My childhood is inseparable from the Redwall books, but the Redwall books are also inseparable from my childhood. I hadn’t thought of them in years until people started posting casual “Top 10 Book” lists on their Facebook pages recently. I felt obligated to include my personal favorite from the series (Mossflower), and doing so brought back distinct memories. I carried paperback copies of these books with me everywhere I went for several years during elementary school: on the long bus ride home, in the car while my mother runs errands, by a dying campfire during summer camp. I even got a questionable superlative for “Team Reader” on my summer swim team on the grounds that I (in the words of our coach) “was always reading one of those Brian Jacques books.” These books resonated with me immensely then – perhaps even more than any other series – but unlike plenty of other classic series aimed at youths that continue to appeal to adults (Harry Potter, His Dark Materials), it’s hard for me to appreciate them now in any context other than what they meant to me at the time. The success of the Redwall series is the result of a strange balancing act, one where the spell can easily snap but the rewards under the right circumstances are wondrous.
Brian Jacques wrote the series’ 22 books over the course 25 years, from 1986 until his death in 2011. It’s awing to me that Jacques was able to keep churning out these books for a longer period of time than I have even lived, all the while maintaining the ability to speak directly to the same demographic of young readers. About halfway through, the books began a steady decline in quality as they became increasingly derivative of earlier entries (I didn’t even read the last four), but even at its weakest the series delivers the same spark and adventurous spirit that first got me hooked. I’ve never encountered anything that contradicts the popular image of Jacques as a genuinely gentle man with a whimsical voice and positive spirit. In interviews, Jacques has compared himself before to the comical mouse thief Gonff from Mossflower. He wrote the first book (Redwall) to entertain students in his hometown in Liverpool, England, not expecting it to take off into the quarter-of-a-century writing expedition it became. He’s written around a half-dozen or so other books, one of which (Castaways of the Flying Dutchman) I recall reading and enjoying.
Jacques’ writing deserves more substantial praise than it often gets, as he deftly brings to life a setting that is, of course, absolutely ludicrous. His prose is bright and immensely detailed, featuring dozens of distinct character dialects. At the same time, the writing style is never alienating to or particularly difficult for young readers. I think the main reason for the books’ success, though, is the complete devotion Jacques had to his stories. Jacques understands his readers and treats them with complete respect. The Redwall series is written for people at an age where picturing a peaceful community of anthropomorphic mice, squirrels, shrews, badgers, voles, and moles takes no stretch of the imagination. The characters really feel like they live in this world and the conflicts feel natural to it. The fantasy trope of including maps is pretty great as well, and I loved seeing each book’s new version. And yes, there was a time in my life where I had a giant poster of the map hanging up in my room.
And a second poster displaying the most prominent heroes and villains.
Jacques filled the books with vibrant imagery and details, allegedly in order to make the setting easier to imagine for the children at the school for the blind. Almost every book features a great, sumptuous feast, but the sequences never feel particularly repetitive. The cover art plays a substantial role, too, in getting the reader to take the anthropomorphic world seriously. The covers captured a solemnity and spirit of adventure, and they functioned as part of the “spell” that made the implausible world utterly compelling. As with the writing itself, the cover art takes itself and the story seriously and respectfully. The cover artists (there are around a half-dozen total) brought no humor or irony to the sight of animals walking around on their hind legs carrying weapons and armor. It works, at least for young readers with a real capacity to imagine. And that, to me, epitomizes how the series can successfully exist: within the context of Jacques’ writing and for brief, carefully constructed glimpses and moments.
The spell breaks down in other circumstances. I get the impression that few people know about it, but there’s actually an animated television show that ran from 1999-2003 that was an adaption of three of the strongest books (all among the first six written): Redwall, Mattimeo, and Martin the Warrior. I’ve skimmed through the first two seasons and it is certainly good, if not great. For starters, the show appears to pay an impressive attention to plot detail, covering pretty much every event from the books. It’s detailed and true to the original stories, and Tim Curry is a delight as the voice for Slagar the Cruel in the adaptation of Mattimeo. It’s a bit of a mixed bag overall, though. The animation and (aside from Curry) the voice acting are merely serviceable. Moreover, as much as I hate to be the guy who says this, the animated series lacks the gravity or grace that a child’s imagination brings to picturing the contents of the books. The world of Mossflower disintegrates outside of the mind. When confined to prose and selected still images, the Redwall series works, but when actualized into animation, it translates as flat and a bit stilted, at least in this style. The animated series isn’t a failure by any means, but it also doesn’t quite work, as the world of the imagination is infinitely more satisfying for this kind of story.
