For March’s entry into Emlyn Chand’s “Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge, I reread some animal stories – Watership Down by Richard Adams and Salamandastron by Brian Jacques.
Like many kids, I read The Chronicles of Narnia so many times that I still have them memorized. And even as an adult, I periodically reread them. Atheists and Christians alike love them. So I thought for this month’s selection, I’d focus on some personified animal stories that may be lesser known.
First, Watership Down. When I was in fourth grade, my family visited some childless family friends for Thanksgiving. I’d just gotten a copy of Salamandastron, and when he saw me reading it, the guy lent me his copy of Watership Down because it was very similar. This was the first time I remember getting a real book recommendation from someone – up until this point we’d read a book in class (Meet Kirsten and Meet Samantha of the American Girls franchise; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Little House on the Prairie) and I’d followed up with the rest of the series. But this was different. This was a nonschool adult talking books with me.
So I of course devoured it. It’s similar to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I’d already read, but it was darker. Bigger words and more elaborate prose. Deeper themes. This was an adult book, recommended to me by an adult. And because of that, it’s held up over time. All I remembered before rereading it was that it’s about rabbits forced to look for a new home, but the themes (themes I picked up on as a kid) are still timeless: loyalty and leadership, friendship and survival. It’s definitely one I want my son to read when he’s a bit bigger.
The next book I read this month, Salamandastron, had a huge impact on me. It’s part of Jacques’ Redwall books – a series about forest animals that live at Redwall Abbey – and like all series I went on to read all the books. But this one I think will always be my favorite for one reason: it’s the first book I remember reading where the good guys die – lots of good guys, and not always for noble reasons.
There are several interrelated plots to the novel. A couple stoats have deserted from Ferahgo Weasel’s army and seek food at Redwall Abbey. Being stoats they’re incompetent, accidentally kill a friar, and take off with the abbey protector’s sword. Samkin Squirrel and Arula Mole chase after them, eventually crossing paths with Mara Badger and Pikkle Hare, who’ve runaway from the mountain stronghold of Salamandastron and are seeking help from a tribe of shrews in breaking its seige by Farahgo’s army. Meanwhile, plague hits the abbey and Thrugg Otter has to find a rare plant that’ll cure it before more animals die.
And die they do. Friars and sisters and innocent old squirrels die. Just about every character who gets a name in Farahgo’s army dies, and usually casually or offhandedly before the story moves on. Soldier hares die. Shrews die. Toads who’ve captured Mara and Pikkle die. Attacking crows die by the dozens. Mara’s adoptive father dies (spoiler alert there; sorry).
In most children’s stories, death, especially in battle, is either glossed over, serves a meaningful purpose (usually self-sacrifice for the good of the team), or just doesn’t happen. Not in the Redwall books, and for me this was extremely eye-opening. Death happens, and I very much appreciated Brian Jacques not shying away from it.
One thing that didn’t hold up, however, was the portrayal of good and evil. There’s a distinct line in those books of who’s good and who’s bad, and it’s never crossed. Squirrels, mice, badgers, rabbits, moles, otters, and robins are always good. Rats, weasels, foxes, ferrets, toads, snakes, and crows are always bad. Occasionally one’ll try to switch sides, but it never works out. Each animal is born into his fate, and despite his best – or worst – intentions will never be able to change that.
The two messages – death happens no matter how good you are; bad people can never become good – are contradictory. And while overall the themes in the book (which is a kids’ book, after all) are positive – teamwork, good overcomes bad, karma – it’s all overshadowed by the inability to see past a character’s physical qualities. I think that’s a lesson that’s just as valuable, if not more so, for today’s youth.