Remembering Brian Jacques: A Murderable Feast
So Brian Jacques passed away last week- Saturday the 5th to be precise.
To those unfamiliar with his work, Jacques authored the novel Redwall along with the many many sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. Enjoying publishing and distribution almost as prolific as his writing, Jacques wrote his books largely for young adults. Their popularity ensured that the setting and characters of Redwall became a nontrivial contributor to the collective imagination of my generation. I myself came to the book as a child, and it remains a fondly remembered piece of my early life.
And yet as fond as my memories were, they were not very specific. While I could remember reading and enjoying the series, it had been so long that I couldn’t recall specific details enough to fully justify or explicate my fondness. And so this past week I’ve put a couple other reading projects on hold to instead read through the first two books in the series- the best two in my opinion. So pleasantly surprised was I by what I found that I felt the need to share it, to help convince those who only dimly remember the books or maybe never read them at all to give them a second look.
Redwall is a book franchise about throwing magnificent feasts and committing a huge amount of murder.
Let’s back up briefly. The books follow the story of a group of sentient, somewhat anthropomorphic mice, moles, shrews, and voles who possess what roughly equates to a medieval level of technology. These woodland creatures are happy and content to eat desserts and drink beer until they are invaded by an army of evil animals- rats, weasels, ferrets, stoats, etc. A hero rises among the peaceful animals, defeats the evil animals, and the happy ending follows subsequently. But over and over, with variations in character, setting, and circumstance, every story arc in every book oscillates between beautiful descriptions of what seems like the best food ever and the most gruesome, brutal murder scenes imaginable.
Let’s first talk about the murder:
(Clips from Watership Down, another well-loved erotic murder thriller for children.)
In the first book, the main character is a mouse named Matthias who acts as the spiritual descendent of the legendary Warrior Poet Monk named Martin, who kicked some serious ass in days of yore and founded the Redwall Abbey that shelters the happy animals of the forest. A rat named Cluny shows up saying things about pain and slaughter and hell, and he’s got a big army of bad animals backing his play.
So Matthias goes about trying to find Martin’s sword so that he can be a hero and defeat Cluny’s army of miscreant rodents. In the course of his quest, Matthias:
- Attends an initial feast
- Solves riddles
- Fights birds
- Enjoys an interim feast
- Solves more riddles
- Chats up a ghost
- Murders a snake
- Fights Cluny in a belltower
- Murders Cluny by dropping a giant bell on his ass
- Celebrates with one last hard-earned feast
Now you’re probably thinking “Hey, that’s only three feasts and, like, a handful of murders.” And you’re right, but remember, this was only his first book. It’s not until his second book that Jacques really gets his feast to murder ratio and pacing down.
Mossflower, the second book of the series, recounts the history of the legendary mouse warrior Martin. The book opens on Martin the Warrior walking alone out of the frozen north to the vicinity of Mossflower Woods in a time before Redwall Abbey is built. In the abbey’s stead is a castle that belongs to the central villain- a crazy ass total bitch of a wildcat queen named Tsarmina.
(Note: I have underlined and bolded the points that underlie my assessment, that this book is a book about badasses doing terrifying murders, followed up by feasts.)
Some pretty kickass shit happens at first- a couple fights, a small feast, you know, exposition. Martin then runs afoul of Tsarmina, who breaks his ancestral sword and tosses him in the klink. Not about to let that b-shit stand, Martin busts out with a newly acquired sidekick named Gonff.
In the meantime, Tsarmina pulled some cold ass gangster Hamlet shit, poisoned her father and framed her brother. When she hears about Martin’s Shawshank, her response is to release The Gloomer- The Gloomer was essentially a water rat monster thing that had been captured, blinded, and then driven insane. Some otters who turn out to be pretty cool dudes then release their fish monster. The fish monster and blind insane rat creature fight, and then murder each other. At this point, less than 100 pages into the novel, we are basically only one bucket of moaning tar away from being a David Lynch vehicle.
So after all this goes down, the otters invite Martin and Gonff to a feast.
Otters love to hold hands. What?
Surprisingly nobody gets murdered for a while, and eventually it is decided that Martin needs to go to a volcano where some badass badger lives in order to get his sword reforged. So Martin assembles a crew- Gonff the mousethief and Dinny the mole- and sets off for the volcano.
Lots of less murder and/or feast-related filler ensues, with bats, owls, and the otter equivalent of Kaiser Soze, but like a really nice Kaiser Soze, like if Kaiser Soze just wanted to eat scones and be an otter all the time. Finally, Martin and the gang are captured by some toads and put into something called the Screamhole, in which lives the Snakefish. The Snakefish is about to murder them, when Gonff instead convinces it to murder the toads instead. So they make friendzies, murder *all* the toads, and keep heading towards the volcano.
When the three finally get to the volcano, they meet the badger who lives there and get invited in for a feast. As it turns out, the Badger’s volcano is staffed exclusively with Brian Jacque’s answer to Watership Down- an elite force of Hares called the Long Patrol who are not only extremely adept in murder, but also all talk as though they were stodgy, solid officers of WWII era Britain. So in between ending lives and inflicting injury, one can expect a number of Good Form Chap’s or Give’em Vinegars, and a few Keep a Stiff Upper Lip’s for good measure.
The Badger who runs the volcano comes from a long line of volcano badgers, who have all run the same volcano ever since their distant ancestor boiled the ferret assassin who lived there alive, in sulfur. This Badger, recognizing Martin for a fellow badass, reforged the sword out of a meteorite, shouting the whole time he was folding the starmetal the name of every great warrior he had ever known or heard of, which took several days. A modest feast follows.