The show makes interesting decisions with the violence, too. The books themselves are incredibly brutal, featuring the beating of slaves (Martin the Warrior), epic battles (Lord Brocktree and The Long Patrol), and the boiling alive of enemies (Redwall). One website even compiled the most vicious deaths. People die – often – in the show, but there’s no blood. A badger might strike an enemy with an ax, but the hit will be with the blunt end rather than the sharp one. It’s a decision that might feel trite (or macabre to dwell on, but it’s also a telling one that mutes the impact a bit. As a youth, the violence was a lot of what made the books exciting. Jacques rarely went into detail beyond describing a character as “slaying” an enemy, but it was easy to imagine the real impact and pain of what was occurring during many key scenes. The series, of course, can’t show this, and it feels safer as a result. I imagine that much of my response comes from the fact that I am now a young adult, so I’m viewing it with a more critical eye than I would have at the time I first read the books.
This same perspective makes some of the Redwall series’ flaws all the more apparent. It’s a bit of a shame, as I loved being oblivious to these issues, but the problems are often serious. The plainest issue is the “good/evil” species divide. Badgers, dormice, hares, hedgehogs, mice, moles, squirrels, otters, seals, shrews, and voles are good. Wildcats, ferrets, foxes, frogs, pine martens, rats, reptiles, snakes, weasels, and wolverines are bad. I can only think of three exceptions to this rule (Mattimeo had a treacherous vole, The Bellmaker had a rat redeem himself – which caused me to tear up at the time –, and Marlfox had a devious shrew). The lesson is that some species are inherently good and others are inherently evil, and there are even entries (Taggerung comes to mind) where “good” species turn out well despite being raised by “bad” species and others where “bad” species (The Outcast of Redwall) turn out poorly despite being raised by “good” species. There’s a place for simplicity in stories meant for children, so there’s no reason to become too worked up over this. But this simplicity does hold the series back as one meant exclusively for youths and children. The other big issue I had with many of the books is the incompetence of the villains. There are occasional moments where the villains did seem to pose a significant threat (Slagar the Cruel’s cleverness is a lot of the reason I like Mattimeo so much), but for the most part the villains are utterly incompetent. By the end of Redwall, I as rooting for the hapless villain Cluny. All too often, the consequence of making the heroes awesome warriors (the hares and badger in Salamandastron come to mind) is that the villains pose no danger. This does take away a lot of the tension and bothered me at the time I first read the books.
The biggest and most damaging issue with the series is the gradual degradation of quality as the books cannibalized earlier entries in the series. Everything after The Outcast of Redwall in 1995 (the last to take real risks) struck me as much too derivative of earlier entries. There were still some great Redwall books (Marlfox, Lord Brocktree, Tris, Rakkety Tam), but they were all entirely indebted to what came before. Storylines repeated, particularly the trope of Jacques inventing a new island where the evil vermin had a fort. Jacques never really corrected the obvious problems, either, continuing to create incompetent villains and refusing to break down the good/bad species divide. The books felt like they could have been written in Jacques’ sleep, which admittedly isn’t terrible. This dependability had virtues but offered obvious diminishing returns after a certain point.
But the positives far, far out way the negatives. Just thinking about Redwall makes me happy, because I remember where I was in life when I read them and how exciting they were to me at the time. I suppose a lot of great books are like that. I’d like to think that Redwall had a positive impact on me, too. The Abbey at Redwall (which practices an unspecified religion) does have a hierarchy and a Father, but the heroes are incredibly egalitarian. Species never plays a role – mice, shrews, and squirrels all treat each other like equals, and most decisions are made communally through civil dialogue and conversation. The books are also ridiculously progressive when it comes to gender: there might be a few more male main protagonists and the first book briefly manifests a damsel-in-distress trope, but otherwise the female characters are just as strong and heroic as their male counterparts. High Rhulain has a storyline about a female otter trying to break tradition by becoming Skipper (the leader of the pack), but this is definitely the exception to the rule. We never got a gay animal or an interspecies relationship, but there were relatively few heterosexual relationships anyway (and I don’t recall there being any named marriage institution, though I could be wrong). The Abbey is even immune to ageism, with the young “dibbuns” and the elderly animals always helping to save the day. I suppose there’s an ironically heartwarming message that can be taken away from the fact that the “vermin” exhibit the same qualities – for all their nastiness and infighting, gender, race, and age are almost never the sources of conflict. Much of what makes Redwall so appealing as a series is the centrality of the message that each individual can make a difference and deserves equal treatment and respect.
