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I grew up watching Brian Jacques’ Redwall series even though I fell off the car somewhere near The Long Patrol. I still have memories of going through the Tattered Cover or the local B. Dalton to check if a new one came out and putting my pocket money in the pockets of my jeans. I think what everyone remembers the most is the absolutely amazing food porn. What I loved most about the show as a kid was the story of Martin the Warrior and his famous sword.
Part of what made me fall in love with the show was my frustration with what the girl characters weren’t getting to do. I remember getting so excited when Mariel from Redwall came out (the first of the hardcover books I bought) because she looked like a real badass lady from the start. I was deeply disappointed when Mariel wasn’t entrusted with Martin’s sword and it went to one of the male mouse figures. At this point I had not yet found Tamora Pierce. It was an understatement to say that I really wanted to see a girl become a “real” warrior – which obviously meant having a piece of sharp metal to fling around.
I grew up with fantasy books. My mother read to my brother and me the entire Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, followed by all of the Chronicles of Narnia. I had seen Star Wars. I might not have been able to call it a trope at the time, but I knew that acquiring a fantastic sword legitimized a character as a real hero, and equally aware that girls rarely, if ever, had to have one.
Redwall’s early books also drew my attention to another trope that was a cornerstone of the epic fantasy I grew up with: some types of people, be they orcs or weasels, are just always evil. It didn’t bother me so much on my first trip through the Lord of the Rings, probably because orcs and goblins were portrayed on the site as undeniably crude and scary. It started to really annoy me in Redwall for liking foxes and wild cats and it felt very unfair. Mainly because it wasn’t the biological reality of what foxes and wildcats eat that dictated their villainy in Brian Jacques’ books. If we’d seen Slagar in Mattimeo or Tsarmina in Mossflower actually eat one of the unfortunate mice, that would have been one thing. Instead, instead of just being hungry, they were always power-grabbing, thieving, murderous idiots.
For this reason I wrote a fan letter to Brian Jacques in my best 11-year-old handwriting in which I asked him two questions: Will a girl ever be able to wield Martin the Warrior’s sword? and do foxes always have to be angry? I tore my house apart for hours trying to find the return receipt, but past me I seem to have taken it to such a completely safe place that to my frustration I will never find it again. But I remember vividly that he wrote a quick note back, which was incredibly exciting, and that the answer itself was just as disappointing. I can paraphrase: Have you read ‘Mariel of Redwall’? Mariel is a great warrior.
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Yes I had. And that’s why I wrote to him in the first place. Mariel had been cool, yes, but not Sword-von-Martin-level cool. (He made no attempt to answer my second question that I can remember). From the perspective of a now adult author, I’m even more grateful that he took the time to answer me, even if it was an answer I didn’t want. I don’t know if he ever did any of these things as I was just over halfway through the show.
But I’ve thought about it a lot since the big announcement that Netflix was going to do a Redwall series. There is no longer such a lack of imagination with sword-wielding women and girls (although I’m not so sure what percentage is chosen as an option), but there is still very active, ongoing conversation about how absolutely harmful and fundamentally racist the “all.” Affiliates “are to this species / race / nation has X quality” Trope is. We have finally reached the point where Dungeons & Dragons is slowly moving away from the “racist” features (they made their first attempt at Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) built into it because this trope is so fundamental to the epic fantasy. That way, any new “Lord of the Rings” or similar property – like Redwall – feels like a step backwards.
Redwall was my first lesson in liking problematic things, but that ultimately kept me away from the show – and the epic fantasy as a whole – for a long time.