Then some rats show up, except these rats are also pirates on a ship- they’re on a ship called The Bloodwake, led by a rat named Ripfang, and their army is called The Corpsemakers. If you think that this sounds like a recipe for murder, you are extremely correct.
While Martin wears in his new sword, Gonff stabs a weasel through the eyes with two knives while Dinny the Mole fucking beats a stoat’s ass to death with a fucking boat oar with enough brutality to make Tarantino blush. The Badger then goes into something called Bloodwrath, which is apparently a berserker fugue state that badgers go into where they become insatiable, guileless machines of death and mayhem.
The Badger goes down crushing Ripfang to death with his own body while Martin and the Boyz steal the pirate ship and make for home. They are sad to see the Badger go, but don’t sweat it too much, as this death scenario was described in a prophecy written into the side of his volcano. We’ve all been in this situation at some point, I’m sure, and everybody knows better than to try to thwart Volcano Prophecy.
Martin gets back to Mossflower, some bullshit happens, then there’s a big ass fight with Tsarmina the wildcat queen. Martin and the woodland animals flood Tsarmina’s castle, fuck it up with mouse-engineered siege weapons, and then shit just goes crazy.
Dinny the Mole murders a shit ton of rats and shit with his boat oar. Gonff rigs a nasty on even more villainous rodents with two daggers and bag of dirty tricks. One of the otters mentioned earlier beats a weasel to death with a loaded sling, which is basically just a rock on a rope. I mean, this is pretty much the ‘Pillow Party’ scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, except, you know, way darker.
Finally, Martin confronts Tsarmina on the edge of the flooded lake that used to be her home. They fight, Martin slices her a few good ones, then forces her into the lake where she drowns to death and is driven insane in her last few moments of life as she recounts her recurring prophetic nightmares about drowning to death.
There is a preliminary feast while Martin recovers, then a much larger feast after he’s well. All told, there are about two dozen murders directly described, with maybe five times that implied in the text. Not bad for a sequel.
But let’s stop and consider for a moment that this is not a grindhouse double feature or any other form of Hollywood all out, guns and glory, fuckhungry murder fest. This is a book. Ostensibly a children’s book. And the protagonists are mice, and because they are mice and not men, their murdering ways are somehow outside the scope of the way our ideas of morality and justice work.
(I really didn’t want to do this, but all the iconic scenes had embedding disabled. I’m sorry readers, Tears for Fears, Mr. Steinbeck.)
Ultimately I think that’s what makes it work. There is something undaunted and incorruptible about the goodness of these mice and squirrels and rabbits. They are cuddly adorable animals who just want to lead peaceful lives… when they are not engaged in brutally ending other living, apparently sentient animals. The non-evil species of woodland animals seem to have this overriding genetic imperative towards cooperation, singing, the building of non-religious religious buildings, and oh yeah, feasts.
Speaking of which.
I love food.
Now, when some people say they love food, they probably appreciate food. They may enjoy food, or even be mildly more interested in food than the average person. These people are assholes. They are assholes because their appropriation of the word love dilutes its power of meaning in the context for how I feel about the edible things I put in my mouth. I love food to the extent that I am joyfully fat and entirely without shame, sort of a gourmand Buddha.
I am sacrificing what is probably years of my life so that I can eat bacon and rib roast and reuben sandwiches and drink scotch whiskey every day. Would you give up several years of your life, say, by going to prison, just to enjoy these things? I would. Because in my case, that prison is probably just heaven, where I would eat bacon and rib roast and reuben sandwiches and drink scotch whiskey all day, while the angelic ghost of Sigourney Weaver sexed me constantly despite herself.
Not pictured -Management)
The Redwall series is largely responsible for this set of pathologically irrational feelings I have about stuffing nutrition into my mouth. Jacque’s style of prose is pretty focused and sparse, all until he gets to describing something his characters are eating, and then he turns into Zagats as written by Leo Tolstoy. It’s ridiculous.
I mean, you’ve got River Otter Hotroot Soup, Mossflower Leek and Cheese Soup, Lemon Butter Trout, Skilly and Duff, Oat Farls, Rosemary Popovers, Wild Blueberry Scones, Strawberry Scones, Raspberry Scones, Currant Scones, Apple Turnovers, Great Hall Cake, Sugar Crumpets, Honeyed Apples, Candied Chestnuts, Rose Petal Pudding, Damson Jam, fuckin’ Shrewcake, Autumn Apple Muffins, and of course, Deeper n’Ever Pie. And you know that those fat faced bastards are just going to cover everything in meadowcream, which as I understand is supposed to be like whipped cream mixed with honey mixed with awesome. Then they wash it down with Strawberry Cordial or Raspberry Fizz or Dandelion Wine or October Ale. Those damn mice were invariably eating way better than I ever did growing up, leaving a gourmet food shaped hole in my developing heart.
It’s enough to make one develop an interest bordering on obsession with preparing and savoring fine food that sounds impressive when described. Cough.
So that’s Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, boiled down to key components of food and murder. The other books in the series follow the trend, but none quite so steadily as the first two. I think I read five or six before I matured, and acquired a subscription to Cooks Illustrated along with a DVD copy of the movie Seven.
Still, the Redwall series was unquestionably iconic and deeply influential for children of our generation- and if you look at the rise of violent crime in our country that has risen alongside the advent of the Foodie Culture, we are forced to ask how much is coincidence, and how much is our repressed primal need to commit gruesome murders followed by delicious, delicious scones.
PS- I promise that next Friday will not be a book review. My hand was forced by Death. Much like in my favorite book, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, available now through Colliers and Penguin Publishing