Review Of High Rhulain (Redwall)
The trouble with young adult fantasy is that many of the novels are not stand-alone books, but part of a series. High Rhulain (pronounced roo-lane) is the 18th book in Brian Jacques’ Redwall saga, yet what sets it apart is that, like most Redwall books, is that it can be read on its own.
Certainly, there is a historical chronology to the novels, but you can start with whichever book you wish and not get lost. Most Redwall novels are stand-alone tales set in different eras in Redwall Abbey’s history. The Redwalluniverse, including High Rhulain, is set in the fictional woodlands of Mossflower Wood, with Redwall Abbey – built entirely of red sandstone – at its centre. Even though High Rhulain is fantasy it doesn’t include typically fantasy conventions such as elves and wizards. Instead, the book features anthropomorphic animals, most of which are found in Britain. The animals have all the traits of humans, but humans are never mentioned nor do they appear in the book.
In High Rhulain, like all Redwall novels, the animals or beasts are divided into good or evil based on their species. The heroic woodland animals include badgers, birds, dormice, hares, hedgehogs, mice, moles, otters, seals, shrews, squirrels and voles. The evil animals, or “vermin”, include birds, ermine, ferrets, foxes, pine martens, rats, stoats, weasels and wildcats.
High Rhulain follows adventures of young otter maid, Tiria Wildlough, who sets out from Redwall Abbey on a quest for Green Isle (an island Jacques based on Ireland) to take her places as High Rhulain (or High Queen), and help her otter brethren rid their island of the evil wildcat warlord, Riggu Felis. The novel focuses heavily on themes Brian Jacques typically loves to explore, including differences between freedom and slavery, the price of war, courage, the ability of one creature to change the world, and destiny.
The novel goes back on forth on three subplots: Tiria’s journey to Green Isle, her felloe Redwallers’ endeavour to find Rhulain’s regalia, and otter insurgency on Green Isle. Wildcat Riggu Felis, Green Isles warlord, rules the isle with an iron paw, enslaving otters and trying and trying to stamp out the resistance of free otters and their brave leader, Leatho Shellbound. Leatho and his otter warriors frequently attack Felis and his catguards in attempts to free their friends and family from the wildcat’s tyranny. Meanwhile at Redwall, Tiria Woodlough learns from a prophetic dream that the Green Isle otters need her to save them from Riggu Felis’ terrible reign. Tiria eventually sets out for Green Isle visiting a cast of characters along the way including the Guosim shrews, Cuthberth Blanedale Frunk, and dangerous pompous Long Patrol hare and Mandoral Highpeak, Badger Lord of mountain stronghold, Salamandastron.
High Rhulain is filled with what makes other Redwall novels so successful. Young adults can easily relate to the believable, well-crafted characters. Tiria, the novel’s heroine, follows in Jacques’ great tradition of gender equality. In the Redwall universe, female characters have the same power, cunning and strength that the male do, and Tiria is no exception. She is a master at the slingshot, and a brave even in her first battle with a gang of vicious water rats. In addition to her courage, she is also compassionate. She questions her need to use violence and is shocked when she first kills another creature even though he means her loved ones no harm.
High Rhulain also gives a sense of a real place. Even though the book is essentially about talking animals, it never feels absurd because Jacques grounds it in reality with great detail. He sharply describes the settings of Redwall Abbey, its surrounding countryside, Green Isle, and the sea with extraordinary precision. He draws the reader in by describing even the breakfast that his characters are eating. The Redwall novels are known for detailed descriptions of sumptuous food, or “vittles”. Jacques also fillsHigh Rhulain with riddles that the reader delights in trying to solve, and line after line of poems and songs – some funny, some tragic, others stirring war chants. He describes battles and action with riveting detail. Jacques is brilliant at writing accents and dialects, giving his characters Scottish, Welsh and Irish accents, or even creating dialects of his own, like ‘mole-speech’. His otters are seafarers and are designed to sound like sailors or old sea dogs.
Jacques is a master at entwining two or more subplots to create a coherent plot, but there are problems. The book sticks to Redwall’s typical formula – the woodland inhabitants of Redwall Abbey try to solve a riddle to help a questing comrade all while defending the abbey from vermin enemies, meanwhile a creature and a group of friends embark on an epic journey from the abbey. For the first-time reader, particularly the young one, this tale of riddles, battles and adventures feel new, even wondrous. But for the long-time fan, or adult reader, the book suffers from a sense of predictability.
The novel is an excellent place to start for a young person searching for a new fantasy, or as encouragement to fall in love with reading, or for an adult to be swept away to a far-off place again. High Rhulain clearly shows the difference between good and evil, and magically, it takes animals to reveal humanity for what it is and can be. Jacques has said he chose to write animals because “animals are better people than people are”.