All the Little Live Armored Things: Brian Jacques, Redwall, and the Animals of Children's Literature
Brian Jacques, author of the well-known Redwall children’s book series, passed away over the weekend. I was saddened by the news, and stirred, because this series is one I can lay claim to. For some of us born a year or two before the Harry Potter generation, Redwall was our literary magic, though it involved no wizardry but its richly imagined setting: the mythical Mossflower forest and countryside. Unless you call societies of small talking mammals, waging epic battles of good and evil, magic? Then, yes. Part Arthurian legend, part Watership Down, for a young boy fascinated by his backyard, Redwall added up. Mice, rats, and squirrels were the essential characters in both worlds, along with charismatic birds like shrikes, hawks, and owls.
Anthropomorphism is a complicated subject: Now I feel that, at least in part, animals ought to exist on their own terms, in their own world, even on the page. But for me, Redwall’s animals did have a degree of ecological reality about them, though they live in an abbey. Whether I carried this into the series or it was there, truly, I'm not sure. In any case, though the series may be filled with our morality tales, and may villainously stereotype “vermin”—rats, weasels, and snakes—Jacques’s books furthered in me a fascination and respect for all the little live things, to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stegner.
I remember reading in bed, and then imagining the mice and rats scurrying through the understory, in their leaf litter tunnels, in the California night. Sometimes I would hear them, scratching outside—or even in the walls. They weren’t carrying tiny shields and swords, but they were talking to each other—leaving scents, and squeaks, rarely audible. They were living and dying, too, in a battle to reproduce. When the great-horned or Western screech owl called out in the pines behind my room, and the rest of the night fell quiet, it was all the more mysterious, and real, to me, because it had existed in Redwall as well.
If we don’t read and care about animals when we’re little, when will we ever? My hunch is that many bird- and nature-enthusiasts born in the 80s encountered Redwall on their way to adulthood. Others encounter other series. Jacques himself was inspired by The Wind in the Willows. Thanks, then, to him and many authors for sparking so many imaginations, some of which now work—or will—to make sure small bird and mammal societies thrive.
And on that note, stay tuned for Senior Editor Julie Leibach’s series of children’s book reviews here on The Perch.