Alex Acks would like you to know that Brian Jacques’s Redwall novels—a classic fantasy series about mice and weasels beloved by many—are filled with “the damaging tropes of epic fantasy.”
Like Acks, I grew up on Redwall books. I have signed copies of Redwall, Mossflower and Mattimeo. I can’t recall if my copy of Martin the Warrior is autographed. It doesn’t matter. Also like Acks, I have not read the entire series. I’ve read many of the novels, but at a certain point I stopped and moved on to other things. I probably need to read these again, and I definitely need to get my kids to read them.
But wait! What about those “damaging tropes of epic fantasy?” Won’t that cause “harm” especially to my daughter since she’s a girl and these books are so clearly sexist and harmful?
Let’s hear what Acks has to say.
What I loved most about the series as a kid was the story of Martin the Warrior and his famous sword.
Part of what made me start to fall out of love with the series was my frustration at what the girl characters didn’t get to do. I remember being so excited when Mariel of Redwall came out (the first of the books I bought in hardcover) because she looked like a proper badass lady from the outset. I was then intensely disappointed when Mariel wasn’t entrusted with Martin’s sword and it went to one of the male mouse characters. At that point, I hadn’t yet found Tamora Pierce, so to say I was desperate to see a girl get to be a “real” warrior — which obviously meant having a piece of sharp metal to sling around — is an understatement.
True, Mariel did not get Martin’s sword. Instead she fashioned her very own, unique weapon out of a rope called the Gullwhacker. When Gabool the Wild—the fearsome, diabolically evil king of all searats—tied her up and tossed her overboard, he used this very rope. When she awoke—her memories lost—she used the rope to fight off seagulls, giving it its name. The rope has a series of knots tied along its length, making the end of the rope more dense and weighted. It’s basically a long-range club, or a club-on-a-rope. When soggy, the Gullwhacker was even more effective due to its added water weight.
The Gullwhacker is a much more interesting weapon than a sword. It reminds me of Bloodborne’s “trick weapons” actually. Mariel could wield it as a lasso or a flail, and it was especially good at disarming foes. It’s a badass weapon that Mariel fashions herself and that she eventually turns into a type of weapon rather than just a singular rope. It eventually becomes the tolling rope for the Joseph Bell in Redwall Abbey. Like Martin’s sword, it has its own legend and place in the larger story of Redwall and its furry denizens.
I grew up on fantasy books; my mother read the entire The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to my brother and I, followed by all of The Chronicles of Narnia. I’d seen Star Wars. I might not have been able to name it as a trope at that point, but I was well aware that acquiring an awesome sword legitimized a character as a Real Hero, and just as aware that girls rarely, if ever, got to have one.
Rare, yes. Unheard of? Hardly. Even in The Lord of the Rings (which has far fewer tough female characters than Redwall) there is Eowyn, slayer of the Nazgul Witch King. In Narnia half the main characters are girls who are every bit as heroic as the boys.
In fact, while it’s largely true that traditional fantasy has hewed more toward boys and manly heroes, it’s also a genre that has pretty much always featured heroic women as well. Maybe not always as warriors, but one doesn’t always need to be a warrior to be heroic. Still, read The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander or Dragonlance by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman or any number of other classic fantasy series and you’ll find plenty of heroines.
The first several books of Redwall also made me notice another trope that was a staple of the epic fantasy I grew up with: some kinds of people, be they orcs or weasels, are just always evil. It didn’t bother me so much during my first journey through The Lord of the Rings, probably because orcs and goblins were depicted on the page as indisputably gross and scary. It started really bugging me in Redwall because I happened to like foxes and wildcats, and it felt very unfair. Particularly because it wasn’t the biological realities of what foxes and wildcats eat that dictated their villainy in Brian Jacques’s books. If we’d seen Slagar in Mattimeo or Tsarmina in Mossflower actually eat one of the hapless mice, that would have been one thing. But instead, they were always power-grasping, thieving, murderous jerks instead of being, you know, just hungry.
Surely there are other books that feature foxes in a better light, or fantasies that feature heroic wildcats. Being bothered by their villainy in Redwall strikes me as barely criticism at all. I also fail to see how the villains eating the good guys would make things better. If Acks wants a story about mice and weasels that is a realistic portrayal of predators and prey, perhaps a fantasy a fantasy series about rodents who run an abbey and cook delightful vegetarian feasts is not the right choice. Asking it to be what it is not is not helpful. It’s like critiquing a cheeseburger and complaining that there’s meat.
