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.

I miss Cregga already. I have read Taggerung multiple times and thus am familiar with the ending, but it was still a blow, and I am not okay. (Oh, and Vallug still sucks.) I am also sad because this review marks the end of my favorite Redwall story arc, which encompasses Pearls of LutraThe Long PatrolMarlfox, and Taggerung. I am not ready for this era in Redwall history to be over. I love these characters and these stories, and I would not have objected if the final eight books had been set exclusively in this time period.

Taggerung begins with the ferret Sawney Rath, chieftain of a band of itinerant vermin called Juska. Juska bands are common in this era; some are larger than others, and they don’t seem to associate with each other (though they somehow have a way of spreading gossip very efficiently), but every Juska vermin is easily identifiable by the facial tattoos unique to his or her band. Every band is named after its leader, with the result that Sawney’s minions are called the Juskarath. The band is small, but Sawney has big goals: his seer, the vixen Grissoul, has predicted that the Juskarath will be the ones to find the Taggerung, the chosen one of the Juska. Sawney’s father was the last Taggerung, but, since his death, the various Juska chieftains have been quietly hoping to find the next Taggerung for the glory of their individual bands. Knowing that other Juska seers might have seen the same omens as Grissoul, Sawney drives his band to follow her prediction to the letter, intending to be the first Juska chieftain on the spot when the Taggerung appears. His single-minded quest encounters some opposition from the stoats Antigra and Gruven, who claim their own newborn son Zann is the Taggerung, but their rebellion seems to end when Sawney kills Gruven.

Unbeknownst to the Juskarath, their chosen warrior is not a vermin, but the infant son of the otters Rillflag and Filorn. They live in Redwall Abbey with their young daughter, Mhera, and are unaware that the newborn Deyna has been earmarked for forcible adoption by their local Juska chapter. The Abbey has seen a long spell of peace since the events of Marlfox, and vermin in general have gone back to being an ill-defined threat. With no obvious violence looming, Rillflag takes Deyna to the ford near the Abbey, intending to wet his back in running water, and unexpectedly runs into the waiting Juskarath. Thrilled to receive his Taggerung at last, Sawney orders the ferret Vallug Bowbeast to kill Rillflag, then takes Deyna and flees the area at once, fearful of retribution from the fabled Redwall warriors. The current Skipper of otters and his crew spend several days searching for Rillflag and Deyna, but all they find is an oddly dressed hare calling himself Bellscut Oglecrop Obrathon Ragglewaith Audube Baggscut (more efficiently known as Boorab the Fool), and finally they are forced to call off the hunt, devastating Filorn and Mhera. Far away from the Abbey, and with no knowledge of his parents or his sister beyond some fuzzy memories, Deyna is renamed Zann Juskarath Taggerung (“Tagg”) and raised as Sawney’s own son. Within minutes of the abduction, Antigra’s grief over the death of her mate turns into a boiling rage when Sawney orders her to rename her son Gruven. She complies while secretly trying to raise Gruven as the true Taggerung, but she is thwarted at every turn by his belligerent, slow-witted incompetence.

Fifteen seasons later, the adult Tagg has grown into the ferocious warrior of Sawney’s dreams, while Gruven – who takes after his deceased father more than his living mother would like to admit – is lazy, stupid, spoiled, and petulant, endowed with a massive sense of entitlement but incapable of bringing any of Antigra’s very ambitious plans to fruition. Neither parent is entirely satisfied with their child: Antigra appears to suffer from one continual Gruven-induced headache, while Sawney frets over Tagg’s refusal to kill. The tension between them erupts into open enmity when Tagg flatly refuses to execute a runaway Juskarath, and the resulting fight ends with Tagg leaving the Juskarath for good, taking Sawney’s favorite knife with him. Sawney follows shortly after, intending to kill him, but is assassinated by Antigra, who then forces Grissoul to help her install Gruven in Sawney’s place. The former Juskarath become the Juskazann, and the newly promoted Gruven Zann is informed that he must slay the still-living Tagg in order to become the new Taggerung. Packed off by his mother and accompanied by a band of competent trackers and killers, including Vallug Bowbeast and the weasel Eefera, Gruven stumbles his way through his mission but is constantly bullied and belittled by his nominal minions. After one incompetent blunder too many, Vallug and Eefera finally decide to hunt the Taggerung by themselves, abandoning Gruven and the rest of the trackers on a mountain.

While his former comrades hunt him with varying degrees of competence, Tagg makes his way through a peaceful world he’s never known. During his wanderings, he meets the self-styled Nimbalo the Slayer, a runaway harvest mouse who tells giant whoppers but has a good heart, and they quickly become best friends and travel buddies. Their journey takes them all over the place and introduces them to all kinds of new friends, but their road trip is shadowed by Gruven, who somehow manages to ruin absolutely everything while also being completely incapable of anything even remotely resembling leadership or courage. Following some nightly visitations from the spirit of Martin the Warrior, Tagg realizes that he came from Redwall, and he sets out to visit the Abbey, followed as always by Gruven and his two surviving trackers, Dagrab and Rawback. Nimbalo initially goes along for the ride, but Gruven’s hunt becomes intensely personal when Dagrab murders Nimbalo’s abusive father with his own axe. Grieving and no longer able to gain closure from any final meeting with his father, Nimbalo swears revenge upon the vermin who carries his father’s axe.

