(Redwall art (c) Blur Studio)
Brian Jacques, the author of the Redwall fantasy series, as well as other acclaimed books, passed away last weekend. Though it might be hard to tell from my books, aside from Pirate School of course, he was one of my favorite storytellers and among the most influential authors in my life. I spent most of the summer of 1998 living in Redwall Abbey, reading seven or so of the books in that short period. I also had the good fortune to meet Brian Jacques on two occasions.
My first encounter with Redwall occurred in the Spring of 1998. It was my last semester at NYU and I landed an internship with Philomel, the Putnam imprint that publishes Redwall in the US. Never being much of a fantasy reader up to that point, I didn't pay much attention to the series until I found out Brian Jacques was coming to the office for a visit. This was the first author I would ever meet and figured I'd better read something by him. I read Pearls of Lutra, a book that was in advanced reader copies at that point. I was captivated at once and poured through the book two days before he showed up in the offices. He was there to fulfill a Make a Wish Foundation event, one little boy's wish was to meet him. I was lucky enough to be in the room for that meeting and witnessed this man's remarkable impact on his readers.
Later that night, my boss had a Redwall Feast at her house in Hyde Park and to my shock, I was invited. Anyone who has read the series knows how important food and feasts are to the characters at Redwall. To be part of a feast, prepared by Brian Jacques using recipes from the books (or as near as to be edible) was amazing. As the night went on, he truly was the center of attention. There were about forty people there, all adults and all sitting on the floor around him like schoolchildren as he told one hilarious story after the other. By the end of the night, he'd taken a likening to me because of my name and because we were both smoking Dunhill cigarettes (he was chain smoker, at least at this point in his life). That night has always been a special memory for me and I tore through the books over the next few months.
The next time I met Brian Jacques was during a book signing he did on the Upper East Side of Manhattan back when I was living there. Anyone who ever saw him do a reading knows what a great show he put on. Having been a voice actor, he really made the stories come to life when he read. Afterwards, I waited in line to get my copies of Redwall and Mariel of Redwall (my favorite of the series) signed. This was years after the party and I reminded him of it. He asked what I was doing and I told him I was working at Scholastic and he groaned as this was around the time Harry Potter had stolen the Redwall thunder. I told him, as I told everybody who loved Harry Potter at that time, that Harry was no Martin. We both shared a laugh.
The stories of Redwall to this day remain among my all time favorites. The combination of humor, adventure, and character told in breathtaking literary style challenged an industry that tends to dumb-down literature for young readers. Brian Jacques did the opposite. He elevated his tales into profound works of art that used dialect, poetry, and beautiful descriptive language to build epics of classical proportion while never losing sight of the joyous experience reading should be. He may be gone, but his stories will forever be with us.
Woodpigeons cooed within the dimness of woodland depths, bees hummed and grasshoppers chafed out on the sunlit flatlands. Mariel began skipping, twirling Gullwhacker at her side, suddenly filled with a sense of freedom and adventure. What better than to travel alone, eat when you please, rest when you fell the need, camp by your own little fire at night and sleep snug in some forest glade! The feeling flooded through her with such force that it made her light-headed, and she began singing aloud an old playsong, known to mice everywhere.
"The winter O, the winter O,
With cold and dark and driving snow,
O not for me the winter O,
My friend I tell you so.
In spring the winds do sport and play,
And rain can teem down anyday,
While autumn oft is misty gray,
My friend hear what I say.
When summer sunlight comes each morn,
The birds sing sweet each golden dawn,
And flow'rs get kissed by every bee,
While shady stands the tree.
The summer O, the summer O,
Amid its golden peace I go,
From noon to lazy evening glow.
My friend I told you so.
(from Mariel of Redwall)