Marlfox: Book Discussion

On September 14, 2013 I started working on a novel alongside a video game. Well, I’m still working on that video game, but I finished the first draft to that novel last week (January 10, 2014). It took me over 100 days, 231 pages, and 146,000 words.

After I finished it, I reread Marlfox by Brian Jacques because that felt like the right thing to do.

It is because of that book that I wrote the first draft to The Ninth Life.

I’ve blocked out most of my early adolescence, but the two things that I remember are Redwall Abby and my general lack of friends. The former made up for the latter.

Redwall Abby is an interesting place, and had you asked me in sixth grade, I would have told you it was magical. Here is a world populated by talking animals that carry around swords and axes and knives and fight for justice, peace, and their home. Here is a world that is both charming and fun, filled with songs and feasts and adventure!

I devoured the Redwall books. I recall reading the 400-page Taggerung in two days. The bottom shelf of my second bookshelf is nothing but Redwall books, holding 17 of them, almost all of them battered and worn from multiple readings.

So it’s no wonder that my first novel is populated by talking animal people. Those were the characters that truly got me into reading. This was the kind of setting that made me go, “oh my God, look what books have to offer!” Redwall Abby might no longer be magical, but the feelings of wonder it inspired were.

When I think back to mostly-forgotten seventh grade, I remember starting a fantasy story filled with talking animals. I picked up a blue notebook, fresh from Target, and wrote, “Chapter 1.” I can’t recall how far I got, but I know it was at least ten notebook pages. Maybe more.

What I do recall is my grandma coming over, picking it up, and then yelling at me for writing something with such terrible language and violence.

I stopped writing that story.

But I’m an adult now and my grandma’s opinion on language or content aren’t apt to stop me from doing something. She probably wouldn’t like The Ninth Life, but that’s okay. I didn’t write it for her. I wrote it for me and because Kitgazka came into my mind and asked me to tell his story. That’s all there is to it.

I can name a great many authors that influenced The Ninth Life, but I have to start with Brian Jacques. He’s had one of the biggest impacts on me as a person, and all because he wrote a bunch of fantasy novels for children.

Life is strange, but usually in the best of ways.

I suppose it’s now time to discuss Marlfox, but that’s hard to do. I reread the book, but it’s still heavily tied in with this bright nostalgia that I really can’t shake. There is this Redwall book, and then there are the 16 others that I own, and they all fit together even though Redwall Abby is the only thing that truly binds them.

I purchased Marlfox sometime in sixth grade. I remember seeing it in a Target store and being instantly gripped. There is a shadowy fox covering himself with a cloak and holding a giant axe on the front cover, and the back cover plays host to two squirrels, a vole, and a shrew, all holding weapons. I had to have it.

The first chapter is violent, and the book doesn’t ever really stop being violent, even when there are great pauses in action.

Mossflower Wood is being invaded by Marlfoxes and their army of water rats. The foul villains are looking to loot treasures to bring back to their castle, and Redwall Abby looks like it should play host to plenty of treasures. They are spotted and accosted by three different groups: the Swifteye family, Log-a-Log and his army of wandering shrews, and the Noonvale Companions. All of them set off to warn Redwall of this new infestation.

They all arrive right before the Marlfoxes attack. It’s a hard battle with losses on both sides, but eventually the Marlfoxes get into Redwall Abby and steel the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. Three young heroes set out to retrieve it while the rest stay put to defend themselves against the Marlfox siege, the villains now bent on revenge for their fallen brethren.

It’s a simple plot for what really is a simple book. I’ve read plenty of children’s books that are so much more than children’s books, but this isn’t one of them. Brian Jacques created a fun world, but he is not Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman, or Rowling. He didn’t achieve that extra something.

The world of Redwall is fun, but it isn’t truly realized. There are inconsistencies and little things that plague it and take away from what could truly be a magical place. The sizes of the larger creatures (badgers mostly) aren’t always the same, the sizes of anything are never truly understood, the movement of time isn’t ever fully realized, and the sapient animal creatures inhabit a world with normal animals.

The latter is one of my biggest issues with the series, and one I wondered about even in my youth. Marlfox mentions sapient frogs with families and language, and then introduces a hedgehog name Soll who has a pet frog that can fit in his paw. There is the sapient osprey named Megrew and then there are waterfowl which act as nothing more than food.

It’s something I should probably overlook, but I just cannot.