Back at the Abbey, life rolls along peacefully. Mhera has become a pillar of the Redwall community, frequently solving problems and smoothing over disputes with the guidance of Cregga Badgermum, while Filorn is a beloved pillar of the Redwall kitchens. Boorab has become the mostly self-appointed probationary Master of Music, Occasional Entertainer, Composer, Melodic Tutor and Instructor in all things lyrical, and the good Redwallers have also recently adopted Fwirl, an orphaned squirrelmaid who lived in the woods by herself until she was befriended by Broggle, the assistant cook. (Tagg does briefly meet Fwirl’s mother during his travels, but her mind is gone and nothing ever comes of this.) For a while there is no matter more pressing than the mysterious coded messages Mhera and her friends keep finding all over the Abbey, seemingly left by the deceased Abbess Song, but their peaceful interlude ends when Vallug and Eefera show up at the gates of Redwall to demand the return of the Taggerung. Gruven, Dagrab, and Rawback turn up in time to get themselves enslaved by Vallug and Eefera, and the five of them lay siege to the Abbey.

Despite increasingly exasperated assurances that the Redwallers have never heard of a Taggerung, the vermin are persistent, and eventually manage to capture Nimbalo when he and Tagg arrive at the Abbey. Believing Nimbalo to be a Redwaller, they try to use him as a hostage. Tagg is captured as well, but by the other side: Broggle and a couple of others mistake him for a vermin, owing to his Juska tattoos, and they lay a surprisingly effective trap for him. Unaware that the Taggerung is currently locked in the cellars, Cregga attempts to parley with the vermin, but all negotiations end when Nimbalo gets loose and accidentally joggles Vallug’s arm, causing him to shoot Cregga in the chest. Meanwhile, Tagg persuades Broggle to let him out of the cellar. On his way to the front door he runs into Filorn, who recognizes him immediately, and borrows the sword of Martin the Warrior from its hooks over the tapestry in the Great Hall before he confronts Vallug and Eefera. While Nimbalo kills Dagrab with his father’s axe, Tagg kills Vallug and Eefera with Martin’s sword, but is badly wounded when Vallug shoots him at almost point-blank range.

In the bittersweet aftermath of the battle, Tagg – now called Deyna again following his reunion with Filorn and Mhera – is taken to an otterfixer named Rukky Garge. He returns at the beginning of autumn completely healed and tattoo-free, ready to start his new life as the Champion of Redwall. Nimbalo is welcomed into the Abbey as the newest Redwaller, and the mortally wounded Cregga hangs on long enough to name Mhera as the next Abbess of Redwall, as well as bequeathing her a book of advice written by Abbess Song. She also formally ends Boorab’s fifteen-season probationary period, making him Redwall’s official Master of Music. With her last breaths, she asks Boorab to sing her favorite marching song, “The Battle of the Boiling Water.” The song brings her back to a happy memory from her days with the Long Patrol, when she was still young and the future seemed limitless, and this vision stays with her as she finally goes to her rest.

Gruven, of course, does what Gruven does best during the final battle, which is to say that he and Rawback leg it while the others are busy. In the depths of the woods, Gruven tricks Rawback into sinking into a swamp, then returns alone to his former clan, where he learns that the Juskazann were taken over by the much larger Juskabor. Antigra was executed shortly after the takeover, and Grissoul now serves Juskabor leader Ruggan Bor, a ruthless golden-furred fox who has styled himself as the Lord of the South Coasts. Gruven tries to play Ruggan Bor by telling him that he killed Tagg and is by rights the new Taggerung – nobody could accuse him of ever learning his lesson – but is thoroughly played himself when Ruggan Bor forces him to accompany the Juskabor on a fact-checking mission intended to confirm the death of the Taggerung, starting with the old Juskarath camp and ending on Redwall’s doorstep. Whatever else he may be, Ruggan Bor is incredibly thorough in his research.

Gruven seems to be on track to get himself executed for extravagant lying when the Juskabor find the still-living Rawback, but his luck takes another turn when they get to the Abbey and meet Deyna and Nimbalo, who confirm that the Taggerung is dead. He gets sixty seconds of euphoric validation before Ruggan Bor beheads him and names himself the new Taggerung. Charged by their leader’s new title, the Juskabor start to work themselves into a bloodthirsty frenzy, but the Abbey is saved when the Badger Lord Russano arrives at the head of a thousand Long Patrol hares. While the Juskabor are banished from Mossflower and escorted back the way they came, Russano tells Mhera that he dreamed of Cregga and came to pay his respects. He then tries to leave immediately, not wanting to strain Redwall hospitality with his thousand hungry hares, but Mhera tells him that the Abbey has more than enough, and that all are welcome to stay for as long as they like. (I do have to wonder what exactly Russano thought was going to happen along the way because the number of hares he brings with him is extreme, but I can’t really criticize the results.) In a short epilogue, Rosabel – Recorder of Redwall and daughter of Broggle and Fwirl – gives an update on the lives of the Abbey inhabitants, including Deyna, whose story is now preserved in the Abbey archives for future generations.

