Sunday, July 16, 2017

June's Book: Marlfox

Marlfox by Brian Jacques
Fantasy (1998 - 386 pp.)

Marlfox is the 11th book (13th chronologically) in the Redwall series. The one-paragraph version is that there are seven Marlfoxes, who are all children of  Queen Silth. One of the Marlfoxes, Lantur, serves as Silth's personal assistant, while the other six attempt to conquer the series's titular Redwall Abbey. What makes Marlfox special among Redwall books is what I have just said: whereas earlier books focus on heroes, or hero-villain personal vendettas, Marlfox is more about the villains than about anyone.

The Mokkan-Gelltor dynamic drives the book. Neither is particularly sympathetic - Mokkan is a deceptive thief, and Gelltor is bent on pillaging Redwall Abbey - but their personality conflict launches the book's two main plots. Gelltor leads three other Marlfoxes on an attack on Redwall that threatens every aspect of the residents' lives. Redwall is the cornerstone of the series, with the vast majority of books either set there or invoking its lore, so that its largely mouse/squirrel population to be overrun by foxes is (for the characters) terrifying. Negotiations between Gelltor and the Rusvul (squirrel)/Janglur (squirrel)/Skipper (otter) rulers of Redwall by committee go south rather quickly: "Gelltor waved his axe aloft. 'Now 'tis war. Your Abbey is surrounded, and we will stay here for as long as it takes to slay you or make you all surrender!'" (160) This exchange is in response to the only beheading I have ever read in what is ostensibly a children's book. (144) Gelltor later shows the ability to kill multiple enemies in battle virtually effortlessly: "The Marlfox fought like a demon, snarling in the face of his enemies as he wielded his axe savagely. Three shrews were laid low..." (223)

Mokkan, meanwhile, whisks away the Abbey's prized tapestry, leading young Dannflor (squirrel), Songbreeze (squirrel) and Dippler (shrew) to go on a quest to retrieve it. This double plot puts both sides on offence, with the sly, thieving Mokkan just as hunted as the defenders of Redwall. Dannflor and Songbreeze briefly appear to become love interests (200-201, for example), although in true Redwall fashion, they simply become good friends and leave the reader to assume more squirrels will exist at some undefined future point. This is not to say Mokkan isn't capable of fighting back. Mokkan's physical prowess is shown in lines like "Mokkan's paw was like a clawed vice. It dug savagely into Fenno [the shrew]'s neck..." (156) and "With a quick flick of his paws, he pushed [character name redacted for spoiler purposes] into the lake" (336). He also shows ingenuity in convincing other Marlfoxes of his status as quasi-leader, such as when he tells Predak, "Tell me. I'm not like our brother Gelltor, I'm always ready to listen to other schemes." (94)

Despite the ostensible good-versus-evil story, no character in Redwall is truly morally angelic. The Marlfoxes' desires to acquire wealth through plunder makes them understandably on the bad side of things, which Mokkan readily admits: "Remember, we're Marlfoxes, born to stealth and deceit." (65) It is only Janglur, a good guy, who ever resorts to killing foes by way of an oil fire. (276) The nominal good guys have no qualms about referring to entire species of animals as "vermin" (204, among others) but the Marlfoxes never refer to mice, squirrels, hares, otters, or any other nominally good animal with any epithet meant to cover an entire species. Even when Marlfoxes use abusive language, which is frequently, it is always aimed at a particular target, such as when Lantur says to a water rat, "You are growing fat and idle whilst your Queen suffers. There are no excuses for your stupidity." (96) Queen Silth then refers to the same rat as a "worthless piece of offal". (97) Mokkan says to Fenno the shrew, "Pain is the best teacher for stupid idiots." (215) Rats in general, though? Only the good guys could possess such a blanket level of hatred.

Marlfox's surprisingly ambiguous morality is further muddled by the ways in which Jacques's descriptions of the animals differs sharply from their real-life perceptions. A prime example is Jacques's portrayal of mice as heroes and ferrets as villains. Take, for instance, Jacques's plain description of a stoat and two weasels: "Their appearance was eerie and barbaric." (229) In the books, it makes enough sense in a Zootopia-style prey-predator dynamic. (But then why are badgers good?) In real life, however, ferrets are commonly seen as lovable companions for cats and children, whereas mice are afforded far different treatment. It's tougher to hate Raventail the ferret, and the Marlfoxes themselves, when one can't stop thinking about how cute they are.

Jacques's use of dialect is well on display for all these critters. Foxes speak in proper English, mice and squirrels have a commoner dialect, hares are affectedly British ("villainous chaps", "wot wot"), and moles border on incomprehensible: "Cos ee wurr outside, zurr, back o' ee likkle wallgate." (93) Or see: "Doan't feels loik oi gotten two 'eads no more, hurr hurr!" (244) Or see: "Hurr, you'm give umm billyo, zurr Skip!" (324) The Mighty Megraw, an osprey, is Scottish in even the most everyday phrases: "Ah'd like that fine, lass!" (288) In a particularly cute use of dialect-meets-Spoonerism, a mousebabe and a molebabe combine to impersonate "Marmfloxes" using ash and blankets. (246-247)

The back dust jacket of Marlfox tells something that I, as a faithful Redwall reader since about the age of eight, had not previously known. Apparently, Jacques spends his summers writing and his winters researching the Redwall books - by working "in a specially built conservatory so he can watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and the occasional fox, which are a constant inspiration." Jacques's imagination is immense to be able to create these settings, characters and plots out of what my personal experiences observing birds and squirrels has not yet delivered.

A final thought on Jacques's writing style: it is meant for Redwall books. Jacques frequently uses "tell, don't show" in order to achieve a storytelling mood. He puts thoughts directly in the reader's mind rather than have the reader figure out what's happening, as usually happens in literary fiction. Examples are limitless, but a good one is when Florian attempts to stop Marlfox-led forces from breaking into Redwall: "Curious to know what was going on, they hastened across." (192) Florian's curiosity should be evident from his surroundings without Jacques having to point it out in narration. From a worse (or beginning) writer, or with a worse story, the reader would feel railroaded. That said, Jacques still displays great "show, don't tell" passages, such as when Mokkan drives his boat through rapids. (266) What Jacques has achieved here is to spin the reader a yarn while using shorthand to make the plot move faster, all while making Marlfox accessible to readers of all ages.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: There is a minor character, a mole, named Muggle. (92) Which came first: the Castle or the Abbey? Most likely, it's a coincidence.