Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

Two years ago I re-read Martin the Warrior over Spring Break (and reviewed it here). Now, I have always considered Martin to be the best of the Redwall books, but I’ve often heard that Outcast of Redwall could be considered a rival to that title; thus, this year, I decided to spend some time over Spring Break re-reading Outcast (which I haven’t touched for at least six years, probably longer) in order to pass judgment on that claim.

Conclusion: Those making that claim were wrong. Martin the Warrior is far superior to Outcast of Redwall. Furthermore, I think I can see in Outcast the beginning of the end of the Redwall series; that is, I think the book contains hints that Brian Jacques, while writing it, had an authorial crisis; he chose, rather than to bring Redwall in a more mature direction, to continue just spinning fun yarns. And it was this that resulted in the recycling of plots and general lack of creativity in the later part of the series (which has now gone on for longer than the earlier part – Martin was #6, Outcast was #8, and now he’s up to #20).

The book begins by introducing several interesting characters. Sunflash is a fairly relatable badger lord, with his desire to be a peaceful intellectual, and Skarlath makes a nice addition – a bird character who is not completely one-dimensional (not that he’s all that complex). Swartt Sixclaw is one of the more competent villains, though I find it hard to believe that his repeated poisonings of his rivals would work. Nightshade also adds a nice touch of mystery, and she is fairly sympathetic, as villains go; she feels fated to follow her lord to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, Part II adds several rather unlikable characters, including the absurdly romantic/idealistic Bryony and the whiny titular character, Veil. Now, Veil is a morally complex character, but he’s not sympathetically morally complex; whenever he does something bad, the reader’s reaction is to condemn him and wish the author  would stop talking about him, rather than to feel sorry for him and wish he would stop doing bad things. I realize one of the supposed strengths of the book is its moral complexity (relative to the other Redwall books, at least), but I thought it could have been much more convincing.

Plot-wise, there was a nice dramatic unity to each of the two plot threads (the Sunflash-Swartt rivalry on the one hand, Bryony’s struggle for Veil’s soul on the other), though they had little overlap. I found the Sunflash-Swartt one consistently more interesting, and I really liked the use of Nightshade the Seer (the fox prophets in Redwall are always good characters, actually) and how it came full circle at the end, everything coming back to where it began. At times, though, particularly in the middle section, the book seemed somewhat rambling, and the jump forward in time wasn’t as smooth as it could have been (I still don’t see how it took maybe years for Swartt to travel a distance other characters cover in a few weeks).

There was also a strange tendency, which I don’t remember in any other Redwall books, of plot threads being built up for a confrontation but then anticlimactically ending in a few pages. Yes, even in the original Redwall we see Redtooth try to usurp Cluny’s authority and be swiftly eliminated, but the book has more than just a few red herrings. Before the time-jump, we have Bowfleg, Wildag, Krakulat, Shang Damsontongue, Balefur; each is a threat to Swartt’s power, each is instantly eliminated (and interestingly, leads directly to the next threat). After the jump, Zigu appears, has a bit of character development, and dies in battle to a minor hare character. Obviously nothing can interfere with the the Sunflash-Swartt confrontation – Nightshade did predict it would happen, after all.

The last red herring is The Wraith, whom Swartt hires to kill Sunflash. Of course, genre-savvy Redwall readers know by now that assassins never work; thus it is no surprise when he fails mid-mission. But his failure is spectacular – not only does he not kill Sunflash, he doesn’t kill anyone, instantly falling to his death on being hit with a pie in the face. And after the number of failed diversions already appearing in the book, I couldn’t help but notice the absurdity of it all. It began to feel like a deconstruction of Salamandastron, #5 in the Redwall canon.

Indeed, I think Jacques was, perhaps self-consciously but probably not, performing a deconstruction of previous Redwall stories; thus the moral complexity of the Bryony-Veil plot line (ill-executed as it was) made perfect sense. I got the impression while reading that Jacques was realizing some of the absurdities of his universe, with its species-based morality and predictable plot lines, and decided to explore them – what happens if a vermin is raised by Redwallers? Is he still evil? How inevitable is the final confrontation between Hero (Sunflash) and Villain (Swartt)?

But then… Jacques doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The Nightshade/prophecies aspect of the Sunflash-Swartt plot line vanishes after Nightshade’s death, leaving the status (fated or not?) of their rivalry not only unanswered, but unaddressed. I don’t mind leaving something unanswered, but I think authors have a duty to at least address the issue and suggest a resolution, even an imperfect one.

Then there’s the final resolution of the Bryony-Veil plot line. It really bothers me. Jacques, speaking through Bella the badger-mum, seems to say that all of the moral ambiguity we thought he had been discussing had been illusory, and in fact morality is black-and-white after all.

So Jacques begins to deconstruct his world – but then stops, goes back on what he’s said, and then writes a bunch more Redwall books – twelve (and counting). Did he decide the issues he’d brought up didn’t actually need addressing? Did he think he had addressed them? Did he not realize there were issues? I don’t quite know. But it definitely seems that Jacques began a deconstruction but never attempted a reconstruction.

The later entries in the series were never as good as the ones preceding Outcast, and I think this is why. Jacques kept writing what he had been writing, but he had realized some of the absurdities of it, on some level at least, and decided not to address them. Thus they moved from innocence to immaturity.

I realize this is a harsh criticism, and I don’t mean for it to be taken as entirely accurate. I overstate my case; the books were not perfect up until Outcast, Outcast is a decent book, and they were not uniformly abysmal following it. But I do think Outcast serves as a good turning point in the series towards the worse, and that the above is a good part of the reason why.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

  1. hoppenburger says:

    Hope you don’t mind me leaving comments on old stuff; I’m going through your archives since I haven’t been reading your blog for a while.

    While I agree with all of your arguments -Martin is a better book- I think Outcast is a little bit more ambitious, even if it ultimately fails. It’s the first book where he starts exploring the single most basic assumption that his series was founded on, i.e. the black/white moral dichotomy between the ‘good creatures’ and the ‘vermin.’ The fact that he ends up refusing to complicate the moral rules of his universe gives me some interesting food for thought, at least. Is there a legitimate reason for coming down on the side he does; is there something to be said for a cut-and-dried lack of moral ambiguity?

    It’s also worth noting that Jacques did explore these issues again in Taggerung, which was around #17 or #18. The dilemma is inverted in that one: an otter raised by rats. I actually recommend it as the best post-Outcast book.

  2. (Leaving comments on old stuff is totally fine. Most posts here are about subjects I almost always enjoy talking about.)

    I agree, Outcast is more ambitious. That makes it one of the more important of the entire series; even if it fails in the end, it’s worth reading. (I’m reminded of how T.S. Eliot said Hamlet was a failure as a play but also constantly referenced it and obviously thought people should read it.) In fact, if I were to give a list of Redwall books that people ought to read, the only ones I’m sure I’d include are Redwall, Mossflower, Mattimeo, Martin the Warrior, and Outcast of Redwall.

    My point, I suppose, is less that Outcast itself is an abject failure, and more that I think it was the start of a downward trend towards cliches and repetitiveness.

    Taggerung is actually #13 (or maybe #14). It’s the last one I read. I enjoyed it, but don’t remember that much of it. It bothered me how it was never really in question that Taggerung would turn out to be a good guy.

    I suppose, though, I have been somewhat taking for granted that a lack of moral ambiguity is a bad thing; but it’s not so much that I want more bad guys to be good-ish, as I want more good guys to be bad-ish. Having entirely evil races is OK, but that doesn’t allow you to make almost entirely good races; and it just confuses the issue to occasionally have *almost* good evil creatures.

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