I Read Another Book: Mossflower

Another one so soon?

Mossflower Woods, by Nova Nocturne – https://www.artstation.com/artwork/oOPgLk

Yes, I’m catching up on stuff I’ve been reading over the summer. This is the most recent book I’ve finished, actually, so it’s a bit more fresh in my mind than the Pelican Brief. This time, the book is one I’ve read before, thought it was a very long time ago, when I was but a small child. My dad used to read books to me and my brother, and Redwall and Mossflower were among them. I read a few of the later entries in the series on my own, but soon fell off, replacing it with Discworld in my heart.

But, some affection still lingers for this old… fantasy series, I guess you’d say? Redwall is kind of hard to classify, really. I guess I should describe them in general before getting into this specific book, it’ll save some time, and a lot of the thoughts I have relate to the series as a whole anyway.

So, in the broadest possible sense, Redwall is a standard medieval fantasy setting where all the characters are various woodland animals instead of humans. Mice and badgers and moles and squirrels and whatnot, running around having adventures. What’s interesting is how this premise is executed, which is very different from many similar animal-tinged fantasy series.

Original US cover

For one thing, there are no humans, at all. There are a few stray references to human things in the first book, but they are completely absent from all future entries in the series. This isn’t some cute post-apocalyptic thing or a series where animals are coexisting with human civilization, it is completely its own thing. The way the series treats animals is interesting and varies on a case by case basis. They don’t all necessarily have human-level intelligence, but the vast majority do, even in cases where you wouldn’t think they would.

While all the characters have the physical characteristics and special abilities of their animal species, they are also humanoid in some vague, undefined sense. Also, one must imagine a sort of averaging-out of the size of all these different species, otherwise a scene where a wildcat is having a swordfight with a mouse is just completely absurd. Obviously, a badger is vaguely bigger than a mouse, but it’s not to the exact scale that these things would be in real life.

It works because it’s a series for kids, and it doesn’t really focus on it at any point. The characters are simply described as their species, and then they do things, it doesn’t get into nitty gritty details. It’s more interested in the broad strokes of fantasy and heroic action, not realism. Also food, lots of descriptions of food. And phonetic accents! Boy, if you don’t like phonetic accents, you are going to hate these books.

So, that’s for the series in general, what about the one I read?

Well, Mossflower was the second book in the Redwall series, and is a prequel, taking place hundreds of years (I think?) before the first book. It concerns the adventures of Martin the Warrior, a key character in the background of the first book, and his quest to free the Mossflower woods from the tyranny of the cruel Queen Tsarmina, who rules from the fortress Kotir. It serves as backstory for Martin himself, and for the founding of Redwall Abbey, which is the setting for most other books in the series.

Martin basically just wanders into Mossflower from “The North” and is captured by Tsarmina for defending some local hedgehogs from her army of stoats and ferrets. He’s rescued along with a mouse thief (oh right Martin is a mouse and Tsarmina is a wildcat), and teams up with CORIM (Council Of Resistance In Mossflower). They’re hiding out in the woods in a hollowed-out tree that is the home of a great and powerful badger.

A mouse, good

While CORIM continues to fight Tsarmina’s forces, Martin goes off on a quest to find the badger’s warrior-king father, Boar the Fighter. He travels with Gonff the thief and Dinny the mole across the mountains to the legendary volcano Salamandrastron, teaming up with the vole Log-a-log along the way. They find Boar, who reforges Martin’s sword with meteorite iron, and then they all fight pirates and escape in a stolen pirate ship, which they take back to Mossflower.

Meanwhile, CORIM have a scheme going to flood the fortress Kotir, and they use the stolen pirate ship to divert a river and complete the plan. Tsarmina’s forces are forced out of Mossflower entirely, and the wildcat herself has a duel to the death with Martin on the shore of the lake where her fortress used to be. Martin wins, but only just, as is never the same again.

So, it’s a pretty standard fantasy story, though it does employ a structure that Redwall books would continue using for basically the whole series. One group of characters goes off on some sort of quest, while another group back at home (usually Redwall abbey) deals with some other, often unrelated threat. This way the narrative can bounce back and forth between them and keep things compelling on a chapter-to-chapter basis.

The plot is kind of whatever, but the worldbuilding is really interesting to me for a couple of reasons. Besides the fretting over exact sizes of animals that I wrote about above, this is mainly what I want to talk about here: A medieval conception of the state and violence, and the problem of fantasy races as allegories for real races.

A stoat, evil

First, let’s talk about the conception of the state. The idea that you belong to a specific nation that has certain qualities, which you may seek to emulate or take pride it, is very recent. Really, only in the last couple hundred years has it been much of a Thing. People were united by religion and language and general culture, but something as specific as a nation-state was not something that extended very far beyond a single city’s walls.

A medieval kingdom is not anything resembling a modern country. It is a collection of smaller holdings that are united, ostensibly, as vassals of a singular ruler. Large kingdoms are exceptions, most feudal units were not included in very large conglomerates, and even if they were their loyalty was totally up for grabs most of the time. A common serf working in a field wouldn’t think of themselves as “French” or “English”, though they might have some allegiance to their local lord, who has some allegiance to some baron, who has some allegiance to some king, somewhere.

When I read Mossflower this time, I recognized that it is written from that perspective, and also that it views the feudal lords as inherently evil tyrants who ought to be overthrown. Which is, frankly, very refreshing as far as fantasy literature goes.

“Mossflower” is simply the name of the forest. There is no legendary Lord Mossflower, there is no True King who is supposed to return and rule from Kotir in a correct way. Kotir and everyone who lives there is evil, they are exploitative parasites who cruelly steal from the hardworking folk who happen to live nearby. There is no mention of other kingdoms, or of other people, except in vague terms. People do not exist as units of a nation-state, they exist as individuals who have their own particular experiences.

