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Redwall – Of Mice and Moles

Ah, Mossflower! I’m filled with yearning to return to the Summer of the Late Rose. Furry readers who are not familiar with the books of the late English author, Brian Jacques, would do well to put at least one or two near the top of their reading lists. I particularly recommend the earlier titles, beginning with the eponymous Redwall itself, followed by Mossflower and Mattimeo. British writer Jacques spun the tales of the mythical countryside around Redwall Abbey nonstop from 1986 until his passing in 2011. Indeed, some might suggest that he could have stopped sooner, as later offerings became rather repetitive. However, this does nothing to take away the charm of the original stories.

You must begin your nostalgic voyage at the beginning, with Redwall itself. (There are many editions from various UK and US sources, and translations into other European languages also exist.) In the forest of Mossflower, located somewhere up an idyllic river from the seacoast, the gentle mice built Redwall Abbey, under the protection of their great warrior Martin. That was long ago as our story begins, though, when Cluny the Scourge, a notorious sea rat and pirate, brings his crew up the river to capture and plunder the fabled wealth of the Abbey.

Like most of Jacques’ later books, this one relates an epic of courage and valor on the part of the animals of Redwall, when pitted against the black hearted and wicked villains who seek to conquer them. Cluny and his gang of rats, weasels, and foxes strike terror into the hearts of the gentle mice and their friends the squirrels and moles, but the otters, badgers, and hares who are their protectors plan a bold defense anyway. Meanwhile, Matthias, the youngest mouse novice (whose sandals are too large and whose robe drags the ground) sets about solving a puzzle to recover the Abbey’s greatest relic, the sword of Martin the Warrior. A complex riddle in rhyme, combined with clues from the architecture and a tapestry in the great hall, must be assembled and decoded. While Matthias begins this task with the aid of the Abbey’s historian and his own young friends, the warriors of his own time mount their determined defense of the walls and send out spies to find out what Cluny is up to.

The clever puzzle is interspersed with the action scenes to provide a story that I still find hard to put down, though I admit I’ve read it several times before. Readers unfamiliar with the regional accents of Britain and Scotland may well find some of the dialog a bit obtuse. The moles speak with a thick Yorkshire accent, while the hares use a sort of upper crust schoolboy idiom. The birds, who are depicted as a sort of primitive tribal society that inhabits the Abbey’s forgotten garrets and rooftops, are equally hard to understand. The villains use lower class idioms and pronunciations as well. With a little persistence, it can all be puzzled out, though I imagine some American children find it very difficult and may even turn away from the book.

Overall, it’s a rollicking adventure, a suspense novel, and a mystery combined into one, and a pleasant if rather fluffy read. I do have to admit that Jacques has his flaws. His works clearly owe much to authors of a hundred years earlier, particularly Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, with a dash of Lewis Carroll thrown in. A few characters are well developed and stand on their own, but many are rather thin stereotypes. The landscape of Mossflower is populated entirely by animals you would find in Britain, which is fine. It lacks any human occupants, which is also fine. However, I have trouble with the unrelenting stereotypical portrayal of many species. As in the works of Potter and Grahame, foxes, rats, and weasels are invariably villainous traitors. Mice, badgers, moles, squirrels, otters and hares are virtuous, brave, and heroic. Birds are largely untrustworthy, with a few exceptions. The abbey itself, though modeled on English religious foundations of the 15th century and earlier and borrowing from their hierarchies and architecture, does not appear to serve any religious purpose. Instead it is a secular hospital, in the old sense, a charitable home and establishment for the service of creatures in need. It has a deep history and a powerful tradition, and is beset again and again by piratical villains who wish to plunder its riches or use it as a headquarters for further thievery.

The series eventually grew to more than 20 volumes, and by the end the tales were somewhat redundant and even recursive at times. Individual books, though, have explored new territory and presented new species as their protagonists. Furry fans may well find much of the series if not all quite worthwhile. It has something for everyone, literally. Jacques’ own ability to turn a phrase or cast a spell has not faded over the years. These books are readily available in hardcover and paperback editions, used, new, or on loan from libraries. Ebook versions have appeared recently, and a British television series developed from it as well. I urge you to explore Mossflower and the surrounding countryside. Chances are, you’ll find something there to your liking.

Rating: 4 of 5 possible apples appleappleappleapple

Brian Jacques
Redwall
Philomel, 1986 (2007 Anniversary Ed. $23.99 ISBN 978-0399247941)
Many editions, audiobook, ebook, paperback also available.

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