Medicine for the Recovering English Major (In Memory of Brian Jacques)

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Have you ever been enamored of a book because of who wrote it? The story may be good, excellent, even, but the sheer force of the personality behind it lends the book an extra “star” or two or whatever is your cosmological equivalent of a good rating. Such is the case for me when it comes to Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, which recounts the epic struggles of good and evil between rats, mice, stouts, weasels, cats, badgers, moles, hares, and other woodland creatures in the land of Mossflower and beyond. Think The Lord of the Rings meets The Wind in the Willows. Now, in my self-imposed literary “reeducation” process (in which I forego the literature that makes me look and sound smart and instead find enjoyment, once again, in a darn good yarn), I stumbled upon Redwall. My curiosity was immediately perked by the picture of the author on the back cover. This is Brian Jacques:

jacques

I know, right? He looks like the grizzled old captain of a whaling ship, not a children’s author. Downright scary. So I did a bit of googling, and found some audio/video of him speaking at a Borders and as a keynote speaker in Liverpool, his hometown, and seriously, if my first choice of which author to have a pint of beer with is C.S. Lewis, a close second is Brian Jacques. A truly infectious personality, he tells bad, corny jokes and laughs at them himself if no one else will (“What creature goes ‘zubb, zubb, zubb’? A bee flying backwards.”); and he’s self-deprecating (“I originally thought all authors had first names of “Sir”- Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- I didn’t realize I could be one.”). He’ll retell the same stories about himself over and over like he’s saying it for the first time. There’s an old-fashioned sense of uncontrolled vitality about him- keen, refreshing, like a good, sharp, chilly Northeasterly wind.

He’s decidedly old-school as well. A definite “medieval dinosaur,” as CS Lewis once put it. “My chief delight and satisfaction,” Jacques once wrote, “is annually to desert the world of modern technology.” Delivering milk to a school for the blind, he was eventually invited to read to the students, and noted that publishers used to send books for the kids, and, as he tells it, “I didn’t like those books. Technology, teenage angst. Ugh. They were all about the now. What happened to the books that I used to read? What happened to the magic?”

It comes out in his books. Amid the clutter thrown at us in our daily lives, when modern technology seems to yell in a digitized voice that disrupts all quiet conversations over a pint of stout, a Jacques book invites a warm fireside to illuminate its pages, rather than the glow of a computer screen. It sounds quaint (and incredibly ironic, as I write this on my laptop), but Jacques writes the kind of books we need for an “out,” from our daily hustle and bustle. Not, let me be clear, as an “escape,” but rather, like all good literature of its sort, as a “recap,” or reminder of what being human is truly all about: fidelity to friends and family, sharing of food, discovery of purpose, and acknowledgment of the worth and value of those who may be different from you. And as the prospect of becoming a dad begins more and more to fill my everyday reality, it’s good to know that books like this are still being written. “Questing, feasting, singing, and battling to defend good against evil,” as Jacques puts it. What a marvelous concept for a post-modern age. All this from a man, who states, quite simply, that an author is “a person who can paint pictures with words.”

[Editor’s note: Today’s guest writer, Greg Pyne, is the author of the Wandering Tree blog located at wanderingtree.wordpress.com. Do yourself a favor and watch the videos below in their entirety.]

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five


28 Comments

  1. Jaclyn

    Yes! There is a cure! Thanks, Greg. I’m excited to read this and see the world as Brian Jacques sees it.

  2. Nathan

    I just looked up Mr. Jacques. I was sad to find that after just discovering him, that he passed away two weeks ago.

  3. Tim

    I haven’t read a Jacques book in quite while but when I was younger they were by far my favorites. I think I read Salamandastron six times. I found an online fan club thing where you could create your own characters (think I was fleetpaw or something like that) and this was in the mid 90’s. My siblings and I would run around our yard with sticks pretending to be the different Redwall characters.

    When I was in seventh grade he was visiting a library in a town nearby and my mom was going to take me out of school so we could go visit him and I could get his autograph. Unfortunately my mom got a flat tire on the way to pick me up and the trip didn’t happen.

    When it comes to formative literary experiences I’ve spent too many hours to count reading, daydreaming, and creating my own personal Redwall fiction. Thank you Brian Jacques.

  4. Matt

    I’ve longed love Jacques writing, and I was saddened to hear of his passing. However I had never heard him speak before and watching this now just makes me long to meet him like I long to sit with Lewis.

  5. Laura Peterson

    Oh, man. I thought this was a great post already, and THEN I watched the first video. What a fun storyteller.

