ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Redwall’

Redwall

THEN: I started reading the Redwall series when I was perhaps eight, or nine. They were recommended to my nice clean-living parents by another nice clean-living church family as a series of nice clean-living books, and so my mother bought two paperbacks at our school book fair – The Bellmaker and Outcast of Redwall (neither of which, in the context of the whole series, are exactly highlights, but no matter). Over the years I completed the back catalogue and continued to collect each one as it came out. Jacques excelled at creating a vivid, varied and ever-developing world–the stater slopes for the complex world-building of the epic fantasy novels I would later drift to. And although the clean-living church family approved of its lack of swearing, sex and general courseness, the Redwall series has a surprisingly vivid streak of violence through them that doesn’t back away from the savagery of the animal kingdom.

For me, the appeal of the Redwall series lay in the idyll of the world: the battles between goodbeasts and verminfolk was all well and good, but it was the tranquil world of Redwall Abbey, with its great hall, and its cellars, and its general goodwill to all that made me love the books. Ironically, this flies in the face of every wisdom I’ve learnt as a writer, as my favourite parts were always though with absolutely no dramatic tension, where everyone just hung about having a nice time. But I’ve always loved books that make me want to run away and become part of them, and the Redwall series epitomised that. Clearly Jacques and the publishers knew that, as they also released an illustrated book about Redwall’s Great Winter Feast that had zero plot whatsoever, but a great deal of singing and the consuming of october ale and deeper’n’ever pie. They also released a build-your-own-paper-Redwall which I received for Christmas one year, although it turned out to be so wicked-complicated that even my mother (who was more than capable of that sort of thing) struggled to piece it together.

NOW: I was saddened to hear of the death of Brian Jacques a few years ago. The Redwall series felt like (pardon the very-specific pun) part of the tapestry of my childhood, and his passing had all sorts of implications about the distance and dwindling of that youth. I also found myself stung with guilt to realise that I had forsaken the collecting of the last novels in the Redwall saga, with several unread on my shelf, and further books unbought, and felt a little like I’d let the author down.

I remembered The Pearls of Lutra vividly as far-and-away my favourite of the series, mainly because the main plot involved the solving of a trail of riddles around Redwall to locate the titular pearls. Jacques was always good at riddles, but they were usually fairly incidental to the plot; Lutra placed them front and centre. Possibly the most shocking moment of punctured nostalgia for me was realising upon re-reading how damn easy the riddles were (though it’s possible that I simply dimly remembering their solutions.)

And dare I say it… I found myself disappointed. Redwall was probably the one series on my re-read list that I hold in the highest regard with the most potential for a shortfall, and unfortunately Pearls of Lutra didn’t hold the power it once did. The idyll of Redwall — especially the ‘cute’ Dibbuns — instead came off jarring and trite, and I realised quickly that the quest against evil that preoccupies the story is precisely the same quest as every other Redwall book I can immediately recall. These things you don’t tend to notice as a young reader when the clothes the archetypes are dressed up in are a little more convincing, but from a distance of years they became readily apparent.

That said, I suspect Pearls was a victim of my high expectations, and possibly a faulty memory — I loved Pearls as a ten-year-old, but other volumes of the book that I didn’t remember as well might have turned out to be a better choice as an adult reader. And I’ve had a good run so far (eight books that have all lived up to their memories – I’m not reading in the order this blog appears). I couldn’t say I disliked the book; rather, I ‘liked’ it where I had once ‘loved’ it, and upon closing the book I felt a quite odd sense of sadness — fleeting, not overwhelming, and difficult to define in words — that I hadn’t found everything I remembered within the stones of Redwall.

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