You can try to analyze Redwall on a deeper level, and you’d find certain clear messages: order over chaos, courage over cowardice, community over selfishness. But you’d also be missing the point, which is to tell a great story that fills the minds of young readers with wonder. Some of the books were better than others, but they all succeeded at that, and the large stack of tattered paperbacks stored in my home are the home to many of my richest childhood memories.
A Few Comments on Each Book (In the order they were written)
- Redwall (1986)
So it begins! The first book deserves a lot of credit for the imagination and spirit that went into it. Redwall introduced the vast majority of the elements went into the 22 that would follow, including almost all of the species and each of their unique dialects. The story is simple: the peaceful Redwall Abbey is besieged by an army of Vermin led by Cluny the Scourge, an evil rat with a poisoned barb on his tail who is perhaps the series’ most iconic villain. Young mouse Matthias embarks on a quest to retrieve the long-lost sword of Martin the Warrior (another mouse), which he thinks will help defeat Cluny’s army.
I remember being thrilled by the sense of action and adventure from the many confrontations between the denizens of Redwall and the evil army of rats, ferrets, and weasels at their gates. Equally fun is the lengthy storyline of Matthias, as he works with an old mouse named Methuselah and a badger named Constance to solve a series of riddles to find Martin’s sword. This quest leads Matthias to interact with a traveling group of shrews (The Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower) and a wondering good Samaritan Basil Stag Hare, all favorite characters of mine. I recall being terrified during a lengthy face-off between Matthias and an evil adder.
Redwall might actually be the most violent book in the series, as our heroes defend the abbey by flooding a tunnel of Vermin with boiling water and collapsing a burning building on another group of attackers. Sympathetic characters aren’t safe – the adder even bites a few. This book also introduces the problems that would consistently hold the series back: namely, grossly incompetent villains (poor, stupid Cluny) and black-and-white morality. But it’s a riveting adventure full of bright characters where a lot seems to be at stake.
Chronological Place: 9
Personal Rank: 5/18
- Mossflower (1988)
Some poll I found from 2011 confirmed what I expected: Mossflower is as close to a fan favorite as the Redwall series has, although it is the first of several entries in which Redwall itself does not appear. I think it’s the best one, featuring a cool hero (Martin the mouse warrior), an awesome sidekick (Gonff the Mousethief), a complex villain (Queen Tsarmina the wildcat), a sweeping geographic scale (from Mossflower woods to the distant mountain fortress of Salamandastron), and a positive message about rising up against oppressive authority. The gigantic cast of characters includes moles, otters, shrews, and a badger in prominent roles, and the story finds our heroes facing one exciting challenge after another. Mossflower is a rich, vibrant work that transcends the genre.
Chronological Place: 3
Personal Rank: 1/18
- Mattimeo (1989)
Mattimeo may be the longest book in the series, which may be why I was so proud of myself for having read it four times. It’s also one of the few books in the series to serve as a direct sequel to a previous entry, occurring several years after Redwall. The fox Slagar the Cruel executes a clever plan to kidnap most of Redwall Abbey’s children in order to sell them into slavery, leaving Matthias and a few other heroes to rescue them. The adventure leads to a series of memorable confrontations involving daunting cliffs, forests filled with tribes of evil rats, armies of mercenaries, and a final battle in an underground kingdom. There’s also a subplot involving an army of birds who attack Redwall Abbey while its warriors are away. The scope of the central journey, the serious danger posed by the many threatening villains, and the reincorporation of many well-developed characters from Redwall quickly made Mattimeo a personal favorite of mine.
Chronological Place: 10
Personal Rank: 2/18
- Mariel of Redwall (1991)
The first entry with a female main protagonist continues to expand on the world Brian Jacques created. It’s an excellent book and probably the last in the series that does not feel redundant. Forgetting her name after a sea wreck, the protagonist calls herself “Mariel Gullwacker” and proceeds to whack her enemies with a rope. The villain is a pirate rat with a giant pet scorpion who resides in a fortress on a distant island. I don’t remember too many of the details, other than that it culminates in a pretty epic battle sequence on the island.
Chronological Place: 10
Personal Rank: 4/18
- Salamandastron (1992)
Another great entry. The formula is beginning to get derivative, but Salamandastron is unique in that it is the only book in the series to have a weasel main villain (Ferahgo the Assassin) and the first (of three) to have a squirrel main hero (Samkim). The central conflict involves Ferahgo’s horde attempting to take over the volcano/mountain fortress Salamandastron, where Badger King Urthstripe rules over an army of hares. Meanwhile, Samkim retrieves the sword of Martin the Warrior and attempts to join the fight. I was really sucked into the adventure when I first read this book and I’m pretty sure I flew through it in a matter of days. The incompetence of Ferahgo and his army really frustrated me, but otherwise it’s an exciting series semi-classic.
