‘You will find me at Noonvale on the side of a hill,
When the summer is peaceful and high…’
So sings Laterose, daughter of Urran Voh, in Martin the Warrior. Many children over the years have travelled with her to her home, but for most, it is just a visit on their way to the eventual home of Martin himself, and all those who follow his stories – Redwall Abbey.
The Tales of Redwall, by the late Brian Jacques, are many, and span a huge length of time within the world the characters inhabit. Most of the stories are focused around the region of Mossflower, where we find the beautiful and legendary Redwall Abbey, founded by Martin the Warrior and the Abbess Germaine on the ruins of Castle Kotir. Both Martin the Warrior and Mossflower deal with the theme of overthrowing tyranny and restoring peace. What’s that? Tyranny doesn’t sound like it belongs in a children’s book? On the contrary, perhaps that is exactly where it belongs.
Martin, of course, is a talking mouse – but not the kind you’d find in a giant plastic castle in Florida, nor the sort to sing cute songs about times tables. This mouse stands alongside otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs, badgers, and extremely hungry hares to defend himself and his friends from the cruelty of vermin – wildcats, stoats, weasels, ferrets and foxes. I can feel my adult readers rolling their eyes, now – you’re all far too sophisticated to indulge in stories of talking hedgehogs. That’s funny; a moment ago, you were thinking that the books sounded a little inappropriate for young readers. What’s going on?
The Tales of Redwall are a bizarre and mysterious set of twenty-two stories; they blend animal anthropomorphism easily with real, brutally honest grown-up themes. Characters – good and bad, despised and beloved – kill and die as a way of life, and though Martin founds the Abbey in Mossflower as a place of peace, it seems his dream is never to be fully realised. Though long periods of peace, often spanning generations, have been known in Mossflower, the reader has an unfortunate tendency to join the narrative just as the Abbey is facing great peril… again. The dangers are always different, however, the solutions never simple, and with mystery, humour, intrigue and tragedy pursuing one other across every page it can be very hard to put the books down.
I sometimes wonder, now, that the bookshops of my childhood put this series under the heading ’11-13 year olds’, dealing as it does with such dark themes – but then I remember picking up Salamandastron aged about eight. I didn’t understand most of the words, and it would be a year and a half before I actually managed to read it properly, but I remember staring at the cover, listening to my Dad as he explained the basics of a world he too had become completely immersed in, and longing to make the journey to the legendary fire mountain as the young hares of that world did. The language – while a little complex and descriptive for an eight-year-old – is simple enough for older children to follow, and promises to expand their vocabulary as well as their capacity for reading accents. The adult concepts that give me pause now seemed quite straightforward to me as a child, and now, some years later, I still find myself picking up new layers of meaning and understanding every time I reread the books.
The world of Redwall is completely enthralling, and it really is the little things that make all the difference – as a child, I couldn’t abide turnip, but would still beg my mother for the moles’ recipe of Deeper ‘n’ Ever Turnip ‘n’ Tater ‘n’ Beetroot pie, drawn in by the masterful descriptions of Redwall ‘vittles’ and feasts. Redwall slang – such as ‘Dibbuns’ as a term for young creatures, and ‘riverdog’ as a slightly pejorative name for an otter – sticks in the brain, and the folk songs of Mossflower are printed in full wherever they are sung, giving a rich flavour – richer even than one of Goody Stickle’s cakes – to the land. I’m sure everyone who has ever read the books, or had them read to them, imagines a different tune to the lyrics above, for example – but we have all heard Rose’s voice in our heads.
As an introduction to adult stories, where villainy is more complex than simply twirling a moustache and cackling, this is a perfect series for older children – but as adults, we could do worse than to revisit this rich tapestry of words. We might even learn something about our own world – perhaps from the Skipper of otters, or the mouse-thief Gonff, whose song at the end of Mossflower sums up the spirit of the series nicely:
‘Let no foul beast give one command,
I’ll say, “O no not me,
My back bends to no tyrant’s rule.
Hey, friends, this mouse is free.”
Free has a sound, it rings around,
A lovely way to be.
So dance or sing, do anything,
You’re free free free free freeeeeeeee!’
Eleanor Musgrove (give ’em blood and vinegar, wot wot?)