Redwall

As it can take me a little while to get my hands on the Goosebumps books for my Vault reviews, I thought that I would also start looking at another series that I absolutely loved as a kid. Please note that, due to the age of the novels, this is going to be another of my retrospective posts. Therefore, there may be spoilers below. You have been warned.

Redwall was an epic series of middle grade fantasy novels written by Brian Jacques. The series ran for twenty-one books which were all published between 1986 and 2011. The novels are set in a world that seems to be exclusively populated by woodland creatures, focusing on the battles that the good creatures fight against vermin that would hurt or enslave them. For the purpose of this review, I am going to be looking at the first novel – Redwall (1986) – only.

It is the Summer of the Late Rose and the peaceful creatures of Redwall Abbey are preparing for a feast. However, all festivities are interrupted as they learn that Cluny the Scourge is approaching. The one-eyed rat leads an army of murderous rats, stoats, ferrets and weasels, and has decided that Redwall would be a perfect castle for his horde.

Although the walls of the Abbey are strong and tall, the mice and other woodland creatures realise that they can’t withstand Cluny’s siege forever. With the help of wise old Methuselah, a young mouse named Matthias begins to research the history of the Abbey’s founder – Martin the Warrior. If they can just find the resting place of Martin’s legendary sword, Matthias knows that they will have the power they need to unite the creatures of Mossflower Woods and defeat Cluny forever.

However, Matthias’s quest will not be easy. The sword has been lost for years and he will have to face warrior sparrows and deadly serpents in order to retrieve it. Meanwhile, Cluny’s army grows more cunning by the day and hatches dozens of devious schemes to breach the walls – or tunnel beneath them…

As a pre-teen reader, Redwall was one of my absolute favourite series. I owned almost all of the books and read them to death (as you might be able to tell from the very scruffy copy in my picture). However, as much as I do remember this series fondly, on re-reading the first instalment as an adult I have realised that it is not without its problems.

The novel takes its charm from the fact that it is set in a world that seems, at a glance, to be populated by woodland creatures. While this was not an original concept at the time, Jacques spends a lot of time building a realistic Medieval society, where the creatures largely live and behave like humans. The creatures of Redwall range from ones that are almost universally good (mice, hares, badgers, squirrels), to bad creatures (rats, foxes, weasels), to ones that are practically monsters (adders).

While these seems cute at a glance, unfortunately this world-building contains some glaring holes. Although there are hints within the novel that humans exist, we never see any evidence of an actual person. At one point, Cluny drives a person-sized cart pulled by an actual horse, there is reference to a “town dog” and Matthias eventually visits a farm, yet people are conspicuously absent from the story and are not even mentioned by the creatures.

There is also an almost jarring lack of religion. The mice have abbeys and churches, and the dialogue of the villains often makes reference to Hell and the Devil, yet we never see a character worship or pray. This felt like one of the strangest omissions of the world-building. I mean, why even set the novel in an abbey rather than a castle if there is no religion? This was made all the stranger for me due to the fact that some creatures in Redwall just seem to be predisposed towards evil. While foxes are explicitly mentioned to be neutral in this book (though it should be noted that this does change later), there aren’t any other grey areas. Rats and weasels flock to Cluny’s side, while the more wholesome creatures are quick to defend the abbey from attack.

However, looking past these holes, the novel is actually really good fun. While it can be a little slow in places, the third person narrative alternates between Matthias and the creatures of Redwall, and the camp of Cluny the Scourge. In doing so, it does a great job of showing what is happening on both sides. Although the story can be surprisingly brutal in places, it is largely bloodless violence and the fact that villainous characters are usually very quick to get their comeuppance made it a rather comfortable read.

However, the novel still sometimes had some pacing issues. Although Cluny reaches Redwall very early in story, most of the novel that follows is a lengthy description of siege warfare. It takes over four hundred pages for the rats to get the upper-hand and their victory is short-lived. Similarly, Matthias’s quest moves in fits and starts. The portion where he is held captive by the sparrows seems to last ages, yet his fight with Asmodeus Poisonteeth – an event that is slowly foreshadowed over most of the story – is over in a matter of pages. The novel also ends rather abruptly after Matthias’s defeat of Cluny, summarising everything in a couple of pages.

In terms of character, Redwall was also very varied. While Matthias is likeable, I didn’t feel that he learned much over the course of the novel. While he is initially introduced as being clumsy and a bit hapless, he immediately loses this and becomes a powerful warrior (despite having no training) as soon as the rats arrive. His bond with Martin proves to give him almost supernatural powers as the story progresses, most notably as he conveniently possesses the ability to shrug of Asmodeus’s hypnosis and despite the fact that the novel doesn’t really have any supernatural elements beyond this.

The supporting characters also lack much by way of personality. Although some of them are lovable – particularly Constance the badger and Basil Stag Hare – we learn nothing about their individual motivations or pasts. Cornflower the mouse, in particular, is massively side-lined despite being the object of Matthias’s affection. I mean, in the final chapters the Abbot practically gifts her to Matthias. One would have liked her to actually voice an interest in him at some point in the story beyond some shy looks.

Outside of Redwall, the other supporting cast are largely grouped together by their races or tribes, such as whole families of mice and the Guerrilla shrews. While this did feel a little lazy, the only one of these races that truly gave me pause was the portrayal of the sparrows. This has really not aged well, presenting the birds a warrior race that is uncomfortably similar to a racist caricature of Native Americans. While this is not explicit, their war-like behaviour and mode of speech did set my teeth on edge, seriously impacting my enjoyment of any chapter in which Warbeak and her people appeared.

The only character in the story that I felt was truly memorable was Cluny. While we learn little of his background beyond a few legends and superstitions, we do get to see many sides of the rat. While his army and enemies all fear him, his nightmares also reveal to the reader his hidden fears and doubts. Although brutish, Cluny is a cunning, intelligent and powerful foe, and therefore presents a decent villain for Matthias to face.

So, all in all, my feelings towards Redwall are a bit mixed. While I did enjoy rereading the novel, it is clear that it is not perfect as I found a number of issues with its pacing, world-building and characters. Still, I am curious to read on and see if this improves in the next instalment.

Redwall can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sean Hagins
    Jun 10, 2019 @ 03:07:15

    I used to read the Redwall books all the time! Now that I don’t have much time to read, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Did you know that the author made full-cast audio plays to his books? They are unabridged, and his son Marc usually plays the heroic warrior character. It is quite good, despite the fact that it is taken word for word from the book (with the “he said, she said” unnecessarily left in)

    Reply

  2. Trackback: Mossflower | Arkham Reviews

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