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In Search of Redwall: Finding the Redwall Genre
Publishers Weekly said:
"Jacques creates an animal world as compelling as that of The Wind in the Willows… (An) epic adventure that will keep fans of Tolkien and King Arthur tales engaged to the last battle."
School Library Journal said:
"Brian Jacques has the true fantasy writer's ability to create a wholly new and believable world."
The Boston Phoenix said:
"Children are privileged to enter the rich world of Redwall and Mossflower. So are the parents who get to come along."
Each of these quotes paints a vastly unique picture of Redwall: an imminent epic classic, a masterpiece of Fantasy, and a children's series that parents will enjoy as well. This is just scratching the surface of the great well of categories into which people have tried to place Redwall. From my personal experience, I have seen Redwall placed in "Juvenile," "Intermediate," "Young Adult," "Fantasy," and, believe it or not, "Science Fiction" in bookstores and libraries. Were I to hear all of your reports, I am certain you could add an even broader scope to my list. In the midst of all this variance of opinion, we may begin to wonder, "What is Redwall?" Let us search together for the nameless genre of Redwall…
First, let us explore the genre succinctly expressed by Publishers Weekly: the imminent epic classic. Redwall has been compared to many different landmarks of literature, among them the aforementioned The Wind in the Willows, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and King Arthur legends. Redwall indisputably shares certain aspects with each and as such is a good candidate for the genre. Perhaps the answer to the quest lies within an examination of some of these classic titles… Let us examine Middle Earth (short for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) and try to identify what special qualities it shares with Redwall.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth at first glance shares little with Redwall, but, as Sam Gamgee said of Lorien, "The magic is down deep, where I can't put my hands on it…" Redwall's kinship with Middle Earth is indeed beneath the surface and requires a deep examination. The first similarity I espy is the distinct moral division of the villains and the heroes, with a few slinky, smelly little thought-provoking exceptions like Gollum: a creature who succumbed to the lure of the evil Ring, and Veil: a ferret-child raised as a goodbeast who in the end gave in to his predatory nature. Secondly, though scale and means differ, Redwall and the Middle Earth books are stories of conflict. The traditional battle of good and evil (which people of all ages crave) teems in these books, represented in the most exalted manner as light and darkness, black and white. Although this is decidedly more visually expressed (or stereotyped, if you like) in Tolkien's work, Redwall is very clear about good and evil through word, deed, and especially species. Thirdly, both series have a deep foundation in myth and legend. Redwall's characters are animals that represent different personalities (e.g. the sly fox, the shy mouse): a device which appears in folklore all over the globe (for example, Aesop's Fables, Anansi's adventures, and the Uncle Remus stories). The Middle Earth stories draw mostly from Norse and English mythology. Among its ageless inhabitants are orcs, trolls (particularly big ones), and goblins, as well as elves (not the short kind, but the tall) and dwarves. Another common tie is the theme of small heroes, which two profound quotes confirm. "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." (Galadriel the Elf, as expressed in Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring") "Mice are my heroes because, like children, mice are little and have to learn to be courageous and use their wits." (Brian Jacques) I think the most important thing that Redwall and Middle Earth share is the theme of love in all its manifestations: the kind that true lovers know, the love of family, the love of the native land, and the love of friends, also known as brotherly love. Fellowship, comrades, loyal servants, an elvish fiancée… it all rings with the same resounding theme: love conquers all.
Eureka!!! Look what we have unveiled already! We have found all the indispensable themes of Redwall as well as a close-fitting match in the epic classics The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. There are some differences to look at, but first, let's take a look at some literature that is reputedly more similar in time period: Arthurian legend. Most Redwall fans have heard of King Arthur's famous legendary deeds through movies, including Disney's "The Sword in the Stone," Hallmark Entertainment's "Merlin," or the musical "Camelot." Perhaps you have ventured into Arthurian writing as well. Tennyson's poetic "Idylls of the King" and "The Lady of Shallot", Thomas Bulfinch's "King Arthur and His Knights" from his Mythology book, T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone trilogy, or Rosemary Sutcliff's Arthurian Trilogy may have been your choice tellings. You undoubtedly are familiar with the chivalric order of the Round Table that Arthur established and how he claimed Excalibur. Similarities emerge already! You will perhaps notice the knightly conduct of Redwall warriors: they are gentle in conduct with ladies, just in war, and overall honorable. They, without question, outdo Lancelot himself! Arthur's claiming of Excalibur has a parallel in Matthias' quest for Martin's sword (which, for trivia, was surnamed Ratdeath. Does anyone remember?). In addition, although no religion except an instinctual paganism is emphasized, Redwall and Camelot have many Christian influences in them. They both have abbeys and peaceful orders, as well as a sense of morality and justice. The time of the legendary King Arthur, too, is similar to that of Redwall. Many Arthurian depictions take place in the height of the colorful, showy, pomp-filled, and musical era of the late Middle Ages circa 1300, just on the border of the Renaissance. The tourney scene from the musical "Camelot" is a fine example: jugglers; a little troubadour band bedecked with flowers, tall hats with streaming veils, colorful tunics, and a merry soprano; heralds blasting trumpets adorned with elaborate flags emblazoned with knightly crests. Correction: this era was only showy for the wealthy. The rest of society was decidedly less extravagant of dress, homespun materials being the fabrics of choice for the middle and lower classes. The inhabitants of Castle Floret, the Greeneyes', Emperor Ublaz, and traveling actors sport the most colorful fashions in Redwall, certainly inspired by this elegant era. Now, the time has come to look at the differences…
As close as kinship may be, these books have two obvious differences with Redwall. Through these differences, we can examine Redwall's candidacy for being a Fantasy series as well. First comes the most obvious of all: human beings. The two examples above, the King Arthur Legends and Middle Earth stories, are populated by humans (and human-like beings). Second, the two examples employ the use of magic, however discreetly. Gandalf and Merlin are the two main wizards that place them as… Fantasy! Epic Fantasy! This is the genre that we have explored. Let's examine Fantasy in general. This will move a lot more quickly now that we have discovered these qualities of Redwall.
