Redwall Abbey, image c. Christopher Denise (illustrator)
“I would read [the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind] stories. Now sometimes, we’d get books that the publishers had sent in. So I’d read to them. And you know something? I didn’t like some of them books. I took a look through children’s books and I didn’t like some of them. And you know why? Because they were dealing with now. About this mess we’re living in the middle of. The modern age. And these stories were about technological progress, and the rise of computers, and teenage angst, I thought, augh. What happened to the magic? What happened to those books I used to find when I was a kid? […] What happened to those books? Those magical books? […] I went home and I didn’t have a lot of money then, so I bought a pile of biros and […] recycled paper […] and I sat down with a biro and I wrote Redwall. Eight hundred pages of it. And it took me three months to write, and I used to write it by night… and then it was finished.”
—Brian Jacques, “Liverpool: City of Literature” Roscoe Lecture (2008)
Brian Jacques’s animal fantasy series began in 1986, with the publication of its first instalment, Redwall. It has since won recognition and praise for its daring protagonists, thrilling adventures, and descriptive language, but its central figure— Redwall Abbey itself—is perhaps what continues to draw in old and new readers alike. Redwall and its sequels played a very important role in my childhood, though I wasn’t very aware of its impact at the time. I don’t think I would’ve been able to name it, either, even if I had been aware of how Redwall (as well as other fictional places like Middle Earth, Narnia, Moominvalley, and Avonlea) felt very much like home, during a time where my own ‘home’ was constantly changing. At any rate, I loved the world Brian Jacques had created, and happily devoured those stories. Whenever we visited the library, I would zero in on the children’s fiction shelves and pore over whichever volume of the series I could get my hands on. My parents would often find me sitting cross-legged on the carpet, hunched over the book, and completely engrossed. The world I was transported to was a blissful escape in many ways, but the idea of Redwall Abbey—a safe refuge in troubled times, a peaceful sanctuary for all who entered it—captured my imagination by providing exactly that in a time of my life when I sorely needed it.
Upon rereading Redwall this year, I found myself fascinated, not only by the harmony and love expressed within the abbey (which had given me so much comfort in the past), but also by the warmth that the Redwallers extended to those outside their walls. Redwall—both the physical presence of the building itself, and the emotional bond between its inhabitants—represents loving care and safety to all the characters, Redwaller or otherwise… unless, of course, they intend to harm and destroy. As Abbot Mortimer explains to the young protagonist Matthias, “all the mice [of Redwall] took a solemn vow never to harm another living creature, unless it was an enemy that sought to harm our Order by violence. They vowed to heal the sick, care for the injured, and give aid to the wretched and impoverished. So was it written, and so has it been through all the ages of mousekind since” (Jacques 15). This creed, established so early in the book, constantly remains at the forefront of the story. Moments of healing, tender care, and assistance abound, reminding the reader and the characters of the Redwallers’ unique way of life. And though the characters in Redwall face many terrifying foes, their aim is always to protect. It is their first priority, and it is the command that the legendary hero Martin leaves to Matthias: “Stand true for all./O Warrior Mouse, protect Redwall” (Jacques 144). There is even a scene that takes place when, after the antagonists are introduced, the Joseph Bell tolls a warning—and a welcome, because “even the small creatures in the wood and field who could understand no language save their own knew what it meant. ‘Time of danger, place of sanctuary’” (Jacques 47).
What creates this sense of loving care, safety, and protection in Redwall is not the absence of danger, but the presence of a shield to hold it back, the assurance of a sword with which to meet and defeat it. Redwall provides its surrounding creatures and neighbours this encouragement by giving them both the protection of its walls, and the protection extended to them by the Redwallers who are willing to fight tooth and nail against the darkness. The creatures living in Redwall are not always safe from danger, but the community they have formed and the friendships that hold them together create a sense of warmth and safety to strangers, which even the worst threats and darkest foes cannot diminish—and it is true that they often face a number of foes. As with many of the following books in the series, the characters in Redwall must do battle with multiple enemies, each with their own agenda. The tyrannical Cluny the Scourge takes centre stage, backed by his army of vermin. He is followed by the giant snake Asmodeus, the mad and unpredictable King Bull Sparra, the manipulative fox Sela, and her sneaky son Chickenhound. However, those who dwell in the abbey and those who have taken refuge within its walls are well defended by an equally large host of guardians. Those creatures who are hailed as heroes and protectors in small and large capacities are often untrained, unqualified, and unskilled compared to their opponents, but choose nevertheless to remain steadfast and courageous in times of peril for the sake of their companions.