Because of that, I ended up writing Brian Jacques a fan letter in my best 11-year-old handwriting, in which I asked him two questions: Will a girl ever get to wield the sword of Martin the Warrior? and Do foxes always have to be evil? I’ve been tearing my house apart for hours trying to find the return note, but past me apparently put it somewhere so absolutely safe that I’ll never find it again, to my frustration. But I remember clearly that he did write a short note back, which was incredibly exciting, and that the answer itself was equally disappointing. I can paraphrase: Have you read ‘Mariel of Redwall‘? Mariel is a great warrior.
Well said, Mr. Jacques. Mariel is a great warrior. And while I can forgive 11-year-old Alex for failing to see this, I have a harder time understanding how this rather important fact continues to escape grown-up Alex.
I guess he didn’t address the fox question. I would simply say “In this particular fantasy world, foxes are evil.” Perhaps some fan-fiction would take care of this problem. The Noble Fox Of Redwall Abbey, the story of a young girl fox raised by mice who eventually saves the abbey from evil . . . I’m not really sure who the villains should be. Rats I guess. Rats are good villains. If you haven’t already, please read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats Of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. It’s a terrific book.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, ever since the big announcement that Netflix is going to be making a Redwall series. There’s no longer such a dearth of fantasy out there with sword-wielding women and girls (though I’m not so sure what percentage is getting optioned) but there’s still very active, ongoing conversation about how absolutely damaging and fundamentally racist the “everyone belonging to this species/race/nation has X quality” trope is. We’ve finally hit the point where Dungeons & Dragons is slowly moving away from “racial” traits (they’ve taken their first stab at it in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) that were built into it because that trope is so fundamental to epic fantasy. In that way, every new The Lord of the Rings or similar property — like Redwall — feels like a step backwards.
Here we have that word “damaging” which is just another version of “harm” which I see come up again and again. It does not mean what you think it means.
How exactly is portraying weasels and rats as evil villains “absolutely and damaging fundamentally racist” exactly? Or orcs and goblins? If you write a fantasy where all brown or black people are villains, fine, call that racist. But we are talking about fantastical animals here and to suggest that Redwall is a “step backwards” strikes me as the height of silliness. Not everything has to conform to your super narrow worldview, no matter how much you think that your worldview is correct and good.
The notion that getting rid of racial traits for elves and dwarves in D&D will somehow curb real world racism is laughable at best, and exactly the kind of useless nonsense that the woke movement continues to “achieve” in popular culture. D&D and other popular roleplaying games have many different races to choose from (even among “races” there are sub-races of elves, humans etc.) but this has never led to some sense of superiority—rather, it’s always made D&D an enormously diverse game, where you can play as just about any fantasy “race” you like. I can be a female wood elf in our Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It’s not real life, and that’s the point.
Of course, in the future D&D will likely also list all the different genders your character can play (and it will never be enough). Sure, you can play as a non-binary high elf but don’t expect any sort of racial trait advantages! Sorry elves, even in a world of infinite genders, we all have to be exactly the same.
Redwall was my first lesson in liking problematic things, but that’s also what ultimately drove me away from the series — and epic fantasy as a whole, for a long time.
Wait, that’s it? This is the final paragraph? That’s the conclusion?
Okay. Well if Redwall is problematic than I give up. I like problematic things and I’m not ashamed of it. If everything—literally everything—is problematic than what choice do we actually have? If a story about noble mice and hares and moles and squirrels fighting against wicked rats and weasels is wrong, I don’t want right. Give me that diabolical YA fantasy.
Which reminds me, of course this series is coming under fire. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than the woke YA community. I’m serious.
I aim to do a deep-dive into just how bad it’s gotten (and then maybe write some of my own deeply problematic YA fiction just for fun) but in the meantime, I cannot recommend Kat Rosenfield’s article on the matter enough. Read it. Sit in wonder at the awfulness that is taking place in YA right now—the truly authoritarian, regressive bullshit disguised as progress and tolerance and diversity.
My only hope is that these wretched thought police continue to devour their own. If you truly want a diverse range of voices in YA fiction, you should encourage that—not try to shut down everything you deem “problematic.” I’m happy that YA fiction (like all fiction) has become more diverse, but not at the expense of freedom of expression. This is not the way. Baby Yoda does not approve.
If you’d like to read the Redwall books yourself and find out what all the fuss is about, I highly recommend them. They were some of my favorite fantasies as a youth. Just be prepared to get a little hangry reading. If there’s one thing that Alex and I agree on, it’s that Redwall is basically food porn.
Please consider signing up for diabolical as a paid subscriber. If you want to support more of this kind of writing, including deep dives, interviews and more you can help me directly by becoming a subscriber. Much of the content here will remain free as well, of course. It’s my hope that I can turn a labor of love into something more and I appreciate all your support. Thanks you from the bottom of my cold, black heart!
There are some affiliate links in this post as well. Clicking on these and buying the books I link to is another way to support this content.