Let me tell you about how a book changed my life.
In third grade, I thought I was a pretty great reader. I was totally into chapter books, and read virtually anything I could get my hands on, with many thanks to our library and the Scholastic Book Club catalogs. I also loved animals: the year before, we’d finally gotten a dog, and I had spent a good deal of time utterly obsessed with Jack London books and The Rats of NIMH.
My friend Tristan had this new hardback. I’d seen him carrying it around, but hadn’t investigated. It was more than an inch thick, and the clothbound cover – I seem to remember it was maroon – had only a single, shiny title on it. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a chapter book with only tiny pictures at the start of each chapter. And that good guys sometimes die. I was rocked by this. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that that could happen, and the fact that someone my age was reading this book meant that I could too, and should.
The book was Mattimeo. The rest is history.
I devoured the Redwall books from the age of 8 until I was nearly out of college. I loved the epic quests, the unlikely friendships, the different clans of animals, the loyalty, the scoundrels, the betrayals, the adventure, the strangeness, the feasts. I truly think I read some of those books more than a hundred times each. Mattimeo, The Bellmaker, Salamandastron, Mossflower – these are formative texts for me. Because of Redwall, I went to the library and asked for similar books or bigger books. The librarian gave me The Cold Moons by Aeron Clement, my first adult fiction book, and of course, the great Watership Down. Once I had a taste of the Adult Fiction section, and wasn’t so scared of it, the whole library was open to me, and I read everywhere.
Being dissatisfied that there were no wolves in the series, I began writing my own stories, which rapidly became a sprawling series of my own, which I illustrated and read aloud to my mother on car trips. (They’re fantastic stories, by the way, combining all the best features of the mid- to late-90s alternative pop music scene with The Lion King and dashes of unintentionally postmodern humor. I’m not actually being snide: I have a tremendous soft spot for that period of work.) Writing those stories made me push myself as a storyteller, and it also made me someone who writes, regularly and constantly, for fun. I am not a writer or a reader because of Brian Jacques, but he had an outsized hand in it.
Usually I skipped the long lists of dishes, and, unless it was plot-related, the poetry, but the world of Mossflower, oh, I wanted it dearly. How I wanted to be an otter or a hare, and to terrorize the kitchen and go on quests and have friends who would die for me or the other way around. How I saw Mossflower in Appalachia growing up, the lush forests and rivers and mountains. How I wanted to see the ocean the way Jacques did. And yes, there did come a time when I realized that each book was the same book as the last one, but it was the same wonderful story, and it never stopped me from loving it.
Brian Jacques passed away suddenly this weekend, on Saturday, February 5th. I have lost my chance to thank him directly for all that he has given me, and that does grieve me: I truly thought he would be around forever, and that Mossflower would soldier on and on and on. Still, just because a person is gone does not mean they are lost: his books taught me that too, over and over again.
So, thank you, sir. Thank you for Gonff and Columbine. Thank you for Mariel and Dandin. Thank you for Tsarmina and Slagar the Cruel and Ferahgo the Assassin and General Ironbeak. Thank you for the Foremole and Log-a-Log and the Skipper of Otters. Thank you for Dibbuns and St. Ninians and the Long Patrol and the River Moss and the tapestry. Thank you for meadowcream and hotroot and October ale and deeper’n’ever pie. Thank you for Badger Lords and Badgermums and countless abbots and abbesses, for friars and recorders and cellarkeepers and novices. Thank you for maps and riddles and ships and dreams. Thank you for swans and pikes and snakes and bats and wolverines. Thank you for the dialects. Thank you for Basil Stag Hare and Queen Warbeak and Finbarr Galedeep. Thank you for the Bloodwrath and the Gullwhacker, the Mace, the Axe, and of course, the Sword. Thank you for showing that the world is complicated, and that the good guys can and will die.
Thank you for all those hours when I could have been doing something else. Instead, you took me somewhere, and I began to wander.
Sleep well, Mr. Jacques. Endlessly, thank you.