By Bob Hicks
He was on no one’s list of the great novelists of the 20th century. Many literary critics barely knew he existed. He didn’t create an overarching epic of good and evil like J.K. Rowling, or cause squeals of vampire lust like Stephenie Meyer.
But somehow or other, while critical eyes were cast elsewhere, Brian Jacques sold more than 20 million copies of his books. Children of a certain age, and parents of children of a certain age, cherished him especially for the 22 novels in his Redwall series, which feature such characters as Martin the Warrior (a mouse), Mossflower (ditto), Slagar the Cruel (a fox), and Basil Stag Hare of the 47th Hare Border Rangers. Redwall, the first in the series, was published in 1986.
Jacques, a roustabout sort of fellow who had bounced from working-class job to working-class job before turning to the typewriter, died Saturday in his hometown of Liverpool. He was 71 and had just undergone emergency heart surgery. Margalit Fox has a good obituary here from the New York Times.
Jacques and his vaguely medieval-English animal characters had heart in abundance. Jacques was a natural tale-spinner, a storyteller who knew how to mix action and suspense and moral outrage and sword-swinging romance and a good deal of broad humor in just the right combinations to leave young readers begging for more. Like a lot of other families, the Scatters waited eagerly for each new volume to be published, and bought them right away in the hardbound editions: no waiting for the paperbacks.
We read an awful lot of those Redwall books at Chez Scatter over the years (Mrs. Scatter thinks we have a complete set upstairs, except for the 22nd book, which doesn’t come out until May) until the Large Smelly Boys grew out of them. We also dipped with enthusiasm into his Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series, about a boy and his dog who wander through space and time, never aging, but righting wrongs wherever they find them. Stirring stuff, in an old-fashioned, Robert Louis Stevenson way.
Mr. Scatter read a lot of those books aloud, and he confesses to an occasional ruffle of impatience over the sameness of the books’ plots and particularly over the racial implications of the simplistic moral absolutism that ruled the world of Redwall Abbey. If you were one sort of animal — a mouse, let’s say — you were good. If you were another sort — say, a ferret — you were bad. And that was that. Still, at a certain age, kids take sides, and they learn the differences between the conventions of fiction and the complexities of real life. If Jacques wasn’t an especially complex novelist, he was a good novelist, the sort of children’s writer who gets kids excited about reading and prepares them well for more challenging books to come.
In pure literary terms he didn’t rank with the likes of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander or Susan Cooper or Katherine Peterson or Madeleine L’Engle. But he had the common touch, and might have had a better comic sense than any of those masters. Like Tolkien, he also was a great lover of food and drink, and wrote both humorously and heartily about great feastings. At one point he even published a cookbook, with recipes simple enough for kids to fix themselves, of dishes that had hit the groaning tables of Redwall Abbey.
So drink a cheer to Brian Jacques. He left us, and our children, better than we would have been without him. And that’s a gift.