  6. Loren

    Hmmm…. Maybe I’ll have to revisit Redwall after this review. I read the first book once a long time ago, and while I LOVE fantasy and was hooked on talking animals from the first time I read the Chronicles of Narnia, the first Redwall book seemed stiff, predictable and more telling than showing–it didn’t breathe. I never did read another one! Sounds like I should give another a chance now that I’ve got kids who would probably enjoy them 🙂 .

  7. Ali

    To this day, “Redwall” is the only book that has ever made me jump up on my bed and shout for sheer excitement when absolutely nobody was in the house (after reading the climax with Matthias, the sword, and Asmodeus). Sure, I was 8 years old, but I recall that moment VIVIDLY and nothing I’ve read since has matched that joy. I’ve read plenty that has affected me more deeply, perhaps, but there really is an exuberance to Jacques’ books that infects if you let it… and for a youngling like I was back then – with no pre-conceived notions of literature at all – I got caught up in his storytelling so easily.

    The Redwall books were some of the first big 400-pagers I read when I was a kid, and for awhile I refused to read anything with human characters because I found them “boring.” Later in life, of course, I realized that what I liked best about Jacques’ animal characters WAS their humanity, but for awhile Redwall was my fireplace and my solace, and nothing else could compare.

    Thank you so much for posting this. It brings back a lot of great memories.

  8. Hannah

    You weren’t the guy in reading Redwall in a Knoxville Starbucks yesterday, were you? Just thought I’d ask….

    I guess I’d read “too much” Tolkien and Lewis to get into Redwall when it came out, but maybe I should try again. I have no doubt the stories are well above the average piece of modern literature, so maybe I’ll like them better when I have kids to read them to.

    Another good recent series is N.D. Wilson’s One Hundred Cupboards trilogy. That and his stand alone book Leepike Ridge. Or his non-fiction book Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl. Try it; you might like it.

  9. Dryad

    My brother is enamored of his books. Until his recent death, we were planning to go hear him speak in Dallas in May. His books had never gripped me, plotwise. I had wondered if perhaps they appeal more to men than women? I did enjoy his varied dialects. Regardless, any person who writes a cookbook to go with a children’s series deserves applause.

  10. Jesse D

    I discovered Jacques in the book Mossflower, still my favorite book by him. Martin the Warrior, the mouse with a mysterious past who shows up to defeat the tyrannical cat Tsarmina who has seized control of the citizens of Redwall, was an instant inspiration to me. I was immediately hooked.

    I’m sad to see him gone, but his death has made me want to return to Redwall Abbey.

  11. Greg Pyne

    I appreciate the response about Brian Jacques and hearing some stories of how readers connected with his work. And Dryad is right, the Redwall Cookbook deserves some amount of applause: I’ve made Turnip n’ Tater n’ Beetroot Pie several times now, and all I can say is “Boi hurrr issa wunnerful pie thurr!” 🙂

  12. Fellow Traveler

    Jacques was a gifted writer with a special talent for descriptions and charming dialects. His characters had extra life and detail to them that you don’t often find in kids’ fantasy. For myself, I personally found the Redwall series to be a little on the gory side, sometimes a bit gratuitously so, but still enjoyable. He may never topple Tolkien, but he could write a good story.

  13. Leah

    Ahh, my children and I love the Redwall books. Many a happy night or afternoon has been spent listening to mole speak and cheering for the brave hares, otters, and mice who fight evil!

  14. Laura Barton

    Tim, I’m pretty sure I was part of that online fan club in the mid-90’s, too, or one (or several…) like it. 🙂

    Redwall had a huge impact on me as a child. I loved reading them, but I also loved writing about them. Something about Redwall made me feel like I could participate in the story-making. Like there was always another story to tell–Brian Jacques could tell it, or I could tell it, or a group of kids online who had never met each other could tell it together. What a gift!

  15. Jen(n)

    Ah, Redwall! I was an English major on a trip to DC solo one weekend in 1999 (to take in some Shakespeare at the Folger Library) and I wandered into a bookstore. Having always been a fan of children’s books, I headed to that section in the store. The cover, that very cover you have up at the top, jumped out at me and I picked it up. It was already the tenth anniversary edition, so as usual I was a little slow getting on the bandwagon… but I subsequently purchased a good dozen or more titles and they were well loved later on in my grade 3/4 classroom. It always saddened me that the covers in Canada were different than those put out in the US because none of my subsequent purchases matched the delightful, fanciful artwork found on that first cover. Sadly, in a recent move, I sold all my copies of the series, save the hard-cover, illustrated, special edition my DH bought me for my birthday one year. I do plan to borrow them from the library once more and relive, not my childhood, but a younger time in my life. Thanks for posting these great videos!