The protagonist himself, a young and rather clumsy mouse named Matthias, begins as an ordinary mouse who admires Martin the Warrior’s bravery and skills. Led by his strong sense of justice and his deep connection and love for the community he has grown up in, Matthias gradually becomes a hero in his own right. He is one of the characters who steps up to take the offense in order to defend his home— a decision he makes when he realises that his friends’ lives are at risk, as well as the fate of the whole forest. When Matthias finally reclaims Martin the Warrior’s sword, he is told that the sword he has almost revered does not contain any magical qualities, but is merely a tool he wields. How he uses it and what he uses it for is up to him. He can choose to protect out of love, or to destroy out of hatred. When Matthias eventually takes up the sword and uses it, he does so according to the creed he and his fellow Redwallers live by: that of protection, defense, and aid. Brian Jacques himself defines a warrior in such terms. “Learn to be a warrior, not someone with a black belt in Kung Fu. I mean for anybody, any age, child, man or woman, be someone who others can point to and say, ‘There is somebody that never lies, who you can trust. There’s somebody who will not bully other people, but who will defend you against a bully. There’s somebody who has the respect of the family and who is always surrounded by friends.’ That’s a true warrior, and that’s the aim” (Brian Jacques, ChildressInk.Com).
For every literal warrior fighting at the front lines, however, there is a healer working behind the walls. What I love about the expressions of love in Redwall is that it is not limited to defense, loyalty, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself as an act of protection. Love is just as readily expressed through the Redwaller traditions of care—and of hospitality. One example of this can be found in the character of Abbot Mortimer, whose kindness towards all—regardless of age, upbringing, or species—grounds the other characters and reminds them of their shared purpose in life. He speaks gently to the younger creatures and respectfully to the older inhabitants, and shows a quiet, enduring strength that outlives the violent and destructive strength of the enemy. He does not bend or break, even when threatened with death. Additionally, Abbot Mortimer’s trust in his fellow creature and his belief in the good in others is demonstrated over and over again in the story, though his friends (and even his enemies) sometimes consider his outlook overly optimistic. Even when Cluny, who is well known for his cruelty and malice, arrives at their doorstep, the abbot is kind enough to offer “medical attention, food, clothing, [and] help upon [his] way”, should he or his army be in need of it (Jacques 53). And at another point in the story, he graciously extends rest and sanctuary to the devious fox Chickenhound. When Chickenhound expresses his disbelief at this offer, Abbot Mortimer tells him, “We would not turn you away from our gates, unless you were an enemy that meant us harm. All creatures are cared for at Redwall Abbey and it is my task to care for the sick and injured” (Jacques 198).
This sense of hospitality and care is echoed in the words and actions of the characters surrounding Abbot Mortimer. The creed that Abbot Mortimer refers to at the beginning of the story permeates the Redwallers’ daily lives, as well as the decisions they make under pressure. Brian Jacques purposefully emphasises the importance of community by interspersing certain scenes of celebration and connection amid the more action-packed advances of the enemy. In between the antagonists’ scheming and Martin’s perilous journey to reclaim Martin’s sword, moments of reprieve, rest and healing work to bring the heart of the story back into focus. Old friendships, like that of Matthias and Brother Methuselah’s, are cherished and deepened. New friendships, with new characters such as Basil Stag Hare and Silent Sam, are given room to grow and flourish. By grounding the story in these characters’ love and companionship, the themes of the story and the driving force behind its characters’ actions are further deepened—and the contrast between the protagonists and the antagonists becomes as stark as the difference between day and night. One pattern that contributes to this effect is the trail of unlikely friendships that form over the course of Matthias’s journey. Many of the creatures he meets for the first time confront him with hostility: the sparrow Warbeak, for instance, as well as the Guerrilla Shrews, the owl Captain Snow, and the cat Julian Gingivere. Their initial meetings almost set these characters up to become potential antagonists. However, Matthias is forced into situations that make negotiation and teamwork with these characters vital to both parties’ happiness and survival. When he is reunited with these newfound friends later on in the story, their meetings result in joy and relief on both sides.
