In Memoriam: Brian Jacques, 1939-2011

[Brian Jacques at LibraryThingBrian Jacques at Goodreads]

One day in fifth grade when I’d exhausted all of the skinny, middle-grade books in our classroom library, my teacher handed me something much thicker, with a smaller font and harder words and a heavier subject matter. “Try this,” she said. It was Brian Jacques’s Mossflower.

I admit I struggled through the first half. There was a lot of plodding through deep snow, a lot of British dialects, a lot of long descriptive passages where not much happened – hard for a hyper kid to sit through. But the more I read, the more engaged I became, and the easier the reading went. It took me months to finish Mossflower. It took me days to finish the other four books in the series.

I was a convert. I reread my copies until their spines were falling apart and the pages with death scenes were puckered with tears. I poured over the in-house ads at the backs of the books for information on the newest book, and snatched it off the shelves the minute it arrived. I doodled Mariel and Dandin in my notebooks and tried to recreate the mouthwatering foods from the many, many feasts with whatever I had in my kitchen. I remember dragging my mother into a bookstore while on vacation because I knew Martin the Warrior had finally come out in paperback, and staying up hours after everyone else had gone to sleep, hunched over the book on the fold-out couch in my grandmother’s living room, utterly captivated. I remember word for word the line that had me crying myself to sleep, heartbroken over Martin and Rose’s tragic romance.

As I started high school and the Redwall oeuvre grew, my passion faded. I’d started to notice how formulaic the books where, and there were other books out there to read – books with sex in them, which Jacques’s woodland critters could not provide (thank God). But I still bought copies as gifts for younger siblings and cousins, and I still paused when I saw the Redwall section in the store to see what the latest book was about – just checking in with the Abbey.

Brian Jacques passed away on Saturday, February 5th at the age of 71 with 37 books to his name, 32 of which are Redwall-related. I own 14, the last of which I’ve never gotten around to reading, but the earliest ones are dog-eared and frayed enough to make me want to talk about these books.

The criticisms I’ve seen leveled at Brian Jacques’s work over the years are legitimate. The Redwall books are very formulaic (hence my eventual disinterest in the series). There’s an extremely simplistic morality, with some species depicted as universally evil (rats, weasels, ferrets, stoats) and others as universally good (mice, squirrels, badgers, hares). He fills the ranks with stock characters (every book, for example, has a Log-a-Log, the leader of the shrews, but there’s no discernible difference between the different Log-a-Logs).

But the Redwall books are also beautifully written, with soaring descriptive passages that make Redwall and its environs come alive, a homey woodland Eden. They’re full of exciting swashbuckling, tales of valor and honor and bloodlust. The characters are lovable and fun, and the descriptions of food are mouthwateringly good.

Furthermore, Jacques’s female characters are awesome. My favorite book in the series is Mariel of Redwall, and the titular heroine, my favorite character, is a fearless spitfire who vanquishes enemies twice her size with a piece of rope. The first book features female characters as the good guys’ muscle (Constance the badger), unstoppable guerilla (Jess Squirrel), and berserker warrior queen (Warbeak the sparrow, another favorite). Jacques was never afraid to create female characters who were fierce fighters or deadly tyrants or simply rabble in the villains’ horde – seriously, how many other writers can you think of who had female redshirts in the villains’ armies? It’s very rare! But he also had plenty of peaceful female characters – and male ones. While Jess Squirrel is scaling walls and shooting arrows and questing, her husband stays home and cooks. Gender does not determine temperaments or skillsets in the Redwall universe, and that’s great.

The truth is I can’t really be totally objective about these books. I loved them most in middle school, when the books I read did the most to shape my reading preferences – and writing style – for life. There are tropes I’ve loved for a decade and a half now that I can trace back to Redwall, and my many, many happy rereads. Though I haven’t picked up a new one in years, I wouldn’t be the reader, writer, or person I am today without Redwall.

Thank you, Brian Jacques. Rest in peace.


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