JUNE 8, 2017
I REMEMBER my first book. It was not what my mother or grandparents read to me. It was not what my brother casually threw aside that trickled down to me. It was mine because I got it from my elementary school library. It was a volume in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the cover featuring a mouse with a sword. From about seven to 13, I read every book in the series. These were the first books I can remember buying for myself.
I love fantasy, and I have no doubt that Redwall is a main reason for this. While my tastes in the genre are eclectic, I most enjoy grounded fantasy that eschews the epic and metaphysical tropes of Tolkien and Le Guin. The Redwall series was much smaller in scale, not just because of its anthropomorphic animals — rabbits, weasels, et cetera — but because its world was small. Good and Evil were not abstract entities in some great Manichean struggle but rather were rooted in the actions and behavior of individuals.
Redwall had powerful things to say about inclusion and representation. This was important to me as a Latino kid who didn’t have many obvious role models in genre fiction. Ironically, by focusing on animals and not on ethnic origins, Jacques’s series evoked a world where I never felt left out. Yes, the Redwall books offer a very British take on the medieval period, but I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I felt a kinship with the badger characters. They were large, strong, a bit stubborn, with big tempers, but they were good guys and heroes. Redwall seemed to say that I could be a good guy and a hero even though I was big for my age, stubborn, and volatile. Thus I saw myself in the stories, and I felt included — I never felt like an interloper.
I was being raised by a pretty rock star mother, so I was also happy to see female characters that could do anything the males could do. The gender dynamics in these novels were fluid and complex. They erased the distinction in my young mind between “boy’s stories” and “girl’s stories.” They showed me that girls could be warriors and boys could be healers. As a result, the typical macho rhetoric I was surrounded with didn’t affect me as much as my contemporaries. Perhaps it can simply be boiled down to empathy. I believe it’s critical for young boys to read and appreciate stories about girls, to see that they are neither enemies nor dichotomous creatures.
This is not to say that the series is free of bias. At times, it displays the old colonial mindset that lineage dictates character. Rats, reptiles, and other “vermin” — as well as most carnivores — are typically the bad guys, while mice, hares, and badgers are the good guys. There is a distinct caste system in play, and while some characters defy their roles, most of the time you can tell a black hat from a white hat just by species.
For most of my life, and essentially all of my early life, I stumbled through the maze of identity, and the Redwall series did little to disabuse me of the notion that I was born to be a certain way, that I had little choice in who and what I was. At best, I likened myself to those badgers — perhaps a bit too ornery, but at least on the good side. At worst, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between what those around me said I should be like and what I wanted to be. Even one of my childhood friends said that I couldn’t be a badger because they were good guys, and by watching TV and listening to his parents, he had concluded that “Mexicans” couldn’t be good guys. I often felt that the world wanted me to fit neatly into a role, one already selected for me, and Redwall made that process of selection seem perfectly natural.
While the series teaches lessons of morality, some of these lessons are a bit too black and white — and, as a young reader, they didn’t help me navigate a world of gray. The Redwall stories are simple: the vermin have a plan to take Redwall Abbey and the mice have to do something about it. But the series never asks why the vermin have to steal to survive. Why can’t the Abbey figure out a way to provide for everyone? There is no real attempt to understand the other side.
You can do a pretty thorough Marxist reading of Redwall as a parable of the righteous nature of bourgeois property relations. The mice, hares, and badgers are metaphors for the inherent superiority of the ruling class, while the vermin are symbols of the degenerate nature of the proletariat. In the real world, however, few people just decide to become bandits unless their situation dictates that this is one of the better options for survival. I can’t recall a single time where the Abbey tries to establish a mutually beneficial agreement with the vermin, as opposed to occasional acts of charity that don’t address systemic issues. I can’t recall if anyone ponders how the vermin manage to feed their kids. While we shouldn’t expect deep sociopolitical nuance in a children’s series, its total absence likely impacts how young readers grow into the world.
Considered from a formal perspective, these novels are also pretty cookie cutter. You have your basic young hero, a call to action, a few stumbles, a big reveal, and then a battle to solve it all. Brian Jacques never ventured far from the well. In terms of helping shape a budding writer’s fluency in narrative technique, this series hardly offers a versatile model. To be fair, did it need to? Writers of children’s literature are under no obligation to teach their readers how to be innovative creators of their own fiction. If anything, my older authorial self can look back at these novels and see how to not repeat myself.
No matter its flaws, Redwall was my first series. I loved it, and I still do. I have an infant son, and while he’s already a reader (if loving to chew on and throw books counts), I do have to wonder what books he’ll choose when he can read them by himself. Will he pick through my bookshelves, spot that cover with the cloaked mouse holding a sword, and fall in love? Or will he jump straight to Tolkien? Will he throw me a curve and go for my wife’s art books, or maybe a random sports book from my brother? Will he hate reading and just want to build things? I don’t know, but I do hope that, like I did as a child, he finds his own series.