The Furry Canon: Redwall

18 Mar 2016 | Guest Poster

Article by Toledo (@toledothehorse). To the furry community, Toledo has mainly been an amateur artist. But since he can't stop his brain from analyzing furry things, he has decided to put his hoof to the keyboard more often.

I've been around the fandom in some fashion for fifteen years. Even longer have I had fleshspace friends who sang Brian Jacques’s praises. But before this week, I had never read anything Redwall. Somehow I’d avoided reading about all those medieval mice and rabbits and otters. Of course, part of that is explicable: before I encountered the furry fandom, the only animals in which I’d had any interest were dinosaurs and dragons. Little woodland creatures put me right off. I also had little interest in anything medieval until around the same time1. Between these two apathies, I’d missed the prime years for Redwall fandom.

Essentially, I am evaluating whether Redwall deserves to be a part of the [adjective][species] Furry Canon without a hint of nostalgia. I do not present this as a claim of objectivity, of course, but only that of an outsider looking in—and to make clear my relationship with the text.

As a preliminary note: I have been told that Redwall, Brian Jacques’s first installment in the series, is not the best of the lot. Mossflower and The Pearls of Lutra have been nominated to me for that title. Not having the time to read all 20+ Redwall novels to adjudicate the representativeness of Redwall, however, I’m left with the fact that it is the first. It is our first glimpse of Jacques’s world, from imagery to narrative style to characterization. It is the threshold of Redwall Abbey.2

Beginning the book, I was immediately put off by a quantity of exclamation points rivalling a Jeb! Bush rally. A Chekhov’s infodump followed on only the third page: the Abbot of Redwall Abbey explains to Matthias, our main character, something he already knows. That is, he goes on for a page about how Martin the Warrior, a mouse knight of ages past, defended the Mossflower (the land surrounding Redwall) against all enemies with his terrible sword but--of course--those days are past, having given way to peace and prosperity at the Abbey for all mouse-, otter-, badger-, hedgehog-, and squirrel-kind. One need not be an especially perceptive reader to chart out the rest of the book in rough strokes after this first chapter: the time of peace is coming to an end and Matthias must find and wield Martin’s sword to defend Redwall. Two pages later: cue the horde of enemies, Cluny the rat and his mangy rodent army, careening toward Redwall. The stage is set.

Characterization is not Jacques’s strong suit. At first, Matthias’s only traits are tripping over excessively large sandals and his fascination with warrior legends: he is the archetypical hero in embryo, a more competent Luke Skywalker. Most other characters fare little better. Particularly painful is Cornflower, (if I recall correctly) the only female abbey mouse to get a name, whose traits are “cooking well” and “being attractive enough that everyone comments about it”; it is no spoiler that she is practically assigned to be Matthias’s romantic partner3. The only character development in the novel occurs when an enemy, threatened with death, swears to do no harm--and immediately becomes a friend. And when it comes to revealing character traits, “show, don’t tell” is a rule Jacques breaks as a matter of course. If he does not explicate one character’s moral status and habits of thought through another character’s words, he does it himself in the narration.

One major criticism of Redwall I had already encountered is relevant here: in this book, species could easily double as a shorthand for personality. Rats, ferrets, stoats, weasels, and foxes are, to a man (animal?), conniving, treacherous, ambitious, and devoid of compassion. On the flipside, the inhabitants of Redwall are valorous and honorable. Shrews self-identify as shrewish.

I’ll admit: I found the first third of the book to be a slog, in part due to lack of interest in the characters. My boredom did not stem from lack of exquisitely described action, however. The book features battle scenes worthy of Peter Jackson4. I did not anticipate so much of what the MPAA calls “fantasy violence”: this is a bloody, sometimes brutal book, with characters slain left and right and blatant displays of apathy and malice. (At one point, a ferret is sliced in half!) And when the book is not following Matthias’s quest for Martin’s sword, it consists of rats and their allies plotting, and setting into action their plots, against the Abbey; meanwhile, the Abbey plots and carries out its own counterattacks. If tactics and fights are your cup of tea—they’re not mine—you will likely love this book.

Why did the book get better for me after the first third, then? Not from anything Jacques did, though Matthias’s search—complete with ancient riddles and daring journeys to the roof and a nearby farm—was a welcome respite from battles. Instead, I realized that I needed to read the book as if it were being performed out loud. While exclamation points, flat characterization, and blatant foreshadowing feel out of place on the page, they truly belong around a campfire. When told with exaggerated intonation and facial expressions, I suspect Redwall would entrance. While this did not fix the book’s flaws, it justified them more than sufficiently. Jacques is an effective oral storyteller disadvantaged when competing against works in a different genre. In that light, the reader begins to see glimmers of genius in description and diction outside the mouth-watering descriptions of Redwall’s feasts.

