When I was either ten or eleven, I remember one day walking into the library in my primary school and picking out a book with an otter dressed in green on the cover. She was holding a longbow and standing on a ship rowed by a hare, with a heroic-looking mouse standing in the prow. I didn’t know at the time, when I picked it up, that I was beginning what would become one of my favourite series of books. I just thought it looked like a fun story. The blurb spoke of a set of beautiful pearls, an emperor across the sea, a quest, some riddles, and a rollicking good ride all around. I was hooked. I read that book as fast as I could, deduced from it that it was part of a series, and then set about getting my hands on and reading as many of the others as I could. I also introduced my little sister to the series (as I have done with almost all books that I’ve read, um, ever) and she was soon invested in them as well.
Redwall as a series is based around an Abbey set in the quiet countryside of Mossflower, inhabited by peaceful mice, squirrels and moles (and the occasional vole), who live together in a community where they farm the land, offer respite to travellers, and eat a lot (and I mean a lot!) of food. Each Redwall book generally consists of a quest to find someone or something, often in order to ward off some great evil, undertaken by young members of the Abbey, in tandem with friendly creatures they find along the way. There is almost always a friendly hedgehog, a brave mouse or squirrel, a homely mole, a garrulous hare, and a fearsome warrior in the form of the Badger Lord, who rules over the mountain Salamandastron. In The Pearls of Lutra, the quest is to rescue the Abbot of Redwall, who has been kidnapped by villains and pirates, while the side story is finding the Pearls of Lutra, which were hidden around the Abbey by a cunning and wise old squirrel, but they can vary. Sometimes the Abbey is invaded, sometimes Salamandastron is under threat, sometimes they’re just on a fact-finding mission. Watching over all of these missions is the spirit of Martin the Warrior, a founder of the Abbey who prods the characters in the direction they need to go via dreams and cryptic messages.
Every book will have several songs, poems, recitations, and often a few riddles, as well as a lengthy description of a wonderful feast with delicious food described at length. Good characters are always moles, squirrels, mice, hares, badgers, hedgehogs, voles and watershrews, whereas the villains are foxes, rats, weasels, stoats, wildcats, rooks, crows, toads, eels, lizards and magpies. All of the creatures mentioned are native to the UK, except in certain exceptional circumstances (e.g. there’s a scorpion in Pearls of Lutra, but it’s stated to be from far-off lands).
Reading all of the Redwall books took me a very long time. By the time I read The Pearls of Lutra, which was the ninth one published, there were actually twelve available. From that starting point, I worked my way around and through the rest of the series as fast as I could, but when you don’t set your own book-buying budget, it’s harder to get hold of a whole series.
It’s not that my parents didn’t encourage me to read – they absolutely did! It’s just that an eleven-year-old demanding that you obtain twelve books for her immediately is unlikely to be listened to.
So reading the Redwall series was a mixture of books from my primary school library, local library, and other libraries in the same area, combined with buying some of them, and begging for new ones as soon as they were published. I didn’t read them in order (although what order that might be is debatable!), but rather whenever I could find one of them, I would read it. I remember getting Lord Brocktree very soon after it was published and being somewhat daunted by its size and weight. I wasn’t used to reading books with dust jackets, and didn’t know whether or not to take it off the book. Actually, I still don’t know whether or not to take covers off. I guess some things you never get the hang of.
I kept reading Redwall books until I was in my mid teens, I think. The collection that my sister and I amassed between us belongs to both of us, and I don’t think either of us is sure who owns which book. I got Triss about a year after it was published, when I would have been thirteen or so, and I do know that High Rhulain belongs to Sinéad, and Redwall itself is definitely mine, but considering that they’re all in her bookcase, I think she has successfully laid claim to them. I counted two years ago, when I was setting up my Goodreads, that I had read the first fifteen books, and then missed two before hitting up High Rhulain as my final installment.
Last year I decided I would rectify this, and seek out the six Redwall books I had missed, to complete the collection of having read all 22. (Brian Jacques sadly passed away a few years ago, so I know that there won’t be any more).
Sinéad, my sister, decided to do the same, but we ordered our re-reads slightly differently. The books weren’t published in chronological order. They actually skip around quite a lot, with Redwall, the first published, being in the middle, and other books which happened chronologically after being published in order, but those chronologically before being published I guess as the mood struck Jacques. So I decided to read them in publication order, and my sister in chronological order, and theoretically after Lord Brocktree, we should sync up and be reading them together.
There’s even a table which I’ve taken from Wikipedia to make things nice and clear:
In 2015, I read the first seven Redwall books, so I finished the year having read The Bellmaker. This year, I’ve read another five so far, and Lord Brocktree is now the next on my list. It does, however, sit very far down, beneath all my YALC reads. So it might take me a while to get there. I’ve not got very many books to go before I start hitting books I haven’t read before, which will be an interesting adventure for me.
Having reread twelve Redwall books in a year and a half, I feel that I’m qualified to make a few comments on them. So here are my remarks.
I really think that the Redwall books are a great series of children’s books. They’re richly drawn and complex, but not on a level which is too much for a child to understand. Reading them in my mid twenties, I can see the blatant character archetypes and structures which Jacques reused in every book, but they’re excellently drawn in that they help to identify the heroes and villains in the stories and draw very black and white lines of good vs evil. There are also the occasional characters who reform, or those who act contrary to how one would think they should, given their species, so perhaps the stereotyping isn’t quite as blatant as one might think.
The idea of epic quests with large casts and heroic ideals, combined with battles for the ideals of good and freedom is one which I really enjoyed when I was small. Jacques didn’t shy away from death or the horror of battle either – there were many characters in the Redwall books that I shed a tear over as they made their way to the Dark Forest gates.
One of the things which is notable about the Redwall series is the descriptions of food. Every book will have a feast (if not multiple feasts) where characters all gather together and the food is described in mouth-watering detail. I didn’t realise when I started reading Redwall that they were originally written for children in a school for the blind, so this would go a long way towards explaining that. I enjoyed it regardless, perhaps because I’m a secret glutton, so this might indicate that I would like A Song of Ice and Fire, which reputedly also has phenomenal descriptions of food.
Rereading the Redwall series is filled with nostalgia for me, as I remember how much I loved the books when I read them first. Perhaps that’s clouding my judgement, and I guess I’ll be able to see that a little more clearly when I’m reading books I haven’t read before, but if the first twelve books I’ve read so far are any indication, the Redwall series are a set of timeless classics which will stand up easily to adult eyes and re-reading, and will, I hope, be something I can share with the next generation of my family.
Another note – for some reason, despite repackaging and republishing of the books across the years, and a combination of UK/US covers, no matter what edition of a book I’m re-reading this time, I stubbornly refuse to picture them in my head as anything but the cover art of the first issue I read. So here’s a little collection of the Redwall books as I see them in my mind’s eye – even if that’s not what they look like in shops and libraries now!