If Martin the Warrior and The Legend of Luke are the saddest books in the series, Taggerung might be the sweetest. Deyna is such a sweetheart. I don’t know how intentional it was on Jacques’s part, but this book reads like a looking glass retelling of Outcast of Redwall, only this one actually worked. (Possibly this has something to do with the absence of children being ordered to raise other children? Discuss.) Despite his upbringing, Deyna remains kind and compassionate, always ready to make a friend instead of an enemy, and so comfortable in his own skin that he doesn’t think twice about pushing back against Sawney’s more unhinged orders. Even if he was raised in an environment in which violence is both normal and expected, he has his principles and he sticks to them. His instinct is always to look for the kindest solution in spite of the pressure Sawney places upon him to act like a true Juska. Best of all, he is kind without being stupid: he will still defend himself and his loved ones without hesitation, and he is capable of permanently stopping anybody foolish enough to attack him. His reputation as the Taggerung is so fearsome that a single glimpse of him is enough to freeze the blood of any Juskarath, and even a hardened killer like Eefera will still run from his wrath.

In general I love the cast of this particular book, and I wish we’d seen more of them in other books. I even kind of like Sister Alkanet, the stern Infirmary nurse, who – though she is exactly the kind of character who can find a problem for every solution – is not, at base, ill-intentioned or unlikable, or completely one-dimensional. Cregga of course is the best Badgermum, and I will die on this hill. I love that she doesn’t just turn Mhera loose and watch her flounder, the way Bella did with Bryony; she befriends Mhera early and spends several seasons guiding and encouraging her as she begins to come into her own as a leader of the Abbey community. Having said that, I have to admit that I am somewhat baffled by the cryptic clues left all over the Abbey, in that I’m not really sure what the point of that was. Who honestly is going to decipher something like “HITTAGALL” (a rather tortuous acronym standing for “Humility Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns”)? I agree with the sentiment, it’s just that I think Mhera would have been better served if Cregga had just straight up handed her the book instead of making her find a bunch of little cloths with different ITTAGALLs written on them. The clue-finding arc doesn’t seem to have any purpose, and it really seems like Jacques only included it for the sake of keeping up his tradition of puzzle-solving. I’m normally down for a Redwall treasure hunt, but in this case they were searching without a goal, and it made the final reveal a little more anticlimactic than it should have been.

I am also puzzled by Vallug and Eefera, who – it seems to me – are more than capable of murdering Gruven, burying him in a ditch, and moving on with their mission. They openly fantasize about doing so, and it’s not clear why they choose to tolerate his bumbling presence when he is, objectively, a huge liability. He contributes absolutely nothing to the mission, he makes multiple mistakes that interfere with the rest of the group’s efforts, he is rude and demanding, and they can’t even use him as bait. He doesn’t have a function within the tracking group, so, again: why in the name of hellgates do Vallug and Eefera never come good on their promises and just smother the dead weight? They wouldn’t even have had to wait till he was sleeping. None of the others would have missed him, and it would’ve been so easy to go back to the Juskazann and tell them Gruven was killed during the fight with the Taggerung. This would not have been questioned by anybody, believe me. Plotted the way that it is, Gruven’s journey just seems like filler. With all due respect, I don’t think the story would have lost anything if he had been unalived the minute he was out of his mama’s line of sight. I say that completely without shame, because I would’ve knifed him in front of his mother. (I would miss the Ruggan Bor storyline, which I love wildly. All the same, I said what I said.)

At the end of the day, Gruven and the ITTAGALLs might be slightly off-putting, but they pale in comparison to the loss of Cregga. I still think Badgermums shouldn’t be allowed to die. I want to reach into the pages of the book and twist Vallug like a rag every time he shoots Cregga, and I kind of want to kick Jacques for making that happen. More than that, I really wish Russano had arrived in time to say goodbye and to comfort her during her final days, which would have perfectly echoed the ending of Outcast of Redwall, and – having now reread Lord Brocktree – I wish that his wife and children had made the trip as well. I like to think that Cregga met them all, and that Melanius and Snowdrop knew their adoptive grandmother. (This is, of course, assuming that Russano is married at this point in history.) I appreciate that he drops everything and rushes off with his hares to make a final tribute to Cregga just on the basis of one dream, but I can’t help wishing he had had his dream, say, a season or two earlier.

Yet even though I think Russano set out too late, I would be hard-pressed to think of a better ending for Cregga, because she passes peacefully, surrounded by her friends – most of whom she has known since their births – and accompanied by her favorite song. Even if I hate her direct cause of death, the end of Cregga’s story is so nearly perfect, and it makes me cry every time I reread this book. It isn’t abrupt and shattering, the way Mother Mellus’s death was. It is beautiful and emotional and absolutely right, and I cannot imagine a more fitting send-off for my favorite Badgermum.