There is one series of books that has always served as an inspiration for me to write my own stories. I used to devour these books when I was back in middle and high school, as I loved reading the stories of danger, friendship, and courage. I’m talking about none other than Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, a saga of books that are centered around the Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country, a series set in a fictional fantasy land full of anthropomorphic animals. And since we’re currently on the topic of furry writers, I figured I’d take a short detour and both introduce this series and also show how it’s been a huge inspiration for me as a fiction writer.
Jacques’ series actually had some rather humble beginnings. He used to deliver milk to the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool, and had written his first book, Redwall, for them, making sure to have his descriptions be as vivid as possible so the children could paint pictures in their mind with Jacques’ words. Well, turns out the book was really liked, and his English school teacher ended up slipping it to a publisher after he had read and liked the book and the publisher ended up liking it so much that Jacques got contracted to write five more books then and there.
The novels themselves feature a full on cast of animal characters that embark on epic quests, though Redwall tended to hint that humans existed in this world as there were mentions of town dogs and the novel’s villain, Cluny the Scourge, causing all kinds of mishaps such as making a herd of cows go trampling about. Later novels seemed to ax that idea, painting the world of Redwall as one without humans. I always found it interesting too that Jacques never definitively made it clear how much of a size difference there was between animals; again, while the first book does seem to set this up, as soon as the second book, Mossflower, it’s made to seem like they’re all relatively the same size. I kinda liked that though, as it leaves a lot to the imagination of the readers. Characters were often fighting off huge swaths of foul vermin scum while forging new pacts and friendships with other friendly woodland creatures along the way. There was usually a formula to the books, too: Something would happen to or at Redwall Abbey that caused a group to out questing, a group back at the Abbey would end up having to solve a series of riddles that tied into the questing group in some fashion, and there was always a focus on the main villain and what they were up to. Of course, some books would play around with this formula, too. There was always a hint of magic and fantasy to the series as well, as seer foxes were a common sight, characters sometimes received visitations and visions from spirits, and the powerful sword of the legendary Martin the Warrior is rumored to be magical – it’s actually forged from steel gathered from a meteor that fell near Mossflower Country, but c’mon that makes it a space sword and that’s on light saber levels of instant awesome.
Characters tended to always fill archetypes within the world of the story; for instance the Abbot or Abbess was usually the wise old type, Badgers were always the last creature you wanted to trifle with, moles always spoke with an intriguing dialect but were always the go-to for anything involving digging, otters were master of the waves and always loved shrimp, many of the books had a warrior who protected the Abbey, and so on. Villains were usually part of the designated “vermin” type – so basically anything like stoats, foxes, rats, pine martins, etc. – but from the books I read each had their own distinct characteristics. Cluny was a clever rat who was a fearsome warrior and the stuff of night mares, Emperor Ublaz had a hypnotic stare that would strike fear into his subordinates and enemies, and the cunning fox Slagar the Cruel is on a quest for vengeance against the Abbey. It’s archetypical sure, but it’s fun. The kind of book you read that doesn’t take itself too seriously and just wants to entertain you with tales from another world.
All of the above are easily reasons why I liked the books, and it really shows how you can make a story interesting though the use of animal characters; I’d daresay that if Jacques had elected to use humans instead of animals it just wouldn’t feel the same. Plus that makes for great allegories as well; some readers have pointed out that the different animals of Redwall are a takeoff of different groups of English or European folks, others have said that the animal characters are an allegory for different characters in the King Arthur tales. And of course you had the obvious allegories, such as Matthais being a sort of underdog who rises to the challenge and battles Cluny in Redwall.
Perhaps another reason why these books still hold water with me though is not only were they entertaining to me, but there was also plenty that inspired and taught me things about writing. Take for example how Jacques never really goes in detail about every bit of how the animals worked or never elaborated on things like size differences, clothing, and so on; to me, it’s a lesson that I don’t have to fuss over every single detail in the story, and it’s fine not to and let the readers see the characters as they want to. Some might see the characters wearing minimal clothing; others might see them fully decked out head to toe. It all just depends on your imagination, which is something I do in my own stories as well. Sure I might mention that characters wear shoes or don suit jackets, but I leave it up to the reader with how things like tails poke through the clothing, or how exactly shoes would work for an anthro animal. The other big thing is it gave me ideas for how to refer to anthros – in the world of Redwall they always referred to each other as “beast” or “animal” or some combination thereof, such as “somebeast.” I always found it weird when I read animal fiction and the characters used things like “person” and “man.” I myself use “creature” or some variation thereof, but I might slip in a couple somebeasts as a bit of a nod to Jacques.
There were also the numerous inspirations it gave me. Yes, I’ll admit I wrote my own Redwall fanfics when I was younger, though this was before I had easy access to the internet so they’ve been lost, having been written many seasons ago – time is kept in terms of seasons rather than months or years in this world – but they did inspire my own band of characters as well. I remember creating my own group of ne’er do well pirates that consisted of many different types of animals, and I remember having a sparrow as part of the group because Pirates of the Caribbean was a big thing at the time and making references and jokes like that is something I do even to this day. In fact simply writing this article is making me want to revise and dig out these characters and see what I can do with them. I think the furry fandom would love to see some good ol’ swashbuckling adventures.
So it is that Redwall was something I really enjoyed when I was younger and something that influenced me as a writer in my early years. I remember being excited when new novels came out and couldn’t wait to read them and see what new adventures awaited – like when Triss came out back in 2002 and had that gal squirrel on the cover. Or The Taggerung back in 2001 and how it was such a big change to things – an otter being raised by a vermin tribe? What’s this about! But of course the otter is a good guy at heart and can’t fully give in to being a foul beast. Unfortunately, there might be no more new adventures, as Brian Jacques passed away in 2011. However, there are talks of a movie adaptation being in the works, so it looks like things aren’t quite over for the series.
The books themselves are rather easy to track down, as I’ve always seen one or two books for sale at a Barnes and Noble. Used book stores might prove to be easier to find them, and of course, there’s the online world of Amazon, eBay, and so on. According to the official Brian Jacques site they’re looking into doing eBooks soon, so hopefully soon it’ll be even easier to take your quests on the go with you.
Have you read the Redwall novels before? What do you think? And if you’ve never read or heard of them until now, what do you think? Sound off in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you all again next time. I promise I’ll actually talk about Kyell Gold too.