This past weekend, British author Brian Jacques, creator of the Redwall series, died of a heart attack. He was 71.
My grandmother gave me a copy of the original Redwall novel for my ninth birthday. She didn’t know it was the first book of a series, or that it was first published the same year I was born; she’d simply seen it and thought of me. Being a stubborn, contrary child, my usual reaction to being told I’d like something was to try and dislike it as swiftly as possible, just to prove how unpredictable I was, but grandma didn’t go down that road. She just gave me the book, and waited. The front cover showed a rearing horse hitched to a rat-filled wagon. The sky and surrounding air were tinged with purple, and in the background was a red stone abbey situated in a lush forest. It drew me in. And so, because it was a birthday present, because nobody had tried to preempt my tastes by telling me I’d like it, because the cover intrigued me, I started reading.
And was instantly hooked.
I can’t remember how I found out about the rest of the books in the series. What I do know is that I bought every single one, read them in order, then waited and waited and waited what felt like an interminable length of time for the next book, The Pearls of Lutra, to be released, a pattern which went on to dominate my childhood. Just as Jacques wrote slightly more than a book a year for twenty years, so did I reread his work on what averaged out as an annual basis, only slowing down as the gap between my own age and that of the intended audience grew too large to ignore. Even so, I kept up with Redwall until 2004, the year I started at university; the last five books are the only ones I’ve never read. That’s a long time to be under an author’s wing, but when the author is somebody like Brian Jacques, it’s definitely a good thing.
In the world of Redwall, protagonists were as often female as male; the same was true of villains. Though there were plenty of warrior characters, there were also healers, historians, builders, recluses and spiritual leaders: strength and courage had many different definitions throughout the series, and were never the sole prerogative of sword-carriers. Slavery, greed and warmongering were always the goals of various enemies; Redwallers and their allies fought for egalitarianism, charity and peace. Crucially for a young storyteller, Jacques never shied away from killing his characters, even when they were children, elderly or in love: I must have cried a hundred times reading his books, furious at the deaths of Rose and Methuselah, Piknim and Finnbarr, and yet I always came back for more. Even though it wasn’t safe, I cared about the world; and even though I feared losing them, I loved the characters. Just reading through plot summaries of his novels has brought tears to my eyes, so that suddenly, I’m nine years old again. And who knows? Maybe that means I’m not too old for Redwall, after all. Maybe I never was.
Farewell, Brian Jacques. You’ll be missed.