“Leaves, berries, roots ‘n’ fruits are fine, if y’know which are the right ones an’ which ones won’t make a body sick or even kill yer. But we don’t!”
I used to re-read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series endlessly as a child, which may have been something to do with the endlessly hypnotic descriptions of food. Re-reading it as an adult, however, and an adult fresh out of an English literature degree, is rather unsettling, as is all too often the case with beloved childhood favourites.
If you’ve not encountered the Redwall series before (and surprisingly few people have), it’s essentially a bunch of tales featuring anthropomorphic rodents, centred on the idyllic Redwall Abbey, a sandstone building in quiet woodland where the Brothers and Sisters live in harmony with nature and each other. They also eat lots of food.
Mariel of Redwall is the sixth chronologically in the series, although in all but a few cases it’s not really necessary to read them chronologically, and their publication sequence is complicated. It tells the story of a young mouse who finds herself washed up onto a strange shore with no memory of where or who she is. Rescued by a trio of friendly hares from the Long Patrol, a regiment that guards the shores of Mossflower country, she’s taken to Redwall Abbey, where she learns (through a slightly disturbing combination of drugs and dusty old riddles) that her real name is Mariel, and that her father Joseph is the captive of a tyrannical searat named Gabool the Wild. She vows revenge on Gabool, and together with a ka-tet of Abbey youngsters, she sets off on a Quest to the subtly-named Terramort Isle.
It is exactly as melodramatic as it sounds.
The issue with the novel, though, and to some extent all the Redwall novels, is that it finds it difficult to reconcile the idyllic unity of Abbey life with its need to entertain its young readers by having its characters whack people in the face on a fairly regular basis. Mariel of Redwall somewhat clumsily tries to open up a discussion about violence, and when it is justifiable to use it; the answer pretty consistently seems to be “only in defence of peace” (ironically). So Mariel can whack a snake on the head because it’s trying to eat her friend, but she can’t kill it because it has a “right to life”. Surprisingly, she doesn’t apply the same moral reasoning to the marauding searats who populate the novel (and searats are always evil, or greedy, or cruel. Move along, no racial stereotyping to be seen here): it is not only OK to whack them in the face, it is also OK to kill them in great swathes, because otherwise they’d kill or destroy other creatures. I wonder how they thought the snake was going to feed itself.
It’s easy to read this as simply bad writing, but actually I feel like there’s something much more ideological going on, and it has to do with all those gorgeous vegetarian banquets Jacques writes so well. There’s a subplot in Mariel which sees a crew of searats attacking Redwall Abbey, because they want to live “off the fat of the land” as the Redwallers do – that is, they see the peace and plenty of Redwall and assume that it’s easy to do that. They fail to realise, to their detriment, that living sustainably off the fat of the land frequently means postponing an easy meal now for the sake of a larger or a better one later; that it means not pillaging all the low-hanging fruit for miles around until there’s none left, but knowing how and where plants grow, and what berries are safe to eat, and how the weather patterns work. It means knowing the land around you. The searats favour charred meat, and their hunting methods clearly don’t take into account what the forest around them can bear; the Redwallers put on vast and lavish vegetarian banquets, representing a more significant investment in the land and a knowledge of nature. It’s OK to kill searats not because they’d kill other living creatures per se, but because they have the potential to lay entire lands to waste; they have no restraint, and they use slaves to do their work for them, so that they’re separated from the land. It’s not OK, by contrast, to kill the snake, because the snake is working in balance with its environment, staying within its territory and eating only what the land around it can supply. Moreover, there are overtones to the narrative that suggest that the searats are actually destroying themselves – their lack of knowledge of the earth means that they poison themselves; their slaves rise up and attack them. It means that the moral burden of killing them is somewhat removed – because it’s their own fault.
Obviously, this is very dodgy thinking indeed. “Oft evil will shall evil mar” – to quote Tolkien – is a very attractive doctrine, but if you’re not careful it can lead quite quickly to essentialism, which is never a good or even an interesting place to be. Unfortunately, it’s where the Redwall books do tend to end up: on a binary between killing and farming, rat and mouse, Good and Evil. I’ve heard the series described as “vegetarian propaganda”, which, disturbingly, feels pretty much on the money. And because Jacques, unfortunately, has little skill as an actual wordsmith, it all comes across as preachy.
Will I be venturing further into the Redwall series? I’m not sure. It was an interesting exercise, but for the time being I’ll leave the mice behind. But I suspect I’ll be back for the banquets one day.