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Recommend with care
on August 23, 2004
You're looking for books to recommend to your youngest relatives - books that, you hope, will give them the same addiction to reading that has brought you so much enjoyment and value. But you know that kids today have different tastes, concerns, and outlooks than you in your formative decade. What to offer?
Be VERY careful before you offer them this book or its sequels. You can see by other reviews that Brian Jacques has garnered lots of enthusiastic fans. But there are some things that you, a doting parent, grandparent, or uncle or aunt, should know.
First, this is a violent book. There are a number of deaths, some quite awful. Jacques does not dwell on them, but he describes them vividly. Some are bad enough to cause shudders in some kids below the teens, and could play into the fears of some sensitive ones -- like when the fox backs into the giant snake in the dark, or when the brave defenders stop the invaders who are tunneling in by pouring big vats of boiling water down the hole to boil them, and then force the tunnel to collapse on them, burying them. There's an explicitly described, cold-blooded murder by strangulation. And there are many scenes of brutal cruelty, when sympathetic characters are beaten, clawed, and humiliated.
Just because these things happen in a beautifully pastoral setting among cute woodland animals doesn't mean they aren't violent and won't have an effect on the readers' imaginations.
Second, I was irked throughout by problems of scale. Jacques treats all characters and settings as if they were the same size. You have mice working alongside a squirrel, a hedgehog, and a badger. But how can that be? It's as if cocker spaniels stood alongside a horse, an elephant, and a tyrranosaurus rex -- that's how much bigger badgers are than mice. One other reviewer noted this, and the lack of humans. The mice inhabit an Abbey which seems to be built to human scale -- or is it? Because the mice manage to operate the doors and use the stairs, but then, so does the badger, who's 100 times as large. There's a Church of St. Ninian (so it must be C of E!) but it's occupied only by churchmice until the rats take it over. They, too, manage the doors and locks -- how?
In the other talking-animal books we love, scale is dealt with explicitly. In Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Pig series, the spiders take care to keep out from underfoot, and small animals explicitly ride on big ones, etc. Scale is admitted and dealt with. In Watership Down, the rabbits are rabbit-sized, and other things in the world are their proper sizes too.
In REDWALL, things implicitly grow and shrink to be whatever size suits the animal and the needs of the plot. And that is simply sloppy. It makes it quite evident that Jacques wants to tell a tale of heroic fantasy among people, but he also wants to cloak that tale in the sheep's clothing of a cute animal story.
And that brings me to my final caution, the morality of the tale, or its lack thereof. It seems to me that Jacques has no particular moral stance or concern. He just wants to tell an exciting story with sympathetic good guys beating the snot out of unsympathetic bad ones. And he does, fairly effectively. But the only protagonist who even considers the possibility of nonviolent resolutions, the Abbot mouse, does so only for about 10 seconds, and then turns everything over to his military captains to run the show. There are two foxes who delight in double-dealing, and you might say there is a moral in that both end up brutally dead, but there's no connection between their perfidy and their deaths. One gets caught and is killed by the baddies, the other just has the bad luck to run into that snake. The only lesson to be drawn is that if you want to play both sides of the street, be more careful.
There are many sub-plots, and every one of them that I can recall is resolved through force or trickery. Matthias the Mouse is a Hero because he's a Hero, not by any virtue of a learning process; he never doubts himself or questions the rightness of what he does.
All that said, this is fair page-turning entertainment for a well-balanced child with a healthy understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.