Since I now have a substantial commute, I have been listening to audiobooks from the library. I checked out Redwall because it’s a semi-classic kids’ series which I never read when I was the right age for it.

The first book is about a peaceful abbey of mice besieged by an evil rat and his rat army. If the mice are to survive, they must find the legendary sword of the mouse hero Martin the Warrior, the founder of their order. The tone of the novel is old-school pulp adventure with pastoral atmosphere and lots of food descriptions, and reminded me a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson. Enacted by mice.

Brian Jacques has an absolutely wonderful reading voice. (He was from Liverpool.) I actually wish it wasn’t a full cast version; I’d prefer just listening to him. His descriptions of the whisker-twirling, minion-slaughtering, eeeeeeeeevil rat villain, Cluny the Scourge (or, as Jacques phrases it, “CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!”) had me in fits of laughter. And I mean that in a good way. If you’re going to have your villain be the most villainous villain who ever villained, you definitely should read about him in a manner which suits his villainy. If I was reading this book aloud to kids, I would do my best Brian Jacques imitation for the parts concerning CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!!

The actor doing CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE’S actual dialogue appears to be imitating a very angry, possibly drunk, Spanish BRIAN BLESSED. A lot of his dialogue is somewhat or completely incomprehensible, but I found that if I just mentally substitute “Arrrrr! I’m a villain!” for anything I can’t understand, the scene makes perfect sense.

(Warning to Oyce: contains villainous rats.)

The story is your basic “villain invades peaceful pastoral setting; orphan boy is somehow going to save everyone.” I’m a little bored with that story, so for me, the attraction (apart from Jacques’ voice) is that they’re all animals.

This is the book where I realized that I generally like animal stories in direct proportion to how important it is that they’re animals. One of my very favorite things about Watership Down was the rabbits’ limited understanding of the world: when one of them figures out that they can get across a river by floating on a piece of wood, it’s a genius-level conceptual breakthrough that none of the other rabbits really understand. The rats in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents have magically-created intelligence, but still have many real-life rat behaviors, like widdling and eating their dead (except the green wobbly bit).

Jacques’ mice wear clothes, fight with swords, and are friends with predator animals. The physical scale is also non-realistic – their badger friends, while bigger and stronger than the rats, can’t just solve the entire problem by eating the rats. CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE wears a mole skull as a brooch, which in real life would be the equivalent of a man wearing a human skull. One of the characters is possibly half-rat, half-weasel. And so forth.

It’s not only a suspension of disbelief problem, it’s a question of why bother making them animals at all, if you’re not taking advantage of their animal qualities. So far, this entire story could be told with humans, and nothing would change.

Redwall [Audiobook, Unabridged]


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