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Eulaliaaaa! In memory of Brian Jacques

February 7, 2011

I was much saddened this afternoon to hear of the passing of Brian Jacques, the celebrated author of the Redwall and Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series.

Brian Jacques is one of the reasons I’m writing today. His stories, his characters, wordplay, and epic, beautiful world inspired me to try and create my own. But even before that, he coloured my imagination with vivid strokes of sight, sound, and scent. Redwall has captivated me from the time I was nine years old. That’s most of my life engrossed in the adventures of stalwart woodland creatures and treacherous vermin.

For those of you who have not read the Redwall books, they follow Redwall Abbey, a quasi-mediaeval abbey set in Mossflower Wood and populated by mice, otters, moles, hedgehogs, and the like. They defend their peaceful home against vermin- ferrets, foxes, rats, stoats, and weasels. While some characters appeared in multiple books, the series spanned what was in all likelihood centuries of Redwall history… and that added to the appeal. On the one hand, yes, there was the sadness of losing a favourite character to the ages, but there was also the joy of getting to see, first-hand, the adventures of a mythologized hero.

Formulaic plots? Yes. Overly simple good vs. evil theme? Indeed.

Did that really matter? No.

Redwall transcended these issues. I mean, yes, I always knew there would be a puzzle the “good” characters had to solve, and I yearned to see a heroic stoat or fox just once, but they had the same enduring appeal as the mediaeval quest legends. The books may have all resembled each other, but they were undiminished by it.

I think Redwall‘s power comes from Jacques’s ability to create a world that is simultaneously challenging and comforting to his young (and not-so-young) readers. These are not easy books. The language and plot lines, while repetitive, are nevertheless fairly complex. Furthermore, death and violence make frequent, open appearances. Beloved characters are murdered before the reader’s eyes (very few off-stage deaths here). There is blood, cruelty, and oftentimes abuse of the “woodlanders” by the vermin. This is a land of “long ago and far away,” but Jacques does not condescend to his audience by sugar-coating the often brutal reality of that time.

Lest you’re getting the wrong impression, the violence isn’t gratuitous, or there for its own sake. It simply isn’t hidden or downplayed to protect innocent minds. And seeing the death, seeing the awful acts some creatures can inflict on others did two things for me.

By making me aware of them, it helped me cope better with them as I matured, and started to become more aware of exactly what happens in the newspaper between the weather and the comics.

And it made the numerous heroic acts that much more poignant.

But Redwall isn’t all blood and gore. The depictions of feasting and merriment, the gentleness of the Abbey-dwellers, the loving description of the woodlands of Mossflower country, all of that spoke to the “Golden Side” of the Mediaeval Myth. For a sheltered city kid, it meant the world. And it became my world, giving me a newfound love for, and awe of, nature. Offering an escape from the hyper-stimulating, steel-and-concrete world in which I dwelled.

In my mind, I have walked through Redwall’s Great Hall and gazed at the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. I have run along the red-stone ramparts with the otters’ Skipper (all the Skippers). I have smelled the wholesome, hearty food from the kitchens, and joined young heroes on their quests beyond the Abbey gates. The path outside Redwall is as familiar to me as the street outside my house, the badgers’ fortress of Salamandastron as clear in my mind as any castle on Earth.

And the characters… as I have said, the series likely spanned centuries of history (timelines can be difficult to pin down with certainty, particularly between books), but no character can be forgotten. Martin, Matthias, and Mattimeo. Basil Stag Hare and his adopted son, “Cheek Stag Otter.” Gnoff the Mouse-Thief. Tagg. Mariel. Dann, Song, Dippler, and Burble. The list stretches on….

As wonderful a story-teller as he was, Brian Jacques did more than tell yarns. He created a world in which my imagination, and the imagination of countless other children, could grow. He made heroes to inspire, and villains to revolt against. He showed the strength of love and compassion, and the necessity of guarding against cruelty and evil. He shaded my childhood fantasies with shades of those sunlit woods and majestic stone abbey.

Though he may be gone to the Dark Forest, he will not be forgotten. And I have no doubt that he will be met there by the heroes he brought into this world.

Thank you, Mr. Jacques.

-Arvik

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2 comments

  1. I’ve never read anything by Jacques. This makes me want to, I might have to pick up some redwall books.

    http://www.lanternhollow.wordpress.com


    • If you’re interested, “Redwall” is probably the best place to start, especially if you pair it with “Mattimeo,” which is a fine book that continues with the same characters. “Mossflower” was one of my personal favourites… though I’d also recommend “Marlfox” and “The Taggerung.” The later novels (i.e. those written within the last few years) did seem to lack something, but perhaps I’m getting old and jaded.



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