we’ve lost a giant…

I was having a discussion with a friend, concerning Brian Jacques and the Redwall books, when I needed to find out which three of his books were published first. So, naturally, I went to Wikipedia, and perused the Brian Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”) article. And then, I gaped, because typed right next to The Rogue Crew were the words “posthumous”. I looked up to the top of the page, willing the words to be incorrect. No, I read it right. Almost a year ago, on February 5, 2011, Brian Jacques died of a heart attack.

You’d have thought someone had kicked me in the gut, I was in such shock. Such a loss, how did I miss it? How had I not heard? I was still in the U.S. last February, had it not been mentioned in the news? I heard when Anne McCaffrey died, this year, did I have my head in the sand, in 2011? I cannot come up with an answer for you. I have no idea if it wasn’t reported anywhere over here, or if I was distracted by a part-time job and online interviews to go nannying abroad. None of them seem to be a good enough excuse.

When I was in my teens, I visited my cousins in… where were they then, New York? I don’t even remember if Redwall was the first one I read, honestly. I just know that my aunt and uncle had a whole shelf of books by Brian Jacques, and my cousins all swore by their awesomeness. It’s a good thing they did, because quite a few Redwall books have a blurb on them saying “the next best thing to Watership Down!”. This is NOT a recommendation to me, as my family was horrified by the movie version, when I was very little. Anything even slightly like Watership Down is not to be read by any of us Dingers, and never will be.

It doesn’t matter which book I started with. The fact is that I never stopped reading them. I probably read every one they had on their shelves, and when I went home, I started buying my own copies. And then, every year, like clockwork, Mr. Jacques published a new book. I think my cousins had the first eleven books that he had written, and then The Legend of Luke was published. At first, I made myself wait until the paperback copy came out, or I would read the hardback version that I borrowed from the library. But before too long, I couldn’t wait, and would buy the hardbacks.

Some people will tell you that because these books involved talking animals, then they must be childish or only for children. But as I love a good adventure written by an awesome storyteller, complete with dashing heroes, perfectly dreadful villains, plenty of humor, delicious descriptions of feasts, and lots of fun songs and poetry, how can anyone, of any age, go wrong?

Let me try to explain a little better. I have the unabridged audio version of Redwall, on tape, and a few of the other books in an abridged version. In the unabridged, they have a full British cast doing all the characters, and Mr. Jacques does the narrating. The performance is phenomenal, of course. But in the abridged version, Mr. Jacques does everything. He does all the different voices and accents, and every character is clear and beautiful. The man was a born storyteller, the type that if he started to tell a story, while you walked by on the street, you would stop in your tracks, as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin was playing. And you’d never leave until the tale was told.

Brian Jacques was the master at putting these adventure tales onto paper, not just telling them aloud. Even when the heroes were comical and made mistakes, you never doubted that good would defeat evil. Every villain was different and fascinating. And always, there was the charming group of animals that lived in Redwall Abbey, with lots of Dibbuns (baby animals) running around, acting just like little kids do in real life. They said the funniest things, got into mischief, and made you wish you could pick them off the page and take them home.

Many of his stories had riddles for the characters to solve, in order for them to reach the place of battle, or in order to assist the hero. Some of these riddles are still over my head, while some of them have become easier. But there would never be a dull moment while you tried to figure them out. When they weren’t riddling, the animals were dancing and singing, and Mr. Jacques store of poetry and songs never ran dry.

Finally, the descriptions of the food would make anyone’s mouth water, and I wanted to try everything, from Shrimp’n’Hotroot Soup to Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie. And the drinks? Fizzy cordials and dandelion tea, all of them sounded wonderful. And then, they published The Redwall Cookbook, which I immediately bought. With several short stories and beautiful illustrations, you can make some of the food that you’ve always wanted to try. I regularly make Shrimp’n’Hotroot Soup, and my family loves it, too.

The stories revolved around the brothers and sisters of Redwall Abbey, led by a wise Abbot or Abbess, when they’re confronted by a great evil. Each time, the need for a champion arises, and they are guided by the spirit of one of their Founders, Martin the Warrior. The original book, Redwall, tells us how the clumsy mouse Matthias takes on the mantle of the Warrior as he searches for Martin’s armor and sword. He travels to the high rooftops to confront the Sparra Nation, accompanies the Guosim shrews into Mossflower Wood, in order to take on the serpent Asmodeus, and finally, is able to face the evil rat Cluny the Scourge.

I have trouble picking out a favorite book, as I tend to lean towards favorite characters. I don’t think there will ever be any improvement on Basil Stag Hare, the hare that wishes he could be a stag, and tries to act accordingly. The hares, with their “wot wots” and “absoballylutely”s, along with their tremendous appetites, are hilarious to read about. The Badger Lords of Salamandastron are strong and wise, but sometimes overtaken by Bloodwrath. Eventually, some of them come to be a protector to the Redwall inhabitants.

The book Marlfox is good fun, but I always hear a Dibbun voice in my head, calling them “Marmfloxes”. I have a soft spot for Rakkety Tam and his sidekick, Wild Doogy Plumm, as they’re both Highlanders, and Mr. Jacques writes the accents onto the page. And speaking of accents, nobody can help loving every mole character they come across. I read somewhere that the mole accents are based on those from Somerset. Straight off the page, the Foremole and all his compatriots sound earthy, sensible, and just plain lovable. I think it was Mossflower where one of the moles got to cut the rope to launch a catapult, and he jumped around shouting “Oh joy, oh ‘arpiness!”.  Or when a mouse happily said “You dear!” to their mole friend, the mole replied “Oi bain’t a deer, I be a mole, an’ don’t ee forget it!”.

Sadness and fear are not hidden from the reader. We lose friends and cry over the characters’ losses. Martin the Warrior lost someone very close to him, and I still haven’t lost the ability to feel for his loss, whenever I read that book. Mr. Jacques did not hide the truths of life from his readers, though sometimes we aren’t willing to tell children about such things. Life, death, foolish mistakes, forgiveness, redemption, love, and friendship are all portrayed in the books. Sometimes, there are “bad guys” that even learn to be good. Oh, not the ultimate bad guys, but you still want to give a cheer when a rat who grew up wrong decides to try for a right kind of life.

The other day, one of my girls showed me a Brian Jacques book that she had pulled off the library shelf. I told her she should read them, though she’s heard this from me before. I’ve been trying to convince her to read Redwall, as I brought a copy with me. Then I went over and looked at the books on the shelf, and can I just say that the Aussie cover art for the Redwall series is just plain creepy? At their age, I’d never have picked up a book with those covers. I just heaved a big sigh, and told Kit that the covers are nicer in the U.S., and the books are still wonderful. So, maybe that’s why she borrowed two from the library, and my copy of Redwall is sitting in her room now, too.

I had no idea, until now, that 2012 would not herald a new Redwall book. I read somewhere that Mr. Jacques left a book unfinished. A book where we may never know the beginning or ending. And spring, summer, fall, and winter will come in the U.S., and there won’t be a new adventure set in Mossflower Wood to read about. I still can’t quite comprehend it. And I know I didn’t mention them before, but we will never read beyond the first three Castaways of the Flying Dutchman books. It was a new series, involving a boy and his dog, and it will never go any further. Because there will never be another writer who can be anything like what Brian Jacques was. But for all the wonderful stories you gave us, we thank you, Mr. Jacques. Farewell.

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