No one could tell me what a squittle was. I asked everyone, all the time, but I’d get only confused looks, an awkward laugh, or a decided “nope.” Squittles were animals, I knew that much, but beyond that, I knew only a few of their defining characteristics: They had bushy tails, climbed trees, and oh, were dead shots with a bow and arrow.
They were a fierce band of warriors, flying through the leafy foliage. At their head, their leader, Lady Amber, leapt and bounded — Oh, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lady Amber, Bella, Gonif the Mousethief, Lord Brocktree, and, most important, Martin the Warrior. These were the friends of my childhood, and some of the cast of characters from Brian Jacques’s delightful and masterly Redwall series about a woodland abbey and its denizens. These captivating tales spanned 22 books, but my first introduction to them was through audio. Cassette tapes, to be precise. Ever on the hunt for a treasure, my mother came home from a book sale with a nine-tape case for me. From then on, I was glued to my purple boombox, riveted by the story, the characters, and the voices.
There seem to be two types of fiction-on-tape: The first is the audio book, wherein one narrator reads the entirety of a book with minimal (but if they’re especially talented, meaningful) vocal changes to denote character shifts. The second is a full-cast audio drama (à la Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey), with voices, sounds effects, and music. Jacques’s full-cast productions were an odd amalgamation of the two. With himself as narrator, Jacques enlisted the talents of voice actors, some of whom played between three and five characters each. There were no sound effects, and the reading was verbatim from the books, but Jacques composed melodies for all the songs and the cast performed them. It was a captivating manner of storytelling. Jacques knew this, for he was a master storyteller, a weaver of words.
He spoke with authority, for he had many stories to tell. Jacques was a true Renaissance man. Born in Liverpool, he did everything from performing in a band, to sailing, to delivering milk to an orphanage. He was a comedian and a radio-show host. He loved opera.
It was that milk-delivery gig that led to the founding — or I should say, the discovery — of the world of Mossflower and its Redwall Abbey. For it wasn’t just any orphanage. These children were blind. Jacques would regale them with stories overflowing with description. Feasts of unfathomable abundance, daring escapes, mighty battles. All of these eaten, performed, and fought by woodland animals. Otters, badgers, stoats, weasels, moles, voles, mice, hedgehogs. Birds of prey. Tiny sparrows, foxes, ermine, a golden hamster, and, of course, the garrulous, outrageous, perilous hares.
Fairy tales often get a bad rap from those who consider them two-dimensional or painfully predictable in form. What these critics miss though, is the fact that, while everyone should read fairy tales, they are usually aimed at children. Part of a child’s formation is understanding good and evil, and having stories that explain life in black and white terms is beneficial in helping them develop moral virtue. However, life is not always black and white, and this is where Jacques’s stories enter the picture. Good and evil are firmly in place in his tales, but there is decided nuance within characters. Bumbling rat duos have funny lines, evil warlords hide behind guises of friendliness, and the toads, well, they aren’t to be trusted. Period. Good creatures are courageous, yes, but there are also grumpy infirmary sisters, gluttonous hares, and whining voles.
Growing up, my best friend was equally obsessed with Jacques’s tales. We’d have lengthy discussions about the merits of this or that character, shriek “Eulalia” — the battle cry of Salamandastron badger lords and their Long Patrol hares — at the top of our lungs, and weep over the untimely deaths of Redwallers we’d come to love.
My love of the world of Mossflower ran so deep that it led to one of the greatest disappointments of my young life. After reading his books for a few years, my questions about this world finally boiled over, and in November 2010, I wrote Brian Jacques a four-page letter begging for details such as: How long did it take to build Redwall Abbey? Did he prefer writing the good characters or the bad ones? Where did he come up with the mole-dialect?
In need of an international stamp, yet unable to drive, I tucked the letter away until Mom could take me to the post office. Time passed quickly, and in March 2011, I was researching authors for a school project and decided to look up Jacques.
Brian Jacques died on February 5, 2011, of a heart attack. My letter, still unsent, would now go unanswered. Not only was my favorite author dead, I had to suffer the indignity of learning the news through the sanitized pages of Wikipedia.
Jacques had a significant impact on children around the world. He spoke on tour and met with children of all ages, explaining how he crafted his tales, talking to them about the art of writing and giving them the origins of some of his character names. He wove his stories through with poetry and song, clever ditties or semi-epic odes that foretold tales of terror and courage. He created many a riddle or puzzle to be solved, knowing children’s love of mystery. His characters even engaged in humorous insult battles, outrageous fun sure to ignite laughter among his young readers.
Most profoundly moving throughout all this was Jacques’s understanding that children need examples of authentic beauty and true rest. He showed how these two virtues are just as important in a life well-lived as adventuring, cleverness, and daring deeds.
Despite discovering that a “squittle” was not a fantastical new species but in fact just a Liverpudlian squirrel, I found the charm of these books only increased as I grew older. Jacques’s perceptiveness of human nature gave him a window into its motives and quirks, an understanding he strove to pass along through his tales. His legacy is a series that continues to delight and ennoble the hearts and minds of children everywhere.