Behind Red Stone Walls
Many readers’ experiences with Brian Jacques’ Redwall books began in childhood. I was in my senior year of high school when I first discovered the books, but as with all of my reading, age never mattered, whether it was my age or the intended audience of the books.
At that time, since I didn’t have a good bookstore close to home, I picked up a lot of my casual reading from the book and magazine sections of local grocery stores. One day I found Martin the Warrior on those racks alongside thrillers and romances, and from the first glance at the cover, I was hooked.
It was a while before I realized the book was technically children’s fiction. This paperback edition was mass-market size, not the larger format I was used to for middle-grade fiction, and the bookstore where I bought the later works shelved all of them in the science fiction and fantasy section. To me it just felt like fantasy, with a childlike sense of wonder and its cast of animal characters — some friendly, some fierce — that appealed to me instantly. I’d never read anything quite like it, and as soon as I could, I started tracking down the other books.
Throughout my life, there have been various authors — only one or two at a time — from whom I’m willing to purchase hardcovers without having read the book first. Brian Jacques occupied that honored position for several years. While I quickly caught on to the formula of his plots, I loved inhabiting the world of fairy-tale valor he’d created.
By the time Marlfox was published in 1998, I had recently married and was living in San Diego. While there, I’d had the opportunity to meet more than one of my favorite authors, and I kept hoping for Jacques to visit. I finally got my chance when he came to a children’s bookstore in Riverside, California, in February 1999, while on tour for Marlfox. Because he’d injured his hand at a previous stop, he wasn’t able to personalize books, just sign them, but it was still a chance to say hello — though I think I was the oldest fan there, unless you count the bookstore’s staff.
I’d only ever owned a paperback copy of Redwall, so I bought the hardcover anniversary edition for him to sign. At some point when he was signing the book, either I or my husband mentioned that I’d written a children’s book as well (a middle-grade portal fantasy that remains unpublished and probably always will). He said well, someday he would have to come stand in line for my book. I babbled something inane along the lines of how he wouldn’t read it, though, because I’d heard that he never read other children’s authors. I admit I don’t remember most of the talk he gave that day, but I do remember how much I loved hearing him, how wonderful he was with the children who sat at his feet, and (as I noted in my journal afterward) that “he reminded me of the kind of uncle that all the children look forward to seeing, with stories to tell them and treats hidden in pockets.”
My husband and I left San Diego not long after that, moving back to my home state of Virginia, to an apartment near Dulles Airport. There were planes flying over almost constantly, their contrails marking the daytime skies. And then came a September morning in 2001 when there were suddenly no planes in the sky at all.
Living and working so close to Washington, D.C. in the days immediately following September 11 created an unfamiliar and unsettling atmosphere of tension, and the fact that my sister had joined the Army reserves earlier that year didn’t help. When that next Redwall book came out, I felt an odd sense of relief along with the usual excitement. There was such a wonderful comfort in it, in the familiarity of it. Here was a place where nothing had changed, when so much seemed so horribly strange and uncertain. Here was a place where clear lines were drawn between good and evil, where friend and foe were obvious, where those who died were remembered with love and honor. All at once I understood the appeal of that formula I’d begun to feel dissatisfied with.
I don’t know whether it’s quite true to say that I outgrew the Redwall books. As I said before, age really had nothing to do with it. In time, I tired of reading the same story over and over with interchangeable characters. I kept hoping for a good stoat or an evil badger, something to acknowledge the shades of gray both in my life and in the world, but it never quite happened. As much as I now understood why — Redwall and its sequels are very much romances, in the literary sense — the books gradually stopped satisfying me as they once had. As years passed, though I still had fond memories of Redwall (and still re-read Martin the Warrior from time to time), I stopped buying the new books. The last Redwall book I purchased was Triss.
Sometimes we don’t realize our influences until we see them reflected plainly back to us in our own work. In 2005, I embarked on a new challenge as a writer: my first year of NaNoWriMo. The advice of NaNoWriMo is to write what you love, to basically be a kid in a candy store and put in everything you love to write and read. I’d had a story in mind I thought would work, a medieval fantasy about a unicorn prince fighting to regain his throne, something where I could have fun throwing in all the elements I loved — the wise healer, the female warrior, a world of taverns and cottages and castles. Along the way, sure enough, I wound up with warrior squirrels, and a female badger, and a magic sword, and a castle I called Whitestone. I realized then how much I owed to Jacques’ work, how much of it had seeped into my heart and my imagination and remained there despite the faults I’d later found. I still sometimes refer to By Sword and Star as “Redwall for grownups” — though when I say that, I certainly don’t mean to imply that Redwall isn’t still a good read for any age.
In the years since Jacques’ passing, I’ve tried to read some of the Redwall books that were published after I stopped keeping up with them. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get interested in them anymore. The door of Redwall Abbey seems to have been shut behind me, and sadly I can’t re-open it and be the reader I was then. Still, perhaps someday I’ll be able to go back, and if I do, I know there’ll be a warm welcome for me, with a place set at that long table heaped with nutbread, Abbey trifles, hotroot soup, and deeper ‘n ever pie.
I’ve heard offhand that Jacques’ opinion of furry was not a positive one, and if that’s true, I’m sorry for it. I like to think a better and wider introduction to the fandom, beyond the realm of Rule 34, might have led to a better relationship, and to an understanding that many of his adult readers in the fandom were reading for the same adventure and the same feelings of security and comfort and courage that his younger readers enjoyed.
For myself, I raise a glass of October ale in memory and honor, to an author I loved and met but never quite got to thank properly for being a part of my life, for helping give shape to my own creations, and most of all, for giving me shelter when I needed it, behind those strong walls of red stone, where all of good heart were welcome.