Brian Jacques operates under this 1700’s mentality that abilities are genetic. A warrior will beget warrior children, a villain will give birth to evil children. The young heroes that set out for the tapestry don’t have any formal training in swordsmanship, yet that’s okay. Their parents and friends are warriors and so they must be as well. Perhaps this is more to do with them being animals, so the ability to fight is a metaphor for animalistic instincts, but I had a problem with it all the same. Whenever Dannflor was chastised by his father for making mistakes in battle, I wanted to throttle Rusval for being so foolish. Dann has lived a quiet live at Redwall Abby where he hasn’t needed to learn how to swing a sword, so it’s not his fault that he’s bad at it.

Coincidence plays a rather large roll in Marlfox as well. A children’s story this may be, but when Songbreeze wanders off and finds her long-lost grandpa, their lost boat, and an army of hedgehogs in the same day, that’s just bad writing. There are other moments where characters wake up at the right time or accidentally do things and catch the enemy right before the day might be ruined, and it’s all rather trite. Here is a world where the good guys will always show up at the last second and save the day.

This carries on to the spirit of Martin the Warrior, a wandering ghost who founded Redwall Abby long ago and appears in dreams to pass on information that could not be learned elsewhere. He’s a convenient plot device.

The biggest issue with Marlfox and its other Redwall brethren is the black-and-white morality between all of the characters. All of the villains are super evil, and all of the heroes are super heroic. This kind of thing can be fun—see Voldemort—but in this case, it’s lazy. The Marlfoxes are all evil because they need to be. They even address this a few times with lines like, “A true Marlfox enjoys deceit and violence.” There are no nuances to them; they are simply what they are and that’s just how things are.

Likewise, there is a “specism” that populates the world Redwall Abby lives in that has always bothered me. Cute creatures like mice and squirrels are always good; ugly creatures like rats and ferrets are always evil. Badgers are always good simply because, and anything truly carnivorous is always evil with a few exceptions (also simply because). This mold is never broken, and the few books that try to break it chicken out and stoop back to normal levels by the end. I wondered about this when I was younger—mostly because the villains were usually cooler animals—but it truly bothers me now.

And yet, I had fun rereading it. It’s a charming book that reminds me of The Hobbit or the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Even during dull moments, the creatures moving around and living are just fun to watch, even if what they do might only be done for the sake of moving the plot along. There are plenty of songs and feasts, and I even laughed at most of the jokes, despite being an adult now.

Florien Wifflechop might be the best character in the novel, even if he’s the comic relief. He doesn’t overstay his welcome, and he has moments were he goes beyond his role of joke-maker. I laughed when he was trying to give sword lessons to a group of cooks, and I felt quite proud of him when, after the first major fight, he took control of burying the dead. He’s the most well-rounded character in the book, and I wish others had been just as realized.

The journey of the young warriors to find the tapestry is really just a series of small adventures until they reach Castle Marl, but it’s a fun journey. They find some interesting creatures, escape some trying battles, and in the end, they free a bunch of slaves and succeed. Their return home is quite emotional, heralded by a short song about the importance of home and cheers from loved ones.

It’s a good ending. A satisfying ending, even if success was never in doubt.

As a kid’s book, Marlfox and its Redwall brothers are quite strange. They aren’t short by any means, averaging 300-400 pages each, and the vocabulary within is quite large. I didn’t run into any words I didn’t know, but I ran into some I didn’t expect. Dialogue is heavily accented, and I wonder how hard it is to read for the targeted audience (I recall having issues with mole-speech when I was younger). There are plenty of plotlines going on at once, and the passages are fairly descriptive, neither of which are what I expect from a book aimed at children.

The same can be said for the content: Marlfox is a dark book at points. The Marlfoxes keep slaves and Brian Jacques isn’t afraid to kill off side characters. The losses of battles are never terribly high, but they do exist. A happy ending is always in order, but bad things can and do happen; the heroes need to earn their happy ending.

Perhaps that’s why I loved them so much when I was younger.

I have this scene my mind goes to when I’m truly struck with nostalgia. Its summer and the world outside is made of brilliant greens and blues. I’m in a chair by a window, and there is a cat sleeping on my lap. I’m holding some kind of entertainment—either a book, a Gameboy Advance, or a Nintendo Power—and not truly paying attention to the world outside, but still I’m enjoying the atmosphere summer is creating. It’s a perfect day.

Reading this book made me think of that scene. It sent me back in time to a point in my life long forgotten and just made me happy. It’s not a good book, and yet it kind of is. It does what it wants to do and acts how it wants to act with no regrets. It’s childish and kind of stupid, but it’s fun and charming too.

I’m tempted to pick up one of the others, though I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. This book went from “perfect” in my mind to flawed, and I don’t know if I want this series to change in that way. I like these books being perfect or close to, even though I know very much that they aren’t.


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