Reading by Ear: Redwall

Redwall by Brian Jacques
read by a full cast


Since Reading by Ear is my reread feature, I will eventually begin eating my own tail and re-examining books that I’ve already written about here on the blog, but I’m trying to make a good faith effort to cover as many of the books that I read before college before I start doing that. Given my fickle memory, however, drawing up a complete list is pretty much impossible.

Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was a pleasant episode in my youth: convinced that the only books worthwhile were the ones in series, the seemingly endless Redwall books were a perfect complement to eating Ritz crackers and mild cheddar cheese after school. It’s such a sense memory for me that just listening to this made me want cheese. Although, to be fair, I always want to sit down with a little pot full of goat cheese, so it’s not like that’s hard or anything.

Redwall tells the story of Redwall Abbey, a peaceful sanctuary in Mossflower Woods. Young novice Matthias dreams of walking in the footsteps of the Abbey’s legendary defender Martin the Warrior, but there’s precious little opportunity for heroics in the sleepy woods. But when Cluny the Scourge, the infamous sea rat and warleader of Cluny’s Horde, comes to Mossflower Woods and decides that the Abbey will be the perfect place for him to settle on dry land, Matthias suddenly has more adventure than he knows what to do with. As all of Redwall and Mossflower Woods band together to fight against Cluny and his horde, Matthias is led by a mysterious spirit to find Martin’s legendary lost blade and take on Cluny by himself.

Given my shoddy memory, I was unsure which Redwall books I had actually read as a kid. I have memories of different covers, especially the cover to Marlfox, which I doubt I actually picked up. Starting with Redwall just seemed the logical choice, but it turned out that I had read it. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t remember, because there’s a scene in Redwall that was very formative for me.

At a certain point, as Matthias and his ancient mentor, Methuselah, search for Martin’s sword, they need the help of someone who can climb. Luckily, a squirrel couple has come to the Abbey to collect their son, and the wife is a remarkable climber. There’s a moment when Mrs. Squirrel, as she’s been referred to, is suddenly called Jess, which remains her appellation for the rest of the novel. The whole abbey gathers to watch her death-defying climb and cheer her on. The expedition fails, leaving Matthias and Methuselah to further puzzle out the whereabouts of the sword, but it did succeed in teaching me something very valuable as a preteen: mothers were people, too. It was the first time I had ever read about a mother who wasn’t characterized solely by the fact that she had a child. Throughout the novel, Jess teams up with other animals and with her son to come up with schemes to protect the abbey. It’s obvious being a mother is important to her (she adores her son), but it’s not the only thing about her: she’s a loyal friend and a bit of a daredevil. For a ten-year-old who basically thought other human beings were NPCs and found adults inscrutable, this was earth-shattering. While Redwall boasts a small but diverse crew of lady critters (including aging bruiser Constance the badger, who is awesome), that more or less fit neatly into my gynocentric conception of the world at ten, which early adolescence and the onset of the Wombat Years would soon destroy with a crushing dose of femmephobia and misogyny. But mothers being well-rounded, whole human beings? That was totally new information.

Going back to books I read as a child usually brings up two things: the first (as seen above) is nostalgic interrogation and reflection on child Clare, who, at this point, is as alien to me as she must be to you. (This is why children’s publishing is probably not my optimum niche in the publishing world.) The second is picking apart the world-building the same way you scratch off that magical silver coating on lottery tickets. It’s a compulsion, like biting one’s nails or cleaning a garage.

So I must ask the same question I scream every time I see Cars or Cars 2: where are the people? Early in the novel, Cluny and his horde ride into town on a human-sized cart with a human-sized horse. The novel’s Wikipedia page tells us that these are mistakes, as the late Jacques hadn’t fully hashed out the world of Redwall yet. In the other books, he doesn’t mention people or domesticated animals. That’s fair enough, if a little sloppy, but then you run into the series’ interesting take on morality. Morality is more or less tied to one’s species, with a few exceptions scattered throughout the novels. Besides being kind of problematic, this can flatten out characterization—you don’t need too much of a motivation to be evil if all rats are evil and you’re a rat, right? Part of the novel’s charm, as a rollicking adventure novel, may lie in its moral simplicity, but I find I’ve lost my taste for that. (Cue Hannibal binge in three… two… one…)

Redwall is a full cast production; there is an earlier audiobook with a single narrator, but I vastly prefer this. Brian Jacques narrates in his deep, booming Liverpudlian voice with considerable aplomb. The well-applied cast makes for a nicely broad soundscape, which further emphasizes the importance of community as a major theme of the series. Some thematically appropriate music is used here and there, but it works well with the material and doesn’t detract from the production. It was very pleasant to listen to; I sometimes run away from audiobooks because I have so many podcasts I want to listen to, but I was always happy to pick up Redwall.

Bottom line: Redwall remains a rollicking adventure novel with simple morals. While I’ve lost my taste for it, it’s still a worthy read for those who haven’t.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

3 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Redwall

  1. I read so many of the Redwall books as a child and on until I think early high school. But the whole morality being tied to particular species is eventually what curbed my appetite for them. I read Outcast of Redwall, where the Abbey takes in an infant ferret (son of a really bad ferret), and the book basically is flat-out nature over nurture. I was really angered by the ending when the ferret’s gesture for redemption is not seen as such by the good Redwall folk. I think I still read one more book in the series after that, but it was pretty much over then. I don’t know what my favorites would have been – maybe Mariel of Redwall or Salamandastron.

  2. Pingback: Reading by Ear: Ella Enchanted | The Literary Omnivore

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