Redwall

Monday, November 16, 2009


Redwall
Brian Jacques, 1986


I loved the Redwall books when I read them, mostly in middle school and early high school as I recall.  This one doesn't hold up quite as well as I may have hoped.  There are definitely things to enjoy here; the story clips along at a good pace, the characters are amusing and often adorable.

The thing I expected to criticize, the stereotyping of species, didn't bother me as much as I anticipated.  In this world, rats, stoats, ferrets, etc. are bad, untrustworthy creatures.  Mice, badgers, squirrels, rabbits, etc. are good, kind, etc.  It's a little odd, especially given how anthropomorphic they are.  They are fully sentient, society based creatures, and it's not just predator animals vs. prey animals, although that seems to underlie much of it.  (I know that Jacques changes it up a bit in some of the later books, but I'm only looking at the first today.)  Add to that that many of the species are typed by broad regional English accents, and it could stray easily into odd animal-based classism/racism.  In this case, I feel you just have to go with it (or not) just as you would standard fantasy-world species stereotyping.  Like how goblins are bastards, and dwarves are drunken Scotsmen, here hares are adventurous sporting British gentlemen, and foxes are treacherous.

Oh goodness, the wikipedia List of Redwall Species is even divided into Good and Evil Species.  In case you thought it was just me.

What did bother me on this read through was how boring the book was, much of the time.  The good characters are wise, they make good decisions, and even when they make bad decisions, they come to good ends.  The ghost of Martin the Warrior watches over the hero and torments the villain.  Matthias  naturally becomes a great tactician and swordsmouse.  There never really was a chance for the bad guys, not really.

Everyone who isn't explicitly evil helps Matthias out of a sense that it's the right thing to do.  Even the neutral (read barbarian warrior-race) sparrows quickly befriend the mice once their mad king is taken out of the picture.  Good characters do die, but generally not before making their contribution toward a happy ending.  The good characters never stubbornly hold to a position when a friend makes a valid counter-point, they spend very little time solving the riddles that make up much of the plot, and the book is peppered with description like the following:
The meeting continued....Methuselah also attended to act as mediator and counselor, approving some ideas while discouraging others, calming the hothead and encouraging the timid.  Much good sense was talked and the tone of the meeting was that of creatures who were determined to win at all costs.
And in the next chapter, regarding the villians:
Cluny lay back and smirked.  Everything was going according to plan.  He had lost Redtooth, but what the devil?  Redtooth had been an ambitious rat.  Cluny only admired ambition in one rodent – himself.
The book is still fun, adventurous, sweet.  The sense that good can win, just because it's good, (through the grace of spirit warrior mice) can be very comforting.  There may be a straight through-line in my book habits from the rousing warcry of rabbits in the Redwall books in middle school through various fantasy battle scenes right to the military sci-fi I tend to favor today.  Just don't go looking for extreme nuance in the cute, fuzzy, badass characters. 

3 Stars - A Good Book


Animal Society Rundown:

Overall:  Alternative World Society
The animals in Redwall make very few concessions to being animals.  For the most part, they act as  stand-ins for humans.  There appear to be no humans in the world.  Most animals are sentient, except possibly insects?  One corollary to that is most “good” animals are mostly vegetarians.

Size: Unclear
The mice are smaller than most animals, but don't seem as much smaller as they should be.  On Earth a mouse: average size 3-4 inches nose to end of tail.  Badger average size: 29 inches nose to tail.  How these two animals climb the same staircase or sit at the same table is beyond my math.  I've always assumed that you have to average out the scale a bit.  Mice are smaller in proportion, badgers larger, but more like a range between a human who's 3' and one who's 6', not one 3' and one 30'.  Similar to Wind in the Willows.

Law and Order: Rule of Good and Might
No stated ruler higher than local rulers/warlords, feudal-type society.  Redwall animals are given passage many places as healers and generally nice folk. Local authority at Redwall rests with the Abbott or those who he sees fit to appoint.  They hold power through both fortification and being all-around good guys.  Follows the trope that good guys fight better because bad guys are constantly backstabbing each other.

Own language:
Accents vary
Sparrows, for one, are described as having their own language, but it's just fast, broken English.  Other species, notably hares, moles, are assigned their own dialects.  Considering the source, it's safe to say that all characters speak accented British English.

Own religion: …?
For a book set in an abbey, there wasn't much of anything in the way of religion. Martin is a patron ghost, there is a bit of a mystical sense there, they say a fairly secular grace over their food, and no deities to be seen.  Words like devil and hell are used, also there's a place called the Church of St. Ninians, which is apparently explained away in a later book.
Quoth the author, from redwall.org:
There is no religion in my stories and no hidden meanings. What you see is what you get. The Abbey is just a place of peace and comradeship, where creatures choose to live together.

Other Notes:
Exceptions to the general scale/relationship between animals seem to be confined to Matthias' travels through the forest, in which he is almost eaten by a cat, an owl and a snake.  Only the snake is actually an 'evil' character, the cat is an accident and the owl makes friends, but all three are clearly bigger than the mouse by quite a bit.  Animals who live in the woods seem to be less civilized in general, although it's not a hard rule.

Level of Anthropomorphism:
Very High
Almost all characters wear clothes, walk on their hind legs, cook food, use weapons, live in buildings, etc.  This is a case of a fully non-human world, where most species are civilized.  Very little would change in this book if the characters were all human (or more humanoid), except that the simplicity of the story might be harder to swallow.  And it's a great mental image, the heroic swordsmouse.


Next week, swordsmice go darker and way more badass.

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