Many of those hints of genius are found in characters who, as the sole members of their species presented, can stand alone. While their personalities are known types, they are less archetypical, and thereby much more charming. Who can help but love the slightly off-kilter, distracted but dependable British-inflected battle-veteran hare? How about the melancholy aristocrat cat who has sworn off red meat? Or the shrew clan, a mixture of left-wing militia and Lord of the Flies that turns out to be silly and harmless? Even the dissensions and backbiting in Cluny’s horde can be engaging. While all these might be overdone, it is because they are eminently likable. They function as indispensable seasoning for Redwall’s main course. Without Matthias, there would be no Redwall; without the likes of Basil the hare or Constance the badger, I doubt there would be a Redwall phenomenon.

So, does Redwall belong in the [a][s] Furry Canon? Despite its faults and my misgivings—which lead me to shrug at the opportunity to read more from the series—I’d have to answer a strong yes. Here’s why.

First, in the thirty years5 since its first publication, Redwall and its sequels may have achieved greater penetration of mainstream culture than any anthropomorphic work produced in the same time period, save feature films and television shows.6 My edition of the book proclaims on its cover that 20 million copies had been sold by its printing in 2002--no mean feat, and one that cannot be justly overlooked. One fifth grade teacher who noticed me reading Redwall related that it was one of her and her students’ favorite read-aloud books7. And I cannot count the number of my non-furry friends who have loved Redwall; I can only imagine the effect it would have on a young, impressionable proto-furry mind.

Why this incredible success? I would hypothesize that Redwall bridges supposedly “juvenile” talking animals with “adult” fantasy’s battles and legendaria. Just as aliens allowed Star Trek to address racism in the 1960s, woodland critters classify epic adventures—with “damns” and “hells” to boot!—as children’s stories. Redwall renders nearly irrelevant publishing’s fanatical silos of age, opening up a larger readership. What is more, the generic nature of the characters and storylines also makes Redwall more broadly accessible.

Second, due to its deep penetration of young reader culture, Redwall provides many children with their first impressions of certain species that are otherwise under- or un-represented in popular culture8. Here the consistency of characterization by species, otherwise a narrative weakness, is a memetic strength: it can help readers come to associate species with certain traits, giving them a new symbolic language. These symbolic structures are steady foundations upon which a reader can construct a personal identification with a particular species.

Third, Redwall is almost the epitome of the furry aesthetic: bipedal (if not humanoid) talking animals, often dressed in clothes, living in buildings9 and tending agricultural duties, going about their daily lives and having adventures from time to time. The setting—medieval legend—is the nerd’s escapist retreat par excellence, and the stark divide between good and evil can provide a similar respite from everyday moral ambiguity. Unsurprisingly, Redwall has inspired or otherwise influenced innumerable furry productions of which I am aware, including the excellently written and beautifully illustrated online graphic novel Beyond the Western Deep.

Redwall might not be a masterpiece, but it earns its place in the furry canon several times over through its broad fanbase, its longevity, its furry ethos, and influence on the furry fandom itself.

Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, with its civilized, sympathetic dragons, led me to seek out images of dragons online and was the indirect cause of my finding furry media on Yerf and in webcomics. It also opened me to the (faux) medieval aesthetic and works in that vein in which I’d had no previous interest, such as The Hobbit--with its own intelligent dragon!--and The Lord of the Rings.

2 Redwall is also the one I picked up from a book bank for free several years ago, and this year one of my goals is to focus on reading books I own. In this case, my choice of reading material propitiously coincided with the beginning of the [a][s] Furry Canon project.

3  Thank goodness that other female characters, including the sparrows Warbeak and Dunwing, the squirrel Jess, the badger Constance, and the fox Sela get more varied treatment. Cornflower gets a heroic moment herself, though it is by accident.

His Lord of the Rings, of course, along the lines of a Helm’s Deep; being “worthy” of his Hobbit films is a circle in my personal hell.

It occurs to me that Redwall is as old as furry—the fandom—is itself.

Redwall has itself been given the television treatment at least once.

Concurrently corroborating my thesis about Redwall’s value as an oral story.

There are no ferret, otter, or badger main characters in Disney, for instance.

One major snag in my reading experience was that I could never understand the relative scale of the buildings, the woods, and the animals. Nearly every other page I was revising my mental image of something or other. It was terribly distracting.

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