up an honest life (and is, in fact, a favorite with a couple of the Dibbuns), but this isn’t completely satisfactory because he ends up living in a cave far from the Abbey. He chooses this cave for himself and he does become a trusted friend of the Redwallers, but I have always wished he could have stayed at Redwall. And, as far as I know, Blaggut is wholly unique in this respect. I can’t name any other vermin character who turns their life so completely around.

My other issue – albeit very small, and possibly not even serious enough to be an issue – is the growing power of Martin the Warrior as a quasi-religious influence. Martin is one of the founding members of the Abbey, its first Champion and its most beloved Warrior even from the grave. His spirit regularly visits several characters throughout the series, sometimes offering guidance and/or extremely accurate prophesies and sometimes just straight up saving their lives, whether they’re officially affiliated with the Abbey or not. At this point in the series, he has saved the life of Rawnblade Widestripe in Mariel of Redwall, and he has been a major factor in bringing Samkim and Mara together as friends. Now on the one hand, that’s lovely. I love the idea of Martin as this guardian spirit, not really a god but revered like one, who watches over the Abbey and its friends. I like that he lets them know when they’re heading for trouble and also tells them how to get out of it, and that he does all this without ever demanding any sort of tribute. He is loved but not worshipped, which to me is an important distinction. He genuinely has the Abbey’s best interests at heart, and he never wavers in his mission to protect the good.

On the other hand, I have some slight beef with Martin. I don’t think Brother Hal absolutely had to die. Yes, his death leads to the theft of the sword and is the catalyst that pushes Samkim and Arula out the door and eventually puts them into Mara’s path, and yes, this fateful meeting is crucial in Mara’s decision to take up residence in Redwall, and I could even argue that Mara and Urthwyte might not have been able to take Salamandastron without the extra Guosssom recruited by Samkim. A lot of things proceed from this death. But would it really have changed the course of history if Martin had maybe told Brother Hal to duck? This is my problem with the whole “He has a plan, trust the process!” mindset, in our world as much as in Martin’s, because I think Martin’s time would have been better spent protecting one life rather than arranging for the surviving friends to pursue a vengeful track that ultimately served a larger goal. The stoats could have missed their shot and still have fled into the woods with the sword to escape retribution. Samkim and Arula could still have gone after them to retrieve the sword, and things could have proceeded exactly as they do, except that Brother Hal would still be alive – though of course he might then have died slowly of the Dryditch Fever, so maybe, all things considered, Martin was actually doing him a solid. I don’t know how strong Martin’s prophetic skills are; I don’t know if he could have foreseen the arrival of the Fever or if he knew enough to see the inciting factor in Samkim’s and Arula’s quest, though he certainly knew enough to predict Mara’s arrival at the Abbey.

Would it be nice to have more transparency around Martin’s actual post-grave abilities? I don’t know that either. Right now my feeling is that Martin has just the right amount of mysticism: unknown enough to be intriguingly mysterious, strong enough to intervene in times of crisis, gentle enough to inspire trust, both in the characters and in the readers. I don’t have a raging need to know more. Even if I’ve just spent a paragraph nitpicking one of his iffier decisions, I always feel better when Martin shows up. He walks in spirit beside the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the creatures he knew in life, passing the torch to each successive generation and often encouraging the unlikeliest warriors, coaxing them into the best versions of themselves. Even if he was never officially the Abbey leader, he is the most trusted figure in Redwall history. We don’t always deserve him, but he is absolutely the hero we need. He always has been.

Of course, having finished book five, I am now looking at book six, which is Martin the Warrior, and I know it’s going to ruin my life and plow my optimism right into the ground. (Lovingly.) Wish me luck.