Anyone who was recently a nine-year-old boy shed at least a mouse-sized tear last week, when Brian Jacques passed away at age 71. He was the author of the Redwall series, which was, in the pre-Potter era, the best set of chunky addictive novels a kid could get a hold of.
Over the course of 21 books—a 22nd will arrive posthumously—Jacques carved out the sprawling mythos of a world inhabited by small animals, a world richer than anything else in the genre somewhat dubiously referred to as “young adult” fiction. His formula was curious but effective: medieval warfare enacted by woodland creatures. He was a fine storyteller and his books had some nice illustrations, but his singular talent was his sense of the epic. Excepting the stature of the characters, everything about Redwall was massive, sweeping, lush.
I can still recall the satisfying heft of Salamandastron, not only one of the first Redwall books I ever read but also one of my first “chapter books,” that momentous landmark of the young reader. At that point, soldiering into triple-digit page counts was an intimidating feat in itself, but Jacques made it easy. His style wasn’t totally simplistic—those books did wonders for a growing vocabulary—but it was always eminently readable. His novels were the kind you could tear through in minivan backseats, each battle sequence lasting conveniently the amount of time it took to drive to school.
Even though he wrote for a young audience, Jacques never shied away from war. His books were odes to stylized violence, only it just so happened that the perpetrators of that violence are typically thought to scurry around our basements and backyards. But that made it palatable. He took squirrels, rats, mice, moles, and foxes and placed in their paws axes, bows, swords, maces, and spears. Conflicts between the species spanned the course of entire books, and he spared no details. My hands trembled when I read about the “Bloodwrath,” which was a strange fugue state that the badger warriors occasionally entered, a kind of blind rage that reliably produced badass descriptive passages and high body counts. But they trembled in awe, not fear. Only a powerful and delicate writer could go on for pages about violent psychosis and not scar or scare a third grader.
Violence aside, it could also be argued that he obliquely addressed the issue of race. Each species had their own unique and memorable dialect and culture. But when Jacques pitted his animals against one another, it was always made evident who we were supposed to root for. The battles were bloody but the Redwall series was characterized by its clean, cut-and-dry morality; we never had to grapple with ambiguity. Somehow his tales never felt shallow though, and I wouldn’t solely attribute that to my age at the time. The sensory richness of the world he envisioned counterbalanced its ethical simplicity.
And if there was a crowning achievement of Jacques’ descriptive ability, or indeed the entire series, it would be his meditations on food. If you were to sum up all the collective tummy rumbling he’s inflicted over the years, Brian Jacques would probably be responsible for famine. Nowhere, not even in the finest food writing, has anyone ever crafted such loving descriptions of food and drink. Paragraphs bordering on edible. Every feast was a smorgasbord, each morsel catalogued in extended ramblings that (in retrospect) spiraled on at absurd length. But it never felt like too much. I salivated at the thought of the moles’ potato pies, longed desparately for just one sip of the otters’ spicy shellfish broth. Jacques produced an entire generation of kids who longed to taste a “strawberry cordial,” whatever that was. (I imagine something pink and bubbly and pleasantly cool to the tongue, because they kept it in the cellars.) Even though the plots of these books have slowly dissolved in my mind over time, those descriptons remain achingly vivid.
Jacques’ oeuvre is even more impressive when you consider the non-linear nature of his narrative. No book latched neatly onto the previous one; there was no chronological order. Each new book was a different piece of the legend, and Jacques hopped fluidly between eras and races, spinning an intricately plotted history, a veritable mythology, dense and rewarding but accessible enough for a child. He will be missed, by young minds and stomachs alike.