Redwall

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by Brian Jacques. (Avon, 1986 ISBN 0-380-70827-2. Paperback, Hardcover.). Novel. Grades 4+.
This review by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
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Review

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Redwall is an absorbing fantasy somewhat along the lines of Watership Down with shades of The Rats of NIMH, Wind in the Willows and King Arthur sneaking in. When you hear that it's about mice and other woodlawn creatures defending a monastery against an outlaw band of rats, you may be less than overwhelmed with a desire to read it, let alone work with it in your classroom. Please take our word that it's very, very good. Each of us picked it up with trepidation, none of us being avid fantasy readers and yet we all give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. None of us could put it down once we'd started it and all of us cared a great deal about those characters and their exploits.

We are delighted to know that it's part of a series with Mossflower , (Putnam, 1988 ISBN 0-399-21549-2) a prequel, and Mattimeo (Putnam, 1990 ISBN 0-399-21741-X), a sequel, available as well. Each volume, however, stands alone. Read one aloud or as a literature group with kids from about sixth grade up and we guarantee that students will rush for the other two volumes. Later additions to the series include: Martin the Warrior, Salamandastron, Mariel of Redwall, The Bellmaker, Pearls of Lutra, and Outcasts of Redwall.

As with many fantasies, the story is replete with the forces of good under siege by the forces of evil. There are deeds of heroism, vanity and cruelty. There's a rich heritage of peace and good deeds in the monastery which contains an ancient tapestry retelling the deeds of a previous hero, Martin the Warrior. But it is Matthias, an inept and insignificant mouse, who answers the call to rescue the monastery from the horde led by Cluny the Scourge, the one-eyed rat embodiment of evil.

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There is much material here for discussion, reenactments, art and music, research and further reading. Here are a few of our suggestions. Make a web of related ideas with the kids and they'll probably surpass these.

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Things to Notice and Talk About

  • It is apparent, almost from the very beginning, that Matthias is going to be the main hero of the book. Are there other books and stories the children can think of in which a small and seemingly weak character becomes the hero? Can they predict the ways in which Matthias will come to the fore?

  • Speaking of predictions, at the beginning of each chapter there is a pen and ink drawing which is enigmatic but often foreshadows the action. Children can make predictions based on their interpretations of those drawings and make other drawings that they think are equally mysterious but accurate.

  • Not only does foreshadowing have a prominence in the book, cliff-hangers are used as well. Almost every chapter ends with one. The concept may be new to some readers but it's one that they may want to use in their own writing or, at least, they should recognize it when another writer is using it. Compare these verbal cliff hangers to the ones in old movie serials. Watch an episode or two on videos and compare them. Help them see that both foreshadowing and cliff-hanging are ways of maintaining audience interest whether visually or literarily.

  • Students should surely try to solve the riddles and codes as they come upon them in their reading and talk about other books with similar devices.

  • Tracing the hierarchy of the monastery and of the two sides in battle may be a subject for some discussion and reading to prove one's argument. What if the action in this book had another setting? If the story took place in woods nearest you, what animals would be characters in the action? What if the story took place within another hierarchy such as the army? a private school? a hospital?

  • When the shrews are reached, their discussions among themselves are rancorous. One of their leaders says it's a democracy with union rules and that it is not efficient but is right. Do the readers agree? What's inefficient about democracy? How close are our institutions to those of the shrews?

  • Children might want to discuss the traits of Cluny and of Matthais, each the leader of his side. How does each character maintain his role as leader? Cluny is dishonorable with his own side as well as the other side. Find and read aloud instances of his perfidy.

  • The quarrel and then renewed friendship of the owl and the cat in the story surely have human counterparts as well as literary counterparts. Finding and comparing such characters might prove a worthwhile activity for students and teachers alike.

  • Is the location of this book a separate land or is it a land of people? If so, why do we see no humans? Are there evidences of human existence: the hay cart and horse? various road signs?

  • Obviously, at the end of Redwall, the mantle that has been passed from Martin to Matthias is being passed on again. Indeed, the very existence of a sequel makes it obvious. What predictions can the children make of the character of Mattimeo? What qualities do Martin and Matthias share that made them leaders? How are they different?

  • Now that we're thinking about the author, what does he want us to think as a result of reading this book? Did he just have a good story to tell and this is it? What is he saying about passing on tradition? Is he of the opinion that war is sometimes necessary, that some things are worth fighting for?

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Activities

  • Before getting too far into the book, with the children scan the pages quickly to make a list of the cast of characters, including the minor ones, noticing the aptness of some of the names: Bull Sparra, Fangburn, Constance the Badger, Methuselah, Chickenhound, and Warbeak, to name a few. Many of the names give you clues as to that character's qualities and which side it will take in the battle. Keep the list and check them off as you come to them in the reading to see if the predictions bear out.

  • Some of the students may be unfamiliar with abbeys in general and a quick discussion and perusal of pictures may be useful at this juncture. Illuminations, a medieval alphabet book by Jonathan Hunt (Macmillan, 1989 ISBN 0-02-745770-2,) may provide some of the necessary vocabulary background. The rest, maybe even the most, of it children will get from context.

  • After reading part way through the book, go back to your list of characters and their qualities. Do the traits of the characters parallel those of the animal in real life? Are badgers fierce, sparrows quarrelsome, otters acrobatic and hedgehogs calm? What kind of snake is Asmodeuss? Should he be feared? After completing the reading, children should be able to make note of some of the rules of warfare as observed by both sides: no fires, no shooting people in retreat, to name two. They can look at the various prophecies within the book: the tapestry, Cluny's dream. How were they borne out in the action? Are there other books in which characters carry out a prophesy? How about the seers that make prophecies today? How often do they come true? In this book, both major prophecies came true.

  • Listing the roles in the battles: generals, spies, soldiers, philosophers, the weapons of war, and the concept of territories might get children talking about similar roles and concepts in board games and video games and then in accounts of real wars and battles.

  • One side uses as its standard, a ferret head. What other banners would be appropriate for each side? Why do flags and standards exist? When was the first time the American flag was carried into battle? (Hint: Not by George Washington crossing the Delaware.) Designing banners might be a worthwhile art project. Speaking of art projects, there is a very general map in the beginning of the book. Children could make maps with much more detail and, using medieval letters and symbols, children could make the maps true works of art.

  • The various edifices in the story make it ideal for model-making. The whole class can get involved in a scale model of the abbey, the barn, and all the other settings and then construct moveable characters to reenact the battle scenes or other action in the story.

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Related Books

Comparing this book to others in which animal societies are used such as Watership Down, Wind in the Willows, Jungle Book and The Rats of NIMH may offer some interesting topics for discussion. What makes a good fantasy anyway?

cover art Graceling by Kristin Cashore. (2008, Harcourt. ISBN 9780152063962. Order Info.) Novel. 471 pages. Gr 8-12.
Katsa is the king's niece and a Graceling -- one born with special powers. In this medieval style fantasy her gift is the ability to kill with her bare hands. Her quest to save the seven kingdoms brings her through a high adventure of combat, romance and self-discovery. Read More.

Illuminations by Jonathan Hunt (Macmillan, 1989 ISBN 0-02 745770-2,)

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