- Clear division of good and evil
- Stories of conflict
- Foundation in folklore (Personified animal characters)
- Theme of small heroes
- Knightly warriors
- Influenced by Christianity
- Mostly medieval settings
The Question of Fantasy
What is Fantasy? What makes a story fit into the Fantasy genre? First of all, I will mention that Fantasy is a relatively new term for this kind of story. These stories were Fantasy before Fantasy and it is safe to say that they are the parents of modern Fantasy. There are three qualities that stories from the genre in question often have. First, they must have some abstract non-scientific force involved in the plot that guides the characters along their way, like magic, energy, or some other power. Secondly, signature species are inclined to appear, like fairies, dwarves, elves, goblins, and especially dragons. Thirdly, the setting is often medieval (-esque), or at least is characterized by limited military advancement- the use of swords, spears, arrows and such as opposed to mechanized weaponry like guns- as well as a trend to ancient fashions (capes are exceedingly popular). The School Library Journal quote at the beginning, as well as the very spines of your Ace and AvonNova Redwall paperbacks testify, (and Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Waldenbooks, etc.) Redwall is frequently placed as a Fantasy. We may judge for ourselves from the known qualities of other Fantasies whether or not it fits. Brian Jacques himself disagrees with this placement. He refers to his books as "good yarns." What makes a good yarn? We can explore that after we examine Redwall and Children's literature.
Redwall: Children's Classic
The Boston Phoenix has placed Redwall firmly into the ranks of Children's literature with the above quote, which I will repeat: "Children are privileged to enter the rich world of Redwall and Mossflower. So are the parents who get to come along." True as this is, it can raise an eyebrow. In my personal experience alone, I know Redwall fans who were from 2 years old (my cousin, with Redwall TV) to their mid 70's (my grandmother). Children's literature is not limited to children. It is no insult to Redwall to call it Children's literature; in fact, it pays it a high compliment. How? Let's look.
This genre has the privilege of being one of the most tasteful genres on the market; it has to be tasteful to be accepted as appropriate for juvenile minds. Thus, we can safely assume some good things about a Children's book. First, foul language, when it appears, will be mild and often spelled derivatively. Secondly, we can assume that when adult themes appear, they will leave much detail to the imagination and to inference. Thirdly, the text will probably be on a more comprehensible level, explaining some more advanced ideas, vocabulary words, and such on a level appropriate for young readers so they can keep up with the plot. For example, they would explain what mercenaries are: soldiers for hire; or they would explain what exactly it meant to "reconnoiter": to explore, like we're doing now.
This explicit, clear, and simple manner of speaking is helpful to all ages. In non-fiction, it yields a no-nonsense approach to information, which is convenient to adults as well as children. In Fiction, it yields a leisurely, enjoyable level of storytelling: another "huzzah" for all. Redwall fits in quite snugly to this genre, does it not? Does it not also fit snugly into the good yarn? Aha! Good yarns…
The "Good Yarn"
Brian Jacques personally refers to his stories as "good yarns." In many an interview he has told the tale of his early experiences with literature. His father would firmly encourage him to read, saying "Read this, son." He did not dare disobey. Robinson Crusoe, the Tarzan books, and Robert Louis Stevenson's novels, as well as the Homerian epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are some of the stories that have provided him inspiration through the years: his first "good yarns." He writes the Redwall series in the tradition of these classic tales of adventure.
In our expedition, we discovered some of the most important themes and morals of Redwall by comparing it with some excellent standards of Epic Fantasy. Also, we unearthed some broad guidelines for Fantasy and Children's books. Thirdly, we learned a bit about the "genre" in which Brian Jacques places his books. We've learned many things, but have we fulfilled the mission of our quest? What is the Redwall genre? I'll attempt to answer that with another question: need everything be categorized in a genre? Through searching Epic Fantasy, Modern Fantasy, and Children's literature and seeing the qualities that each genre shares (or does not share) with Redwall, hopefully Redwallers young and old may draw some insight therein. I have enjoyed this quest thoroughly and look forward to questing with such wonderful comrades again. Before we depart, let's give up a great battle cry for Redwall: an imminent epic classic for all ages. Please let your cry be unique, like every fan's vision, like every character of Redwall, from "Eulalia!" to "Logalog!" It doesn't have to be out loud, just let it resound, that we might never forget why we first began the quest. Ready? Go! Reeeeeedwaaaaaaaall!
- Illustration from a foreign edition of The Bellmaker
- Photo of Brian Jacques by Dierk Meyer
- Illustration of Father Abbot by Christopher Denise
- Illustration of Father Abbot with Bungo by Christopher Denise
- Animation Frame Photo from Nelvana's "Brian Jacques' Redwall" Television Series
- Welcome to Redwall (a promotional anthology)
- Several archived interviews with Brian Jacques (Over the course of my Redwall fanhood)
- The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (films and books)
- Personal experience and many other resources