Posted December 24, 2009
It’s one of the best adventure novels I’ve read lately: the original Redwall by Brian Jacques. Talking animals, an evil threat, a perilous quest, a sympathetic hero, and some suitably gruesome moments… the book has it all. And with a mouse as a hero, the view of carnivores is one of fear and loathing.
The title refers to Redwall Abbey, an ancient building with strong walls that houses the Redwall Order. This group of herbivores is known for their healing powers and their offer to heal any woodland or meadowland creature. Matthias the mouse is supposed to join the order, but when an evil group of rats, lead by Cluny the Scourge, threatens the abbey, he goes on a quest.
So far, so run-of-the-mill for anthropomorphic talking animals in a juvenile fantasy. Jacques adds some items that really juice up the story.
For one thing, he doesn’t stint on the blood, gore, and gruesomeness. The evil antics of evil Cluny and his evil rats could have been tiresome and predictable, except that there are some rather visceral moments of danger and death. Cluny is a superb commander and has many crafty ways of enforcing obedience (a la Darth Vader now that I think about it). And his rationale for wanting to destroy the defenders of Redwall Abbey actually makes sense – the unstoppable horde becomes its own rationale, since they’ve left a long trail of destruction behind them, and Cluny will lose his hold over them (and his position of power) if the trend does not continue. Not a particularly fancy psychological setup, but perfectly serviceable.
As a second item in the book’s favour, we have Matthias, the lowly mouse. He doesn’t have much physical strength, in comparison to some of his opponents, but he has a brain, and the book shows him using his smarts at every turn. There’s a quest for a sword, rather blah-blah-blah at this point in the history of the fantasy genre, but every stop along the way was interesting. It pushed a certain “I’m 13 years old and this quest is cool!” button in my brain; not only that, but the somewhat more grown-up section of my brain was admiring how cleverly all the pieces were put together.
Strangely, I had never read any of the Redwall books before. Jacques published the eponymous first entry in the series back in 1986, and since then there have been nearly two dozen sequels, as well as picture books, a cookbook, an opera, a short-lived television series, and a rather superb series of audiobooks (I’ve just started listening to the second one). Millions of copies sold, and from what I can tell from the first book, deservedly so.
I will add, however, that I got a little worried by how much narrative punch Jacques can squeeze out of the death and destruction of carnivores in the story.
This was not something I would have thought about, except that I happened to recently read a non-fiction book called Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg. The subtitle rather dramatically announces everything you need to know about the book: “Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators”. Stolzenburg points out that the top predator in a ecological system is crucial to biodiversity. Among his many examples is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone – beforehand, elks were grazing riverbanks to the point of destruction, while after, they would avoid potential ambush sites like the riverbank, and a great profusion of plants, undergrowth, and smaller creatures returned. It’s well worth a read if you are interested in this topic.
Stolzenburg, apropos to the topic at hand, mentions that top predators have a long history of cultural… if not stigma, then a recurring role as the villain of the piece. The wolf in the forest threatening your fairy-tale child, the shark eating the swimmers at your resort, etc, etc. This was not something I had sat down and thought about before, and the coincidence of reading Redwall at the same time was rather shocking to me.
There are at least two carnivores in Redwall who suffer the consequences of living in a story. They are both perfectly natural creatures, but they are demonized to a great extent, and rather effectively. One dies at the hand of a triumphant Matthias, while another has to make good on a foolish bet to never again prey on the shrews and mice of the forest. I won’t say more because the story is structured around these climactic showdowns. But without the evil carnivores, and their physical destruction or the destruction of their natural ways, the story would simply fall apart: like a lot of heroes of this sort, Matthias returns triumphantly to the fight against Cluny with a great band of allies he’s gained in the earlier moments of his quest. They are grateful to him and willing to fight on his side because he’s lifted the terrible burden of having a neighbourhood predator around.
Now, I’m aware that this is a fun story, and adventure novels and thrillers are particularly susceptible to trends in the identity of villains. For example, it seems like zombies and Nazis (and maybe aliens) are about the only villains left for shoot-em-up videogames. For a talking animal story to go without hulking predators is almost unthinkable (and to clarify: in the first book at least, Jacques leaves out humans altogether, which removes the human-threat-as-plot-engine from works like Watership Down or The Secret of NIMH). I still enjoyed the book a great deal, and I will be tracking down as many of the subsequent books as retain my interest. But it made for a rather in-your-face example of the cultural construction of predators which, as Stolzenburg points out, has real-world consequences in how we conceive of the world around us and manipulate it to our liking.
Apologies for closing on such a depressing note! While reading Stolzenburg’s book, I was desperately hoping for a “here’s what you can do” section at the end, but no luck.