As one of my Must Reads (it’s also in the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up), this classic had the feel of “homework” when I first picked it up, but soon became a pleasure to read.

Brian Jacques’ Redwall (1986)

The Redwall series began when I was more interested in reading my grandmother’s Sidney Sheldon novels than I was in children’s stories, but I had once loved animal tales and I still took note of their covers.

If, like me, you are just beginning the series now, you will have to make the decision whether to read in publication order (and begin with this book) or in chronological order in terms of the story (and begin with Lord Brocktree).

Redwall itself begins with Matthias, who “cut a comical little figure as he wobbled …with his large sandals flip-flopping and his tail peeping from beneath the baggy folds of an over-sized novice’s habit”.

Can’t you just tell that he’s going to trip? And, he does.

Matthias is an unassuming hero, but he is constant, and he demonstrates that there is more to this mouse than his quiet mouselife has revealed.

“All in the space of a night events had moved from festivity to a crisis, and he, Matthias, had taken a major role in both…large happenings for a small mouse.”

The tale is old-fashioned in many ways. 1001 Children’s Books states that the series is sometimes criticized for being formulaic, and if by that they mean that the hero survives, then perhaps that’s true, but there are surprises to be had in this volume.

Mostly, I enjoy old-fashioned children’s stories, and there is a fine line between the formulaic and the satisfyingly predictable, but I admit that the mice=good and rats=bad alignment was a bit of a disappointment to begin with.

(So tiresome: anyone have any rats-aren’t-all-bad tales to recommend?)

And by the halfway mark in this one I was feeling a little like I did when reading Watership Down, desperate for a sighting of a female rabbit who wasn’t preparing the tea.

There are female characters in Redwall (although they, too, are excellent at preparing meals), but for the first half they are either off-stage or fleeting presences.

(I read Richard Adams’ novel also as an adult — because I’d seen the movie as a child and there was no way I was signing up for that kind of sadness, in print or otherwise, back then — and thought it quite a beautiful story, one which challenges some traditional ideas but not sex roles.)

Nonetheless, there is indeed a crisis, and as the story develops, the female creatures are afforded the same opportunity to contribute as the male characters.

It is undeniably Matthias’ story, but one of the fiercest and most formidable warriors is a female badger, and there are two other female characters who play significant roles. (I can’t say more about them without spoilers.)

The stories were originally written for the children who attended Liverpool’s Royal Wavertree School for the Blind and, after five books had been read to the children, Brian Jacques’ childhood English teacher submitted the manuscripts to a publisher without telling their author.

He has, since, explained that he paid particular attention to the descriptions so that his listeners could easily imagine the scenes, and they are rather detailed.

That adds a layer of interest for the adult reader as well, and the elements of the story which some might feel predictable (e.g. the riddles that a long-ago resident of the abbey has left for descendants to decipher, for there are often riddles and puzzles in adventure stories) are not necessarily transparent for the more experienced reader (not this one, anyway).

The battle scenes, too, are more complex than one might expect, and the solutions to problems are believable but not immediately recognizable from the margins of the story. And, some characters die, which also adds (sadly) to the credibility.

It remains a disappointment for me that the less-immediately-likeable creatures align against the Redwall abbey folk, but Brian Jacques is not alone in that. And, to his credit, one group, which isn’t considered a positive influence early in the story, does end up surprising the abbey residents and readers.

Woodland life is dramatic, and I became surprisingly attached to some of the minor characters in this story; I find myself wondering whether I should go back and read the eight prequels to Redwall.