  16. Kyle Keating

    Jacques was the author that introduced me to the fantasy genre as a child that I would come to love as a teenager on into today. I always thought Mossflower was the best of his Redwall works. He was a great storyteller and his worlds always seemed so alive.

    After a dozen or so books I felt like the plot mechanisms got a bit old and I was hearing the same story over and over again. In hindsight, I’m sure that was entirely a bad thing.

    I raise my Rabbit Room mug to you Brian Jacques, for making me believe that cats were evil, mice good, and the world a beautiful place.

  17. Loren

    Hmmm, so I really do think I’d better revisit Redwall and take my kids along with me 🙂 . Guess while I’m at it I should try “The Tower of Geburah” again–a series I didn’t like much as a kid because I thought it didn’t hold a candle to the Chronicles of Narnia. My husband has wonderful memories of it, though. I *did* love “In the Hall of the Dragon King” by Stephen Lawhead. Great stuff there!

  18. Lynx

    I discovered Redwall in 4th grade. At that time, most of my peers were reading those wretched goosebumps books in school. I remember a few times when other kids noticed how thick my reading material was and made admiring comments.

    For me, however, those stories were never long enough. I seemed to just fly right through them! Many was the time I climbed into the oversized papasan we had in the family room, cracked open the latest Jacques adventure (I eventually accumulated a stack nearly three feet high), and weighed anchor. Before long I would completely lose all sense of time, my body, and even my conscious mind. All that was left of me, I think, was my soul feeling and seeing the world of Mossflower as I reconstructed it from Jacques’ own mind mediated through the page.

    I would emerge from this reverie sweating, dazed, and certain that I had fallen asleep and dreamed my own Redwall story. Every time it happened, I would reread the chapters I had “lost” (how did those pages turn on their own?) and discover that I had actually experienced something sublime.

    I think Jacques’ characterization of authorship as “painting with words” makes perfect sense of my experience. Has anyone else experienced what I’m describing- either about Jacques or another author?

  19. Benjamin

    I was sad to hear of Jacques exit from our world a few weeks ago.

    I have loved the Redwall series since I was young. Just recently I had picked up the series again from the beginning, because the Redwall gang always seems to be ready for my return. And when I do return to the brave mice and other woodland creatures I always find a wonderful story (although it seems as if the story is the same just different characters).

    I love stories that seem to go on forever and that have re-occurring characters or themes and Jacques world always suited me just fine. I might have to ready a good brew and pull out a pipe and continue on the beautiful journey that Jacques began so many years ago.

    How splendid would it be if I could enjoy that brew in a Rabbit Room Mug made especially for Jacques himself???

  20. Allison Crawford

    I discovered Redwall at a very young age (like, 5 or 6), and since then, Mr Jacques has been right up there with Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkein on my list of favorite authors. How sad that he has died! Even writing this is bringing tears to my eyes. Through his writings, he became one of my literary mentors. The world just lost a great story teller.

  21. luaphacim

    Lynx, I’m right there with you. I used to haunt the “J” shelf of the juvenile fiction section at the public library, hoping for the latest news from Mossflower. I devoured those novels like the abbey’s denizens devoured their many feasts, and perhaps with greater relish.

    As I grew older, though, a couple of things began to bother me about Jacques. First and foremost, his characters tend to be morally static. Very rarely is a stoat, ferret, weasel, or other vermin converted to the good side… and then, their conversion is often short-lived. There’s not much room for redemption, outside a temporarily lapsed “good” animal’s efforts to redeem himself for misdeeds. Secondly, it seems as though the novels eventually became more formulaic. Much of the content, especially in later novels, felt like a rerun of what I had already read.

    Despite these concerns, Jacques was unquestionably a master novelist, and he brought many happy hours of reading into my life. I will certainly miss him.

  22. A Quiet Winter Hears Spring « Wandering Tree

    […] Two sad events, however, have marred this otherwise festive season:  our cat Desi passed away the other day after a long illness, and I learned that one of my favorite authors, Brian Jacques, passed away this past February 5th.  The author of Redwall will be missed.   The wonderful folks over at the Rabbit Room were kind enough to post a tribute I wrote about Jacques, which you can find here. […]

  23. Tellina

    Just stumbled on this series and was considering buying it for my kids (really, for the kids)! I am a recovering English major. I didn’t read for almost 2 years after college. I couldn’t enjoy a story without picking it apart. Tolkien saved me. Lewis is currently screwing up my kids. They have no sense of reality, but the world is very exciting.

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