The love and hospitality the characters extend to each other inside of Redwall and to the world beyond is not the only reason why so many readers love and feel drawn to Brian Jacques’s fantastical world. It is also the love and hospitality with which Brian Jacques has written these books that beckons readers to enter and take part in the celebration. Every role each character plays is treated with importance. Even during scenes like Cluny’s invasion of Redwall, Brian Jacques takes the time to describe the different roles that are essential to the survival of all. He describes the accomplishments of the warriors and the archers, but also shows how diligently and faithfully the other creatures work to fight the same battle, however indirectly such work may be. There are those who tend to the wounded, who bring food and drink to the archers, who make and distribute bandages, and who take care of the children—and it is made clear that these roles are —cooks, soldiers, artists, scribes, parents, children, elders, and so on—but the roles they play are of great importance to their communities, and on a larger scale, to the story they are part of. Redwall itself was created to welcome all. “I actually created this story for the [the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind] in Liverpool,” Brian Jacques once said. “I just wanted to write a story for them, a timeless adventure, and so being a writer with a writer’s imagination, I decided to set it in Redwall, which is just a place of my imagination, and a composite of all the things for us to be…old stone houses, monasteries, abbeys, castles… It’s a little conglomerate of us all, I suppose” (Brian Jacques, Redwall Featurette: Cluny the Scourge).
In some ways, I consider the resolution of Redwall more vital to the story than the climax of the battle, because of the constant focus on harmony and love. Abbot Mortimer lies dying, but the battle has been won, thanks to those who fought at the front lines, and those who fought outside the fray in their own ways—and thanks to the combined efforts of the Redwallers, the sparrows, the shrews, and the new friends Matthias has made along the way. Some of them are at odds with each other, due to the past that still divides them. They have never been united by the same cause until now. “What a great pity that it took so much bloodshed to unite us all,” Abbot Mortimer laments, then decrees that—“Henceforth the sparrows may come and go as they wish. They must share our food and use our Abbey, not only the roof but all of it. These good Guerrilla Shrews also—no longer will they be as gypsies roaming the woods: they will have a proper home here at Redwall as long as they wish” (Jacques 348). The ways in which all these different creatures, with their different backgrounds and different ways of life, come to understand and accept each other as friends and neighbours further extends the meaning and impact of the Redwallers’ creed. And when Brian Jacques once again paints a scene of deep connection and joyous celebration in the epilogue, he does so without disregarding the truth that evil still exists and roams the world. Instead, he paints a scene of a world where darkness is a reality and an enemy not to be underestimated, but also where goodness and light in the form of a simple abbey and the community it houses still prevail because of the love it gives freely, and the hospitality it extends to all who may wish to enter.
“Redwall is where safety and warmth surround you. Food, friends, music and song.
Redwall will always welcome you back.”
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth (and, of course, Redwall Abbey, too). These days, she spends her spare time reading Elizabeth Goudge and Brian Jacques, scribbling frantically in her notebook, and cooking up a storm in her kitchen, where she hopes the fruits of labour will turn out delicious – or at least edible. (Though her banana bread is perfectly delectable, she has yet to bake a satisfactory pie. She has concluded with some sadness that sometimes, you just can’t win.) You can also find her in her little corner of the world: https://herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
“About Brian.” Redwall Abbey, www.redwallabbey.com/.
“Brian Jacques Roscoe Lecture 2008 – Part 1.” YouTube, 9 Feb. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HNM-w9iHbA.
“Brian Jacques Roscoe Lecture 2008 – Part 2.” YouTube, 9 Feb. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9P77igLTWKE.
Jacques, Brian. Redwall. Firebird, 2002.
“Q&A With Brian Jacques.” Brian Jacques: The Official Website, redwall.org/faq.php.
“Redwall TV Featurette: Cluny the Scourge – Part I.” YouTube, 27 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YquNUD9ESOE.