Daria Sockey interviewed author Brian Jacques about the moral vision of his Redwall series. Their conversation follows.
My daughter recently told me that your books were “magical without there being any magic in them.” Can you comment on magic in children's literature, and why, aside from the occasional prophetic dream/vision, you don't make use of spells, magical objects or powers?
Well, Daria, I think you have a very perceptive daughter. While I wouldn't want to “put words in her mouth” I think what she was referring to are actually several elements.
Is it magical for animals to think, behave, and feel as humans do? Yes.
It's an ancient device in storytelling. Remember Aesop and his fables? And the French writer, Rabelais did the same thing. It is a genre in which moral lessons can be taught under the extremely clever disguise of “entertainment.”
While I didn't think of Aesop when I created the world of Redwall, I realized later that I was following in a noble tradition. So in that sense my books are “magical.”
Another element is that the children — I call them “dibbuns” in my books — of Redwall are always the ones who, one way or the other, are the true heroes of my tales.
They must confront a danger and solely by the use of their wits and working together, overcome that danger. This element is “magical” too in that in real life it is extremely rare for children, either singly or in a group, to act in a heroic way.
But the result of that particular element is that it empowers children who feel their lives are controlled to the “nth” degree by parents, by school, by after school activities, by society, by play dates, etc. It allows their imaginations to soar, and without imagination where would our culture and society be? We wouldn't have great art, advanced medicine or the technological marvels we enjoy today. All of this came from people who dared to imagine!
We need to dream, and we need to allow children to dream also. However, deep in the warp and woof of my books is a very clear moral code of right and wrong.
When I was a boy, morality was taught in school and in church but I think that is no longer true to the extent that it used to be. I try to create very clear moral signposts of what is right and what is wrong. The children who read my books are generally at an age where they need to have things spelled out in “black and white,” without ambiguity. I often tell my readers that my baddies are bad and my goodies are good. I won't have sympathetic baddies and schizophrenic goodies in my books.
I value my family ties in my personal life and in my books I try to create the sense that nothing is more important than the love of family and by extension, community. Redwall is really an extended family.
Another element in all of these books is a sense of great adventure, deeds of derring-do, of impossible feats accomplished (also very empowering to children) in which children identify themselves as the heroes. C.S. Lewis also wrote “moral fables.”
A great example is his The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. At the core of these books is always the epic and eternal battle of good versus evil. And good always wins. Always! Not just in books but in real life. If good didn't always win we would all be marching around with swastikas tattooed on our foreheads, wouldn't we? I don't think that the element of magic in children's books is a pernicious or evil one. I think it is how magic is used by the characters that define them as evil or good.
And finally but perhaps most importantly, there is really only one reason for children's literature to even exist, and that is to develop a love of reading in children. If a children's book doesn't accomplish that then a tree has been unnecessarily destroyed. There are truckloads of authors, myself included, who constantly receive letters from parents telling us that their little Johnny or Annie hated to read but after having read the Redwall books their child has learned to love reading.
I can't imagine my own life without books, and these letters are among the most gratifying I receive. Imagine! To have introduced a non-reading child to a lifetime of pleasure! It's all worth it to hear that! But if we are talking about “good” children's literature versus “bad” children's literature ... well, that's a pretty subjective call.
Something I might think is brilliant, someone else might think is perfect rot.
Catholic readers will enjoy the monastery, monks, and other monastic accoutrements. What is your experience of monks and monasteries that formed Redwall in your imagination?
I'm often asked this question and I always delicately point out that while Redwall is an abbey, normally a religious institution, in my books Redwall Abbey is actually a secular institution whose leader, the Abbot or Abbess, is a figure of experience and wisdom, sort of the heart and historical repository of a community and very much a kind and loving father or mother to all the people in his or her care. Only a very few of the inhabitants of Redwall are monks.
Most residents of the community are secular and have all of the human foibles and strengths that all of us have. It is how these strengths and weaknesses are tolerated and used which make Redwall a strong and loving community. So Redwall is populated with the absent-minded uncle, or the brash, overt neighbor, or the quiet introverted friend.
