Reading 'Redwall' and Discovering a Treat for the Senses

When a book helps you appreciate the little details that make for beautiful moments.

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Sep 13 2017, 2:02pm

Troy Howell's illustration for 1997 Philomel edition

Not long ago I finally got around to reading a children's adventure that friends have often recommended: Brian Jacques' Redwall, which is about an idyllic forest full of friendly and adorable animals threatened by a horde of evil rats. It's kind of like Seven Samurai, except almost all the heroes come from within the community itself. Plucky little mice, badgers, hedgehogs, and moles hole up in an ancient abbey while vicious rats and ferrets try to storm it and enslave its defenders.

It stumbles into some of the pitfalls of this kind of conceit, in particular it tends to equate species with race. That's something familiar from a lot of kids' books and movies, but still ends up implying that character traits and behavior are built-in to "what" someone is. Admittedly, it is hilarious that the most dangerous characters in the book are the unhinged, manically violent sparrows who live in the eaves of the abbey, because anyone who has ever had bird feeder knows that sparrows are shockingly aggressive little birds.

The problem comes when you consider that, for example, the good forest rodents all speak like middle-class Anglo-Saxons and are allowed the full range of human behavior and temperament, while the sparrows are also given a different dialect of English and are inherently violent and animalistic.

But while mindful of the subtext in Redwall (and there's a lot more to say there, for sure), I have to admit that it was the ideal book to read in late summer and early autumn. It is one of the most sensuous books I've read in ages, describing in loving detail the play of late afternoon light through the leaves onto blades of grass and beds of leaves. The sound that a forest glade makes as wind blows through it, and bees go about their business.

And the food. My God, the food. Redwall might be one of the hungriest books I've ever read. It's like Jacques read the The Hobbit and thought, "I liked the bits where Bilbo was serving food. What if I did a whole book of 'An Unexpected Party?'" And somehow it works, as the besieged mice spend almost their entire war with the rats feasting on fresh-caught fish, berry pies, soups, and creamy dark stouts.

I think it resonated with me for a couple reasons. First, Redwall like The Hobbit and parts of Earthsea is about the preciousness and beauty of small things and modest pleasures. It's about the little rituals and shared experiences that can unite communities. Second, it's a book whose attention to detail in the natural world leaves you more attuned to your own environment. You can't read this book and not come away from it more aware of how the air tastes, or how the light falls at different times of day, or the sounds that surround you. And that can be a beautiful thing to be aware of, no matter if you're in the heart of a city or deep in a rural forest.

What are some works of art that you find to be special treats for the senses, that make you a little more aware of your own environment and experiences? What about them speaks to you, and when do you like to revisit them?

Let us know in today's open thread!