OK, no matter which abysmal places this animal-themed series went AFTERWARDS, the first Redwall title was an awesome read. All the elements of a classic children’s tale are out in force. It’s occasional silliness is acceptable because we haven’t read it long enough for it to become unbearable. For the most part it’s fresh, interesting, and exciting. The hero isn’t a wise-cracking hombre who can tie two rats into a knot while stirring a martini with his spare paw. He’s a frightened and vulnerable mouse, and often it seems like he won’t make it.
Brian Jacques was supposed to have written this as a one-off book to keep some blind kids entertained. It’s amazing how we can sometimes put in the performance of a lifetime when we’re not even trying, but I digress. Matthias is a mouse raised at Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary of sorts for peace-loving animals. But a horse-drawn cart containing hundreds of fierce warrior rats has landed nearby, and strife seems inevitable. The Redwallers would prefer to go on growing flowers and singing songs for the rest of their days, but alas, they wake up to the harsh reality that sometimes war is the only way forward. It’s not a grave idealogical contradiction to cuddle a friendly puppy while kicking its littermate as it chews your ankle.
Amidst all this is Matthias, who is trying to find his place and identity in the escalating conflict. He believes he has been chosen for some great destiny. Assisting him are a menagerie of friendly mice and other animals, such as the wise mouse Methuselah and the mighty badger Constance, whom I believe is based on Jacques’ grandmother. Constance frequently comes close to stealing the show. Every time she appears your ears perk up, because you know you’re about to be entertained.
What makes this book so much better than the other ones? Well, I think it’s because Brian Jacques didn’t have much of a game-plan. That sounds weird, but frankly, he tried to push a format on the later books (which was noticeable starting from Mossflower and became really irritating starting from The Pearls of Lutra) that didn’t really work so well. You know, it’s like he felt that evil must be balanced by good at all times, so every bloodthirsty battle scene must be countered by a scene of the characters having a feast or a party or doing something sentimental, even if it adds nothing to the plot. With Redwall, he’s still building his bridges and mapping out the terrain. He doesn’t know what he’s doing at this stage of the game, and the result is a book that feels much more spontaneous and “alive”, because he hasn’t yet had the chance to bog it down with pretentiousness.
The action builds and builds (the sequence involving the sparrows was my favorite), and Jacques juggles characters and situations like a pro. There’s a lot of subplots that intertwine in all sorts of rewarding ways, but they’re all resolved by the time the climax rolls around. The final section of the book is Matthias vs the rats, no side-tracks or distractions.
The book has its share of irritations and nitpicks (the rats are infuriatingly incompetent, to the point where they don’t seem like a legitimate threat to Redwall at all), but they are overturned by the sheer triumph of the book’s story. Get this one, and maybe the next three or four. Redwall doesn’t stay good for long, so enjoy it while it lasts.