Chronological Place: 8
Personal Rank: 6/18
- Martin the Warrior (1993)
Despite featuring another bright cast and a revolt led by a traveling acting troupe, I always found this one very grim, and parts of the ending are genuinely tragic. Martin escapes from the evil slaver stoat Badrang the Tyrant and instigates a rebellion against his rule. Martin the Warrior has an unusually prominent romantic subplot (which of course in no way interested me when I first read it) between Martin and a mouse named Rose. There’s also a cool mole named Grumm (who spends the whole book third-wheeling with Martin and Rose) who attacks enemies with a pan and plenty of exciting action.
Chronological Place: 2
Personal Rank: 8/18
- The Bellmaker (1994)
A direct sequel to Mariel of Redwall, The Bellmaker unites that book’s cast with a lot of fearsome otters in a war against the evil fox Urgan Nagru (think Stanley Yelnats) and his army of gray rats. I suppose I liked this one a little less than the other early entries because it felt slightly routine, with a familiar cast going to battle against a rather unthreatening enemy. This is where the series as a whole starts feeling recycled, with familiar characters and storylines gradually overwhelming whatever new material each book might introduce. But The Bellmaker does benefit from a strong subplot that features the only time a “bad” rat ultimately redeems himself ands become “good”, and it’s hugely enjoyable overall.
Chronological Place: 7
Personal Rank: 12/18
- The Outcast of Redwall (1995)
A darker entry and a very unusual one that takes place over a long period of time. The ferrets follow the weasels and stoats to get their first main villain, Swartt Sixclaw, who sets out to conquer Salamandastron. Badger Sunflash and kestrel Skarlath dedicate their lives to defeating him. Elsewhere, Sixclaw’s abandoned infant Veil grows up in Redwall Abbey but is eventually banished from it as his inner-Vermin manifests itself. The Outcast of Redwall skirts around serious, deeper themes about revenge, flawed father figures, and nature vs nurture, but Jacques strict adherence to formula and rigid morality hold it back. It’s possibly the most interesting book in the series – if I had to write a paper about one, I’d definitely choose it – but it ends up being a mixed-bag that exposes the limits of what Jacques’ formula is capable of delivering. The idea of Redwall Abbey banishing a child for bad behavior has potential as a dramatic device for showing the limits of the “good” society’s tolerance of imperfection, but Jacques ultimately makes the issue simplistic by implying that Veil’s bad behavior is entirely the result of him being a ferret (a “bad” species). Veil does make one act to redeem himself, which is moving, as is the plight of his adopted mother, mouse Bryony, who never gives up on him.
Chronological Place: 5
Personal Rank: 9/18
- The Pearls of Lutra (1996)
The Redwall series never becomes bad, but it’s at this point that the great books become the exception rather than the rule. The Pearls of Lutra does have a terrific protagonist, archer otter Grath Longfletch. She seeks revenge over her father’s death at the hands of the stoad Ublaz Mad-Eyes, who commands a lizard army on a distant island. The Pearls of Lutra has some epic seafaring adventure, but the sub-hero Martin II is a bore, Ublaz (despite his cool name) is completely unthreatening, and the book continues an annoying trend of conjuring up a new mysterious island where the evil bad guys reside.
Chronological Place: 11
Personal Rank: 13/18
10. The Long Patrol (1997)
The shortest book and the most action-packed, with a young hare as the main hero. I love looking at the cover now recalling how I took it completely seriously when I first read it. That’s what I love about the Redwall series – Jacques writes without any cynicism and seems to be in touch with what young readers want from his books. Anyway, The Long Patrol doesn’t offer anything new, other than an unusually large (though not unusually threatening) army led by the rat Gormad Tunn. Tunn is a forgettable villain but the heroes, most of them hares, are a lot of fun. My favorite part was the subplot involving a handful of Redwall residents investigating an ancient castle buried beneath the Abbey.
Chronological Place: 12
Personal Rank: 14/18
11. Marlfox (1998)
A dark return to the quality of the earlier books that benefits from great villains in the form of half-a-dozen Marlfoxes (who can blend seamlessly into their surroundings) and their army of water rats. There’s also a poem at the start that described the marlfoxes that I loved, although I don’t remember it now. Aside from conjuring up another random evil island fortress (I think this is the fourth time), Marlfox is a thrilling tale and one of the strongest of the second-half of the books, with a cool cast and many exciting moments.
