Are There LGBTQ+ Characters In: Redwall by Brian Jacques (Review)

Title: Redwall
Author: Brian Jacques
Rating: 3/5

Are there LGBTQ+ characters? No. Not in this book, nor in any of the other books in the series (I have read a good chunk of these as a teen, but not all of them; still, I feel comfortable in saying that there are exactly zero queer characters in the entirety of the Redwall Saga).

Brief summary / book review: Let’s get one thing out of the way: These mice fuck.

I’m not saying that to be snarky or rude or anything, but it’s true. Matthias, the main character, is a boy mouse. He is smitten with Cornflower, a girl mouse. Multiple characters tease them about their blossoming relationship and quite openly egg them on into marrying each other.

Ergo, these characters are mice who are encouraged to engage in sexual intercourse. In the sequel, they have a child, so it is clear that they have carried out their mandate (or is it mousedate?) and have done, as the kids say, the nasty.

Now that we’ve gotten the procreating habit of fictional mice out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the book and series at large, shall we? (One mild spoiler ahead for this book, and for another book in the series, “Outcast of Redwall.”)

I read probably 10-15 of the 20+ Redwall books growing up as a young teen; they were my gateway drug into fantasy. This particular book is pretty emblematic of the rest of the books in the series, and has a lot of the fantasy tropes I’ve come to know: Good guys vs. bad guys, feasts, riddles, warrior’s quests, a huge array of characters, some humor, and plenty of action. It’s basically an introduction to the other giants of the genre, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to Harry Potter and beyond. Some or all of the elements found in Redwall were things I would discover in most of the fantasy books I’ve read since.

For readers between, say, 8-14 years old, these books are great. As an adult, the shortcomings are a lot more apparent, especially given that subsequent YA books have shown that younger readers can handle more sophisticated storytelling. For example, there is a major quest to retrieve a sword. Great! Except, at the very end? The sword isn’t even used to kill the bad guy. The main character could have used a steak knife for all we cared.

Another example: it is a hard and fast rule that only mice and good woodland creatures can be the heroes, and all the vermin are, well, vermin. In one of the books, a baby ferret gets adopted by the good creatures of Redwall, but despite that upbringing, the ferret still turns evil, because nature trumps nurture in this universe, no matter what (and yes, that particular book I hated because it just felt so wrong — more on that in a bit).

There are conservative values running through the book, mostly in good ways. For example, nostalgia for a golden past runs deep in the bones of this story. The heroes are always noble and true, unyielding against evil. They are virtuous, chivalrous, and generous. When they make mistakes, they own up to them, but aren’t afraid to go their own way (there is an amusing/weird subplot that is patently anti-union in its theming; given that this book was published in the mid-80’s during Thatcher’s England, there is a context that it’s drawing from).

But it also means that it can be inflexible in its approach (see above, re: vermin). That story about the orphan whose true colors emerged later in life was the plot of a book called Outcast of Redwall, and it can be seen through an LGBTQ+ lens: an “outsider,” a misfit, someone who doesn’t share the same looks and values, who has trouble fitting in with the “mainstream” — it’s very easy to sympathize with the character of Veil the ferret, as I did. And to see the author ultimately make Veil a liar and a cheat because his “true” self came through, and to have him banished from the Abbey, was a painful experience as a gay reader. It felt targeted, honestly, and this was something I felt as a young teen. It felt then, as it does now, monstrously unjust.

Still, even with that, Outcast of Redwall was one I re-read often. I would always wish that things turned out differently for Veil, that the author should have known better. And I wouldn’t recommend it to any teen struggling with their sexuality today, only because there actually are positive portrayals of queer youth in YA books now, which wasn’t the case back when I read Outcast.

Aside from that particular landmine, I do remember the other books fondly. The warrior rabbits with insatiable feasting appetites, the stout badger lords, crazy little birds, and yes, the mice who fuck — these comprised of a wonderful cast of characters in the gateway drug for the fantasy of my youth. I wouldn’t really recommend these to adults except as a curiosity or a companion read to the upcoming Netflix series, but if you have a young reader in your life that you’re trying to nudge towards fantasy, I would definitely consider giving these a shot, even if there are so many terrific contemporary reads competing for attention.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

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