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It all started with a mouse. No, not that round-eared rodent in red shorts and yellow shoes. A much meeker mouse in a green novice’s habit and over-sized sandals. A mouse whose simple courage sent him on a quest to find an ancient sword (because what is fantasy without an ancient sword quest?) and who saved his abbey from an army of evil rats. His name was Matthias and he taught ten-year-old me that even the smallest person could change the course of the world if they were willing, kind, and brave.
The Redwall series—a literary franchise where gallant woodland warriors overcame evil vermin invaders—not only kickstarted my love for fantasy (and furries), but also built a safe-haven for me to learn and grow in. Author Brian Jacques was like a grandfather to me and a household name to my family. I’ll never forget volunteering at my local library the day after his death, reverently sorting his books in the YA section and thinking that the world would never see another of his magnificent novels.
Fifteen years after picking up my first Redwall novel and inhaling the musty smell of its pages, Jacques is still my favourite author. That’s more than my nostalgia talking. A part of me feels indebted to Jacques and his woodland warriors. Like Aesop of old, Jacques used familiar animals to express big ideals in a way even the smallest person could grasp. Mice were his favourite. They weren’t as tough as badgers, as skilled as hares, or as agile as squirrels, yet Jacques most often chose mice to inherit the famed sword of Martin the Warrior throughout his stories.
While I admired the other animals, I loved the mice most. Growing up, I wasn’t fast, wasn’t “special,” and certainly wasn’t brave. It was hard for me to connect with some fictional heroes because they seemed naturally born to slay dragons; I hardly had the guts to face a garden snake in my back yard. Redwall taught me that evil was, indeed, real, but also that mice could slay it.
Redwall was never intended to be more than a story for students at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind to be able to “see.” Had his former English teacher never taken the story to press without Jacques’ knowing, Jacques probably would have been content to write it solely for those blind children. Several books and a much wider readership later, I still believe Jacques wrote with his original audience in mind. Jacques painted good and evil in stark, black and white strokes; swapped point of views on a dime; and childishly wrote out sound effects. I’d argue that he was less interested in being “proper” than he was in telling a “rollicking good adventure,” but more-so I think that he had a clear vision of why he was writing and who he was writing for: young children to whom he wanted to show the magic of the world.
Jacques paid no heed to critics who thought his stories simplistic and idealistic, preferring to “mature” his novels only to match his young reader’s growth. He introduced his first morally grey character in book number seven, his first retrospection of good and evil in book number eight, his first story-within-a-story in book number twelve. He was so dedicated to telling original, un-altered stories that he refused to read the works of other authors, lest he be influenced by them. As I matured, I came to appreciate Jacques’ personal brand of heroism as much as I did that of the mice in his stories. When asked for the best writing advice he could give, Jacques said: “Paint. That’s the magic world. Paint pictures with words. The picture will appear in the imagination so the person reading it can say, ‘I can see that.’”
For Jacques, this word “paint” took on a literal meaning—to create vivid images that blind children could experience. But “paint” also speaks of vision, something Jacques equally excelled at. When I read Redwall, I project myself onto Matthias. When he solves a riddle, I feel clever. When he fearlessly duels with a vermin warlord, I feel brave. When he is chosen to inherit a warrior’s legacy, I realize I, too, am just as likely a candidate for greatness.
I’m a firm believer in the power of words, that life and death can roll off the tongue and permanently impact a life. Jacques is right: “paint” may be the most powerful word of all, and not just for fictional writers. What images do I paint with my everyday words? How do I depict my friends, family, faith, and fandoms through the pictures I paint of them? Most importantly: how will those pictures impact others and their perceptions?
Sooner or later, all writers—prompted by publication or otherwise—face the question: who is my audience? Jacques knew his. With this fixed vision, Jacques crafted passionate stories of universal appeal and timeless values. He wrote for blind children, and as a result also reached children-at-heart and cynics who had turned a blind-eye to better things.
Who is my audience? I’m still figuring that out, and I don’t just mean for the six-or-so books I plan to write in my lifetime. The idealistic answer is, “Everyone, of course!” I think that’s a noble goal, but I also think there’s a demographic that I’m specifically meant to reach; perhaps one that tends to be overlooked—one that the images I paint will specifically speak to. I believe for me it lies somewhere on the bridge between faith and fandom.
Once I willingly dedicate myself to something, my life is no longer my own, nor are the pictures I paint. Every word becomes a reflection of who and what I represent. That’s a big responsibility, but if there’s one thing that Redwall has taught me it’s that even little mice can do great things.
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