I will always have an enduring affection for shrews, otters and badgers.
Shrews are funky, capable and good-hearted — unless you cross Log-a-log. The sea and river otters are scrappy but noble seamen. And badgers are mighty warriors, endowed with incredible strength and wisdom.
Granted, I have never encountered a shrew, otter or badger. Well, maybe I have, but it did not make much of an impression. The words of Brian Jacques — who passed away on Monday — did.
The imagination in print can be an awesome force. When applied with sufficient energy and skill, it can roll facts, intuitions, fears and aspirations into a spectacular symphony. More than an escape from the world, verbal imagination creates a tool by which to better understand it.
With a collection of rodents and well-worn archetypes, Brian Jacques wove a brilliant tapestry of adventure, characters, heroism and villainy. I cannot even imagine what it must be to actually create a world — to draft a universe with its own history, traditions and nuances — but I happily delved into his, devouring 16 of the Redwall Abbey books.
Jacques’ world is a dangerous place. On his richly illustrated maps the inhabited, civilized locales are few and far between. The Abbey itself is fortified, surrounded by sturdy walls, tested on a regular basis. Even the Badger’s volcano — Salamandastron — has a few close calls.
The strength of Jacques’ communities lies not in the strength of their walls but rather in the strength of individual characters — wandering bands of shrews, the famous Long Patrol, and young heroes called to the legacy of Martin the Warrior. The heroes bond through hardship. Hunger is a constant. No adventure could be complete without a little starvation.
And his villains mean business. Jacques demonstrated an ease with violence that shocks me looking back. Slit throats, sudden poisonings — even cannibalism — all occur with a poignant fluency that Harry Potter could never quite pull off.
Maturity comes only through great adversity. Long journeys through the wilderness — fraught with ferrets, weasels and rats — are a requisite part of his quests.
These pitfalls stand in contrast to beautiful and affecting finer moments. Jacques captured the very definition of the good life. Old scholarly moles share wisdom and stories with the dibbuns in the abbey’s shadow. The feasts are epic, often outdoors, with lots of ale and a table sagging under an impossibly rich compilation of produce and pies, as good in the making as in the consuming. Squirrels and mice gather to clean and bake while dibbuns raise all manner of mischief. He told tales that took him far from his upbringing as the son of a truck-driver on the Liverpool docks, stories that captured us.
Jacques rarely let literature get in the way of a good story. His books would often follow a familiar, even formulaic path, but it was a much-loved one.
And he was an author of our generation. He started publishing two years before I was born. I still enjoy leafing through the dog-eared paper back of Mattimeo that my parents would read to me before going to bed. I remember always seeking out his newest book and marveling at the illustration on the jacket.
I was sad to hear he had passed away, but it was a pleasant surprise to read one more of his stories in the newspaper obituaries — his own. He wandered. A longshoreman, member of the merchant marine and trucker, he was most recently a milkman. He did not begin writing until he was 47.
As I prepare to leave my own red-bricked walls, I think his story might be my favorite.
Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.