Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

Redwall, Mossflower, Mattimeo

In the northern edge of Mossflower woods, on the road that runs north of St. Ninian’s church, lies Redwall Abbey. However, this is no ordinary abbey; there is something special about Redwall Abbey that sets it apart from all other abbeys. It is populated entirely by small vermin. Tiny Roman Catholic mice, who… Wait. They’re not Roman Catholic? But then why do they live in an abbey, organize themselves like monks, and live under the rule of an abbot? Hold on, so you mean despite the presence of abbeys, churches, and holy brothers, no character holds even remotely religious views about the world?

This is one of the many inconsistencies that irked me while reading the first three Redwall books. There are mice who live in an abbey and act like monks, but who have no conceivable metaphysical reason for doing so. In the first book, we hear about towns, we see an army of rats ride in on a hay wagon pulled by a farm horse, and we meet a cat living in a barn near a farm. My assumption was that lurking around the corner, out of sight, were humans going about their day to day life oblivious to the medieval world of rodents all around them. In this scenario, everything made sense. The mice had moved into an abandoned human-sized abbey and were imitating the behavior of the humans who had previously lived there. However, in the later books, the author retcons all this away by showing that the cat is really the farmer himself, and the mice built the abbey themselves. Rather than a bunch of animals in a human-sized world, they are…I dunno, either regular-sized animals in an animal sized world, or human-sized animals in a human-sized world a la Disney’s Robin Hood. The fact that proportions are never clear and the nature of the world remains ambiguous is frustrating. If the rodents built the abbey themselves, then we’re back to the question, “Why an abbey when there is clearly no religion among the mice?”

Anyway, having vented my frustrations at the set up in the books, the stories themselves weren’t half bad. I read the books because my son read them and loved them. As I was reading them, he would ask me every day where I was in the story and would remember all the things that happened in that part of the book. The first book, Redwall, centered on Matthias, a young mouse who must find the sword of the legendary Martin the Warrior and save Redwall abbey from the evil sea-rat Cluny the Scourge. The second book, Mossflower, is a prequel, showing the woodlanders led by Martin fighting against the reign of Tsarmina the Wildcat and founding Redwall. In the third book, Mattimeo, we see Matthias as a full grown mouse with a child of his own. His son Mattimeo along with the other youngsters of the abbey are kidnapped by the fox, Slagar the Cruel, and it’s up to the leaders of Redwall to rescue them.

These books are colorful, funny, and full of action and adventure. Aside from the inconsistencies, which only an adult would notice, I can see why children like them. The writing is not the best, the plots are a bit contrived, and each book could be cut by at least 100 pages and not suffer for it. However, the author, Brian Jacques, really knows how to write fun. His villains are the best things about the books. He’s not afraid to create really bad villains, and isn’t afraid to let them kill off other characters, even sometimes pretty major characters. The villains in Mattimeo were especially creepy and wicked.

In the end, I don’t know if these books will go on to be enduring classics in children’s literature in the same way as The Chronicles of Narnia, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or other books of the kind. However, they are fun in their own way, they teach some good lessons about character and sacrifice, and kids definitely love them.

3/5 stars