The BBC reports this morning that Brian Jacques, the author behind the Redwall series of children’s fantasy novels, died this weekend of a heart attack. He was 71.
The Redwall books were the first chapter books that drew me into becoming a voracious young reader, a primary refuge in an elementary school environment where I only had a couple of friends. As mentioned elsewhere, I’d read Mariel of Redwall eleven times by the time I was eight. And I know I’m not the only one who wished almost every day that they lived in Brian Jacques’ exquisitely described world.
The first book in the Redwall series was written with no intent to publish: while working as a truck driver delivering milk, Jacques befriended the students at a school for the blind and wrote Redwall in a exceptionally descriptive style precisely for them. Fortunately for the rest of us, a friend showed his manuscript to a publisher without telling him, and the company immediately agreed to publish it and signed the author for five more novels. Jacques’ kindness towards his readers, especially children, didn’t flag once he became a world famous author whose books have been published in twenty-eight languages, either.
While I was in middle school I had the good fortune to attend a signing by him at a New York bookstore. After reading an excerpt from Outcast of Redwall, he answered questions and then, despite arthritic problems, signed the book of every kid there, giving each one a heroic Redwall-themed title in the dedication. Mine was “the Sparkling Susana.”
But at a certain point, describing my own experiences with Brain Jacques and his work is no longer very effective to those who’ve never read it, so I’ll leave with the first four paragraphs of Mossflower, the second Redwall book, to give you a taste of some of Jacques’ very best stuff.
Mossflower lay deep in the grip of midwinter beneath a sky of leaden gray that showed tinges of scarlet and orange on the horizon. A cold mantle of snow draped the landscape, covering the flatlands to the west. Snow was everywhere, filling ditches, drifting high against hedgerows, making paths invisible, smoothing the contours of earth in its white embrace. The gaunt, leafless ceiling of Mossflower Wood was penetrated by constant snowfall, which carpeted the sprawling woodland floor, building canopies on evergreen shrubs and bushes. Winter had muted the earth; the muffled stillness was broken only by a traveler’s paws.
A sturdily built young mouse with quick dark eyes was marching confidently across the snowbound country. Looking back he could see his tracks disappearing northward into the distance. Farther south the flatlands rolled off endlessly, flanked to the west by the faint shape of distant hills, while to the east stood the long ragged fringe marking the marches of Mossflower. His nose twitched at the elusive smell of burning wood and turf from some hearth fire. Cold wind soughed from the treetops, causing whorls of snow to dance in icy spirals. The traveler gathered his ragged cloak tighter, adjusted an old rusting sword that was slung across his back, and trudged steadily forward, away from the wilderness, to where other creatures lived.
It was a forbidding place made mean by poverty. Here and there he saw signs of habitation. The dwellings, ravaged and demolished, made pitiful shapes under snowdrifts. Rearing high against the forest, a curious building dominated the ruined settlement. A fortress, crumbling, dark and brooding, it was a symbol of fear to the woodland creatures of Mossflower.
This was how Martin the Warrior first came to Kotir, place of the wildcats.