A badger, good

Even when Martin and his band visit the legendary ruler of Salamandastron, he doesn’t rule over a kingdom. Just over a small group of hares, who all work to protect themselves from being turned into galley slaves by pirates.

This is all to say that, for a story set in a medieval fantasy world, it is surprisingly left-leaning in this aspect. Which isn’t to say that it’s pacifist either, CORIM fight back against Kotir and kill many, many stoats and weasels, and Martin is a Warrior at the end of the day. It is, essentially, the story of a successful peasant revolt, which destroys the castle and replaces the cruel lord with an Abbey where everyone can live together in peace, and flee when other rogues happen to attack.

Okay, the Abbey reminds me of another weird thing: There doesn’t seem to be any religion in the world of Redwall, despite the whole series being named after and mostly taking place in a religious institution. There is a mention of a St. Ninian’s church, but that is later explained away as a joke (a faded sign saying it This Ain’t Anyone’s, if I recall), and the abbot and the friars of the abbey practice no religion.

Characters will say things like “By the claw!”, but that just seems to be another sort of winking joke. It’s very strange! I’m guessing Brian Jacques (the author, last name pronounced, oddly, “Jakes”) just wanted to avoid any controversy that might be drummed up by getting into the specifics of animal religion. Or, he just wasn’t interested in exploring the topic, which is totally fair!

The abbey, and the society of CORIM from which is comes, is really more of an anarcho-syndicalist collective, which was also a thing that happened occasionally in medieval times. People without a ruling lord, just kinda looking out for each other, helping as they may, banding together for common defense when necessary. 

A pine marten, very evil

It’s a very surreal experience to go back and read a series of kids fantasy novels you read as a child, and realize that the plot of the second one is basically “Yeah there was a feudal lord here, but they were an asshole so we killed them and destroyed their castle.” Absolutely incredible, I love it, we need more stories like this nowadays. It’s even very explicit about portraying the residents of Kotir as parasites, talking about how they took from the locals (“woodlanders”) to fill their larders, and could not survive without a populace to terrorize. What a surprising place to find such revolutionary ideas!

And now, unfortunately, we need to talk about fantasy racism.

It’s a topic that’s been done to death, but Redwall presents a very… weird case of it. Basically, there is a certain set of animal species that are “good” and a different set that are “bad”. On the good side, you’ve got mice, squirrels, otters, badgers, hedgehogs, moles, voles, bats, and shrews. On the evil side: stoats, ferrets, martens, weasels, foxes, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds of prey, and cats.

If a character shows up and they’re a fox, they’re gonna be bad. That’s just the way the moral universe of these stories works. They may be somewhat sympathetic, as with the healer Fortunata in Mossflower, but they will always be on the side of evil in the end. There can be evil examples of “good” species, but good examples of evil ones are vanishingly rare, only occurring a few times in the whole series.

A wildcat, extremely evil

But, weirdly, the biggest example of that happening is in this very book! You see, the evil queen Tsarmina has a brother, Gingivere, who she frames for their father’s murder, and locks up in the dungeons. He gets rescued by Kotir along with some hedgehog children (it’s a subplot while Martin and co are out questing), and decides to simply leave Mossflower entirely to escape his sister’s wrath.

Now, you may think, as I did, “well, that might mean he goes off to join some other band of robbers or evil institution.” But no! Gingivere shows up later in the book, having settled down with a female wildcat on a farm just outside of the forest. They offer a refuge for the woodlanders not involved with the fighting, just in case Tsarmina is able to discover CORIM’s secret headquarters. Gingivere is categorically good and kind, despite being a cat, which is probably the most evil species you could be in a book where the protagonists are usually mice.

It’s very strange to me that there is this powerful, obvious counter-example to this biological essentialist view of morality in the second book in the series, which is then basically never repeated. Would it be so hard to have a few friendly weasels living in Redwall? A single book about a heroic stoat or fox? Apparently it is!

Now, what Redwall does not do is utilize the dodge used by a lot of animal-based fiction: this divide is not between carnivores and herbivores, nor between predators and prey. There is no actual biological angle presented in the books themselves, it’s just that certain kinds of animals tend to be bad, and certain ones tend to be good, which makes it really uncomfortable and hard to defend. The woodlanders are generally kind of vegetarian, but they’ll eat fish and shrimp, and are not opposed to scavenging what they can.

This sort of awkward translation of animals to real-world human races is very unfortunate, but it is unavoidable. As I mentioned earlier, these books are heavy with phonetic accents, and they tend to land along species lines, with moles having a difficult-to-parse Northern English dialect, and Hares having a very Southern one (I think? I don’t know a lot about English accents).

In some sense, it’s even more extreme than most examples of weird fantasy races as allegories. Some characters have huge digging claws, or can climb trees more easily, or are gigantic sea monsters that terrorize a whole civilization of toads. Yes, at one point Martin and co meet a huge “snakefish”, which they help free so they can escape a group of toads that have captured them. It can also speak and is sapient, like all the other animals!

At a certain level, the book is so far from reality that it’s asking you to just kind of… not make these connections. And it’s easy to see how that works from the writer’s point of view. If a character is going to be evil, you set their species to one of the evil ones, no big deal. They’re all just animals, it doesn’t matter that much.

It’s unfortunate because, as I mentioned, I do really like the revolutionary central message of this book, but the fact that this weird biological essentialism runs throughout the whole series makes me just a big uncomfortable.

VERDICT: This is a fun, light bit of reading, excellent for kids. A nice bit of fantastical escapism for these harrowing times, and a vision of a better future for all of us. Just… don’t look too closely at some of the racial allegories. Although, that really applies more to later books in the series, not this particular one.

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