There’s always a special place in my heart for those stories, written by a sailor in Liverpool, of warrior mice and berserker badger lords. Reading the Redwall series as a middle school kid transported me to a world where the heroes and villains were talking animals, and the heroes regularly embarked on grand adventures and triumphed over evil. This was the first time that I was blown away by the power of words, the power to completely suck you in and make you care for characters and a world entirely thought up in someone else’s head. In a time when I, the weirdo and the nerd, had trouble fitting in with my peers, reading Redwall was my solace and escape. Later, I thought, “I want to write stories like this.” I credit the start of my journey into writing my own fiction entirely to Redwall, and many times I wish I had the chance to tell Brian Jacques how much his books meant to me as a reader and a writer.
Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), as I look back fondly at my memories of reading Redwall, I made a connection that I hadn’t realized before. The Redwall books are more than flavored with Christianity. There’s a dash of Orthodox Christianity in particular.
Anyone familiar with the Redwall books knows that the language and imagery used is distinctly Christian—the presence of characters titled Abbots, Abbesses, Brothers, Sisters, Friars, novices, and of course Redwall Abbey itself. What might be less obvious to some, however, is that the core image that ties all the books together, the tapestry of Redwall’s greatest champion, Martin the Warrior, draws from the distinctly Orthodox Christian idea of icons.
The tapestry is Redwall Abbey’s greatest treasure. Inhabitants of the abbey regard Martin and his depiction on the tapestry with great respect, much like how Orthodox Christians venerate a saint and his or her portrayal in an icon. The Redwallers believe that Martin’s spirit resides in the tapestry, and in almost every book, he communicates to the heroes through the tapestry or in dreams. I never got the impression that Martin was treated and worshipped like a god, but rather, honored like a saint in the world of Redwall.
Redwall villains, many of whom are superstitious and fearful of the supernatural, believe that the tapestry is imbued with power, and that robbing the abbey of that power is the key to subjugating the abbey dwellers. In Redwall, the first book published in the series, there’s a prominent subplot involving the villain, a one-eyed rat named Cluny the Scourge, stealing the tapestry. Later, Marlfox is an entire book dedicated to the quest of four heroes who leave Redwall and embark on a dangerous quest recover the stolen tapestry. Each time, the villain is thwarted and the tapestry returns to its rightful place in the abbey.
The villains are right, in a way—the tapestry does give the Redwallers a special kind of power: the power to be peaceful yet not weak. Again and again, the inhabitants of Redwall Abbey have fended off vermin hordes and warlords that should have easily obliterated the abbey with their superior battle experience and savagery. Yet the abbey continues to stand, and the heroes triumph. That message of “peace not equating weakness” is a powerful one that is resonating and relevant today. Some fights can be won without needless violence and malice.
Another item of equal importance is Martin’s sword, which is hung with the tapestry. It’s roughly comparable to a saint’s relic—while the sword isn’t part of the bodily remains (which the definition of a relic entails), it was an extension of Martin and his commitment to defend, like another arm. Moreover, the sword endures and doesn’t corrode through the passage of time, so I count it as a relic in my book. Like the tapestry, Martin’s sword also has a special power. It inspires new generations of heroes, and inspires the unlikeliest of characters to find the valor and sense of justice they didn’t know they had before. You know who’s the hero for any given Redwall book when a character takes up the sword.
I’m not Orthodox, but as a Catholic, I have a newfound appreciation for the theological influence behind the Redwall books. Whether Brian Jacques had Orthodox Christianity in mind or not, I’m not sure, and he may not have taken Christian themes further like, say, CS Lewis did with The Chronicles of Narnia, but the similarities are still there for me to see.
I think that mentioning CS Lewis makes a good segue into mentioning JRR Tolkien, who of course wrote The Lord of the Rings: another influence on Redwall. Besides the epic, sweeping, medieval atmosphere permeating the worlds of both series, there’s also the clear, unambiguous distinction between good and evil. In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, there’s not a single mention of any good Orc, Goblin, Uruk-Hai, etc. In fact, the very idea wasn’t possible. Evil was twisted and corrupt through and through. (Tolkien’s worldbuilding and mythos around the idea of good and evil makes room for another, separate discussion.) Likewise, the vermin villains in Redwall are almost always bad, with no redeeming qualities or no chance for redemption. Because of this, the Redwall series has drawn some criticism for lacking nuanced characters. As a kid, I didn’t think anything of it. I was having too much fun with being pulled along for the adventurous ride. And that’s what matters as a kid, right? Having fun. There were a few exceptions to the vermin villain mold:
-Veil Sixclaw, the son of a ferret warlord who was brought up by a kind mouse at Redwall
-Romsca, the ferret captain who protected her Abbot hostage from her nasty co-workers, the monitors.
-Blaggut, a dim-witted yet kind searat whose fondness for the Abbey children won over his loyalty to his much more savage and ruthless captain.
These “good” villains are some of my favorite characters in the series, and I wished that Brian Jacques had written more of these kinds of characters. Well, nothing can be done about that now—he passed away in 2011. What can be done, however, is writing my own “good” villains. Now that I’m older and have seriously committed to writing stories good enough for publication, I use this aspect of Redwall as a valuable reminder of how I can emulate the spirit of the books I’ve enjoyed and admired while paving the way for my own approach to writing.
Another target of criticism for the Redwall series is the predictable and formulaic plot. But I don’t think that Brian Jacques ever intended to be subtle and keeping you guessing. And I continue to love the Redwall books for the same reason that I love Pokemon and still buy the games. Think of the same sculpture being painted a different color every time. You know it’s still the same shape and form underneath, but it’s still fun (at least to me) to see how it looks in different colors.
Were the Redwall books perfect? As with all things, no, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I had immensely enjoyed reading them as a kid, and they had a profound influence on shaping me into the kind of writer I am today.