Monday, February 7, 2011

A Funeral at Redwall

The BBC is reporting that children's author Brian Jacques has died, at age 71.

My elementary school librarian, Mr. McKay, saved Redwall for me, so that I could read it first. I didn't know about it, of course -- it was the first book that Jacques had published in the US. He simply took me aside, and collected it from his office, and said he'd thought I'd want to have first crack at it. 1986 means that I would have been going into 4th grade, and it was around that time that the elementary school library made a special exception for me. Normally, the rule was that you could check out the same number of books as your grade level -- 4 for 4th grade, etc. -- but I was allowed to check out as many as I wanted.

That? Was heaven.

Actually, a lot of things about the library, where I spent most of my recess time, were heaven, including the fact that one could work as a page, reshelving books, and sometimes, be allowed to climb on top of the bookshelves to dust them, or to rotate through posters and artwork on the wall. And that in payment, one was allowed to choose selections of laminated bookmarks made using Apple Clip Art on Astrobrights paper.

But that's another post. I had never read anything like Redwall. Babe, the Gallant Pig, had come out a couple of years earlier. I'm not sure if I had read Watership Down by then, but I think not, and I think it would not have struck me as being in the same genre. The fattest fantasy book I'd read at that point was The Hounds of the Morrigan, by Pat O'Shea -- so I had just discovered, you might say, the pleasure of a big fat book, as opposed to what I think of as elementary school sized books, usually just over an inch thick.

I had never read a book with such careful, detailed worldbuilding, and yet one which was written for children. Part of me wants to say, of course! Children are interested in treats, and in eating, and so it is natural that one way of conveying the wonder of a world would be to describe the wonderful things that are eaten in that world's parties. And I also know how much I learned from Jacques: the names of herbs, and how important they were for flavoring; that fruit and mint could go together, that honey and cream were pure decadent delight. It isn't that my mother was a poor cook -- she wasn't -- but I wasn't always involved in food preparation, and when in Redwall, I stood over Friar Hugo's shoulder by default.

Redwall was the first book I read in which there was detailed, intentional, cruel violence;* where characters with names didn't just die in battle (as is gently implied in the Narnia books), or die tenderly at the book's finale, as in Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows, but were killed in callous accidents and intentionally. The body count started within 12 pages of the story beginning. I knew it was a serious, and rather adult book, because there were mentions of hell, but I also knew that it was a book that was easy enough that I could just sink into it without having to puzzle over sentences and paragraphs that I didn't fully understand. I had tried to read The Name of the Rose a little earlier, having found it in the mystery section of the public library, and thinking that since I liked murder mysteries, and that since it was thick like The Hounds of the Morrigan, and about an abbey, which I found interesting, and since it had a beautiful cover... -- but needless to say, I didn't get very far, which is just as well.

In Redwall, I found a detailed portrait of a community, where there were multiple characters who wandered in and out of the spotlight, who clearly were busy living their lives, and doing the various work of keeping an abbey running. Matthias, who was discovering his own capabilities, Methuselah, who kept records, and Constance the badger, who clearly was the dominant fighter, and whom Jacques felt no need to temper with more flowery feminity. And I watched, captivated, as that community reeled, and changed, confronted with an outsider who wanted simply to torture, to kill, to possess them. There was a typical quest/coming-of-age story in the middle of this, for Matthias, and I loved that, and took time to memorize the "I -- am that is" poem that is so important to the plot's development. But there was so much more than that, too! The history of the abbey is vital to surviving the conflict; and the way that the abbey is situated in the midst of a landscape where it is one culture, interacting with other cultures of varying compatibility, neutrality, or hostility -- sparrows! and Guerilla Shrews! -- I had never seen anything like that in my life thus far. Not told that way. I knew Jason and the Argonauts backwards and forwards, and was in the habit of reading mythological dictionaries to try and find more stories, but the tellings of Greek myths in collections and dictionaries were not attempting to be an adventure novel, and so they could not in the least compare with what Brian Jacques had done.

