Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Winter of the Cherished Storyteller

I remember school book fairs with fondness, with the warm but distant feelings many things from childhood are bestowed. It’s a nostalgic sort of praise that is more than many actual memories should warrant, and so it was with these scholastic events. There were books, sure, but of the childish kind that schools expected their students to read and not the daring tales of high adventure that I had grown so fond of. If there were aliens, they were silly and green. If there were wizards, they had pointy hats and magic wands. But there were plenty of useless knickknacks to spend my book fair allowance on — like little sports cars books from which I could memorize top speeds and accelerations — so all was well. Well, except when those managing the fair's sales insisted on stamping my books. The practice of permanently inking blue bears on my precious purchases never sat well with me.

But when I reached middle school, the book fair grew up a little with me. There were honest-to-goodness novels here, and that was a treat. I eagerly scanned the shelves, scouring for a world to explore. And then I came across it. Redwall by Brian Jacques.

At first blush, it would seem a step back, a story peopled not with fantasy heroes but talking mice and other rodentia. It was more of the trite kid-stories I had long sidestepped.

But it wasn’t. The book had the weight of a novel, and small black-and-white illustrations of swords and daring-do tantalized the interior with the promise of adventure. And the cover itself! Not a Disney-esque illustration, but blackletters and paneled pictures conveying the magic of an old medieval manuscript, all surrounded by a vivid teal. It’s sequel, Mossflower, was there too, and soon they both were mine.

I started reading right away, cramming its chapters of unlikely mouse heroes and legendary swords between classes, pondering its rhyming riddles with wonder. The prose was flavorful but succinct, conveying sumptuous feasts and ancient red walls with clarity and musicality. I'd sing with the heroic ballads, laugh at garrulous hares and quarrelsome shrews, and cry when the good guys fell to the wicked. I’d go on to read a lot of tales from Redwall.

Just as I was discovering Redwall on paper, I had just gotten my first Internet account and with it access to the World Wide Web. It was still, as I was, a young place, brimming with new ideas and really horrendous websites. There were so many places to go. And go I went, seeking even more of the Redwall world I had come to love.

There was an official webpage, which held my interest for a time, but what really grabbed my attention were the many unofficial Redwall clubs. There was at least several score of them, all ostensibly unique in their own way but ultimately the same at their core. You submitted a character to join and in turn were given missions to accept. These missions were really story prompts, and you completed them by doing just that, writing a story. Completing missions earned you medals and the prestige of promotion through a ladder of ranks.

It was a wonderfully simple idea, a concept that embraced storytelling for its own sake while giving the kind of instant gratification kids desire. Of course, most of these clubs were run by kids themselves, and of the many I joined, most petered out quite quickly. But in that time I was a ne'er-do-well in a pirate ship's crew, an unruly dibbun against bedtime, a vermin of a villainous entourage second-guessing his ways, and a loyal defender of Castle Alelea. I even started my own club, Redwall 3000, its calling card a sci-fi spin on Jacques' world. This was the awesomest idea ever at the time, but I can only laugh now at how dreadful it would be to Brian Jacques himself.

Of these clubs, Castle Alelea was one of the oldest and quite possibly the best. The site existed as a real locale, teeming with rooms to explore as you followed one underlined link to the next. At each turn your eyes were greeted with hand-drawn art and your ears treated with strains of music. It was a pretty special place, its magic something that many clubs, including my own, would try to capture.

That site was the handiwork of Kelly Hamilton. She would eventually become one of the first friends I made through a world connected by 1s and 0s, and many years later would help shape the look of OVA.

But before there was even the first keystrokes of OVA, Redwall would inspire my first serious attempt at writing an RPG. It was a bit of a mess, cobbling my favorite elements from Champions, Fuzion, and Rolemaster, but it was never-the-less complete. And even if it were horrifically inappropriate for Redwall, I learned a lot from making that game. What worked, what very much didn't, and how to let go of hard-wrought rules for the bettering of the game. Discarding the original Rolemaster-esque critical hit tables for a single simpler, more open one was tough. But I knew I did right, and while the game was still a train wreck, it was a wee bit less of one.

I would keep reading Redwall, but as the years went on, my blind wonder waned. I became disenchanted with Redwall's quaint halls and its minute inhabitants. Each would-be conquest of the red-stoned abbey began to stretch credulity, the resolutely black-and-white, good versus evil stories that once attracted me started to feel shallow, and every new book felt more the same than it did different. Eventually I stopped reading them altogether. It’s too bad since many of the following books explored times before Redwall, and I always felt the other Redwall-less books like Mossflower and Martin the Warrior were Jacques at his best. But even without his work over the last decade, I'll never forget all the ways his stories touched me, how his prose helped shape my own writing voice, and the way loving his world would form my earliest memories of making websites, RPGs, and friends.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Jacques. Thanks for believing a clumsy mouse in flip-flops could one day wield a sword and be a hero.


  1. Redwall 3000 was such a cute web page. I was so excited when I got to help you come up with the name and acronym for your group "COURAGE."

    The only Redwall book I ever read was the first one and I only made it part way through. However, I enjoyed it and hope to finish reading the rest someday! I loved that little mouse in the flip flops. :)

    It makes me sad that Brian Jacques has passed away, but Redwall lives on forever! I know how much you loved those books and any time I see mice with swords and shields, I always think of you!

  2. Holy shit.

    An important part of my childhood is now lost forever. My first real novel was Salamandastron, a definite step up from previous readings. Visits to Redwall Abbey would continue, but departure to the blue sea was imminent. The Flying Dutchman was calling.

    We said farewell to J.D. Salinger and now Brian Jacques. These losses are too great. My condolences to the Jacques family.