All have their place in Redwall and all contribute to the success and survival of the community in their own way, just as real families tolerate the cousin who is obnoxious, the aunt who tipples a little too much, the grandfather who roars but is really meek as a lamb. Implied in all of this is forgiveness and acceptance. We forgive our family members their weaknesses and accept them because they are members of our family. The same is true in Redwall.
I wanted to have a ‘structure’ against which the battle of good and evil could be played out.
When I first imagined Redwall, I didn't think of it as having a religious nature but I did think of it as having a moral one. There is a very fine distinction I suppose between a religious nature and a moral nature, but a very real one. I wanted to have a “structure” against which the battle of good and evil could be played out. Nothing is more “good” in the popular perception than an abbey — a place of quiet, peace, serenity, and study, each member contributing to the whole. A threatened abbey seemed to me to be more serious, more dramatic than any other institution because an abbey exists only for the betterment of its individual members — just as a society does, or should. And because of this, the evil of the abbey's enemies seemed to be even more evil ... so it served my narrative purposes.
While I grew up in an Irish Catholic background, my experience was limited to my parish in Liverpool, and the parish school — St. John's School for the Totally Bewildered as I call it. My family was one unit, my parish was another, my larger Irish community was an extension of the previous two, and all were threatened in a very serious and very real way by the outside world.
In my case, the threat came from a feeble-minded man who wore a little black brush of a mustache, Adolf Hitler.
During my youth Liverpool was one of the great seaports of the world and Herr Hitler bombed us daily and nightly for a very long time, taking lives and causing huge destruction. It was a threat I keenly felt. So I guess I thought of my real world as a threatened community and the evil-doers were the Luftwaffe. Redwall Abbey became the tapestry against which the fight of good against evil could be played out. It is a literary device in which the abbey is actually a metaphor for an entire society.
I have read that you made up your stories for children at a school for the blind.
Among today's writers for children, I may be the luckiest one of all. During my adult life I've had several careers, one of which was driving a milk lorry (a delivery truck, for you Yanks!). One of my stops was the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool.
When I realized that there were people on the staff whom I had known when I was growing up, I asked if there were anything I could do to help the kids? I felt, I suppose, that children are the most defenseless beings in the world; they have no power, no money, no political lobby.
And to be deaf or blind made them even more defenseless. It was suggested that I might want to come and read to the children once a week, and I agreed. The books I was given to read were about dark subjects — alcoholic parents, teen-age pregnancy, drug abuse — all perfectly horrid and depressing. The children didn't like the books very much and I positively hated them. I wanted to give them the sense of adventure that I had when a boy, reading Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. Something that could take them out of themselves and their situation.
So I went home and decided to write a story about defenseless mice — there's no creature on earth more helpless than a mouse, is there? I thought the children could identify with a mouse, and I also knew that I had to make the action of the story fast and furious to keep their interest.
It had to be highly descriptive so that the children would be able to “see” the story in their minds as much as they were able. Well, a published author, a friend of mine, read the raw manuscript and without my knowledge sent it to a London publisher and the Redwall books were born.
I'm still very active in supporting the Royal School for the Blind and I know that without them, the books never would have come into being. While I was lucky, I was also ready. If I hadn't had the ability to write stories it wouldn't have mattered; but I was given that gift and it all came right in the end.
I love reading to the children and I still do so from time to time as life and schedules allow. They're very dear to my heart. I play Father Christmas for them each year, although as soon as I say “Happy Christmas!” the children yell, “Hi Brian!” Not a very successful disguise I'm afraid. I learned a great deal from reading to the children. I learned where the story was flagging, how to pace it, what kind of characters the children responded to, and which situations made them laugh or cry. Perhaps I was trying to give them a little of the peace and pleasure which had escaped me when I was their age.
And the “mice” I originally told the stories about and to, have now expanded into millions of “mice” — my Redwall readers — all over the world.
For a poor kid from inner-city Liverpool, it's been a strange, exhilarating, exciting, exhausting, but ever so pleasing journey.