Personal Rank: 7/18
12. The Legend of Luke (1999)
Martin the Warrior embarks with some of the other heroes from Mossflower to learn about his father Luke, eventually finding one of Luke’s friends who recounts the story of Luke’s life. The chapters dedicated to Luke’s life, which take up roughly half the book, are strong and involving, but Martin’s journey around it is rather unremarkable. I got it right when it came out and it was the first book in the series that I read in hardback. I remember packing it up with my camping gear and reading it by firelight.
Chronological Place: 4 (1.5 for the extended flashback)
Personal Rank: 15/18
13. Lord Brocktree (2000)
The last true classic, at least among the books I read. The vast hordes (and largest army in the series) of vermin led by wildcat Ungatt Trunn invade Salamandastron, while a small group of heroes escape and plot a way to retake it. The story is extremely simple, but the characters are sharply-drawn and the book (aided by lush cover art) captures an enthralling sense of adventure my ten-year-old self hadn’t really felt since Salamandastron eight books ago. Even more so than usual, it’s satisfying seeing such an incredibly diverse group of animal species unifying towards a common goal as the “good” characters eventually face off against Trunn’s army.
Chronological Place: 1
Personal Rank: 3/18
14. The Taggerung (2001)
This one never connected with me. It does avoid the usual “evil army attacks Redwall/Salamandastron” cliché in favor of a potentially interesting story about Vermin kidnapping an otter infant to raise as their own, but it makes the same mistake as Outcast of Redwall by having the hero grow up “good” despite being raised in a malicious environment because (presumably) of his species. The villains, meanwhile, are laughably pathetic, resulting in a story with little tension.
Chronological Place: 14
Personal Rank: 18/18
15. Tris (2002)
Tris is the last Redwall book that I bought upon its release, both because I was getting older (though I was only 11 when it came out) and because the series was clearly running past its prime. Fortunately, it was genuinely good, despite conjuring up the sixth mysterious evil island fort from which Triss (a squirrel slave) and a few of her friends escape. Triss is a sympathetic and strong protagonist and the book has a bright supporting cast, even if the conflict feels a bit minor.
Chronological Place: 15
Personal Rank: 11/18
16. Loamhedge (2003)
I bought this one out of curiosity a while after it came out. Despite having read it relatively recently, I hardly recall anything about it except for it being a rather mundane story with unthreatening villains and unmemorable heroes. Some of the adventure is fine, if unremarkable, and the book has a rather ludicrous message about overcoming physical handicap through sheer willpower.
Chronological Place: 16
Personal Rank: 16/18
17. Rakkety Tam (2004)
An excellent late-series entry – the best since Lord Brocktree. Rakkety Tam is still entirely derivative of earlier stories and themes, but it pairs likable heroes (two kick-ass squirrels) against an intimidating wolverine and his army.
Chronological Place: 17
Personal Rank: 10/18
18. High Rhulain (2005)
A decent adventure heavily-focused on otter characters and culture and with a good central theme as the female protagonist tries to change a custom that requires otter leaders to be male. The actual story, though, bored me to pieces and felt very stale and safe. There’s an evil wildcat up to no good on a new mysterious island and not much else. I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I think I’d just gotten too old for the series.
Chronological Place: 18
Personal Rank: 17/18
19-22 Eulalia! (2007), Doomwyte (2008), The Sable Queen (2010), The Rogue Crew (2011)
I haven’t read any of these. After failing to enjoy two of the last three that I read, I worried that the series had become so formulaic that there was nothing new for me to take away, and I’d much sooner re-read one of the classic books than one of these newer releases. Maybe these are actually really great and I’m missing out? Feel free to comment if that’s the case, or to share any thoughts of your own about the series.
Edit September 16, 2018:
I have the good fortune of being in a relationship with another fan of the Redwall series, and she was kind of enough to lend me her copy of 2008’s Doomwyte, which I read over the last couple weeks. I had an absolute blast revisiting the Redwall Abby and reading about another band of positive, good-hearted heroes. In particular, I enjoyed learning more about Gonff the Mousethief and got a kick out of twin bells named Matthias and Methuselah having a role in a villain’s demise. Plus, the villains consisted of a unique alliance of reptiles birds, and fish, though there were also more typical Rat antagonists.
All that said, it failed to be an exception to the trends of the later books: the main villain was utterly ineffective and unthreatening (he accomplished practically nothing and was subject to the schemes of multiple more effective heroes and villains), and the stakes never felt particularly high. I’d probably rank it at 16/19, above Loamhedge, High Rhulain, and Taggerung but below all the rest. Definitely a fun read but not one of the series’ strongest.