I remember how horrified I was by the actions of Selah and Chickenhound, and the way it felt to learn what happened to them. Reading Agatha Christie and watching Murder, She Wrote, I knew plenty about murderers, but I didn't really know about stories of betrayal that occurred in the middle of the story, of double-crosses -- I hadn't read any noir at that age. And then, when Asmodeus appeared on the scene, it was approximately like discovering that Twinkies had a creme filling.** Multiple problems that had to be dealt with, each one dangerous in a different way! I had never seen such richness between the covers of a book. And what makes Redwall extra special, along with The Hounds of the Morrigan, is that it is one of the first times that I can remember beginning to think carefully about what an author can do, and has to do, in order to make a book be brilliant. Before that, I had simply swallowed books whole, swimming through them like warm water, and this is not to say that I read through them hurriedly without enjoyment -- but stories were the air I breathed, and I am not sure that I gave much thought to how that air was produced, and the choices that went into it.

A few years later, Brian Jacques actually came to my elementary school -- but I was in junior high. My second brother, who loved the books as much as I did, took my copy of Mossflower to school to have it autographed, and, horror of horrors, had it signed to him, instead of me. At the time, I was furious, and only slightly mollified when said brother bought me another copy of the book. It's forgiven, now. The landscape of Redwall was an escape for both of us, in the midst of family turmoil. I couldn't see that years earlier, when A. was tormenting me by being Baby Rollo, who was so quick and heedless to drop into rhyming song, who knew that joy was in singing; or any one of the other various rambunctious Dibbuns; but in hindsight, I am endlessly grateful that we both found that escape.

In the middle of the long list of Redwall books, A. and I agreed that they had begun to seem formulaic to us. But I recall that we were both delighted by Loamhedge and Rakkety Tam, and I shall look forward to catching up with the more recent books in the series, and the final novel, when it arrives later this year.

I never got the chance to thank Jacques. It seemed that I was always finding out about him being in town the day after he had been, or when I was scheduled to be somewhere else. But one night, when he was at the University Bookstore, or rather passing through it, on the way to a sold-out signing at Kane Hall on the UW campus, I caught sight of him in the midst of an entourage. And I hadn't seen the announcements that he was in town, didn't know who he was at all, only that he was in a cluster of people, and looked familiar, almost like someone I had seen on TV. And then my eyes landed on a poster announcing the event, and that it was sold out, and I realized, and sucked in my breath, and stared at him in shock -- and somehow, 20 feet away, he realized, and looked right at me, and I grinned at him as happily as I could, to try and say thank you. And he smiled back. So I think he understood.

After I finished Redwall, I wasn't content with simply chanting the "I -- am that is" poem over and over; so I went back and memorized the prologue: "It was the start of the Summer of the Late Rose." For a long time, when I thought of beautiful writing (as a quality in itself, quite distinct from a good story), that passage was at the forefront of my mind. I think it's time I refreshed my memory of it, and knocked the dust off.

* ETA: I know -- obviously, I hadn't yet found the indescribably great Pork, and others, by Cris Freddi.

** I know, it's kind of sacrilegious to talk about Twinkies in the same post that I'm writing about food in Redwall Abbey. But it was the question that everyone in elementary school pondered -- how did the creme filling get inside the Twinkie?


  1. My boys adored Redwall. One of the high moments of Edward's young life was meeting Brian Jaques and having one of the books signed by him. What a sad loss.

  2. This is an excellent summary of the way Redwall positively reflected my life. Part of me recognized that the middle portion of the series was formulaic. But, I am guessing that a major reason for that lies with the fact that they were reflective of Greek, Roman heroic stories that used recognizable formulas or story patterns to allow for us to focus more on either the characters or symbolism present in the story. Or, they were simply meant to be written in the tradition of oratory stories like Beowulf which were read aloud dramatically.

    I wrote a similar sentimental post of Redwall over at my own blog. Hopefully, you'll be able to read that as well. Personally, I loved reading feelings that matched my own experience with this very rich universe.

  3. Link: