A scene appeared out of the mists. The army from Redwall lay in slumber amid shattered spears, broken swords and a tattered banner. Other creatures came then, warriors he had never met, yet a voice in the babe's mind told him he knew them. Martin, Matthias, Mattimeo, Mariel, Gonff, all heroic-looking mice. There were badgers too, great fierce-eyed creatures with names like Old Lord Brocktree, Boar the Fighter, Sunflash the Mace, Urthclaw, Urthwyte, Rawnblade, and many more. They wandered the ridge, and each time they touched a creature he or she stood and went with them.
On February 5th, 2011, Brian Jacques died.
The news has left me numb. It was on pure autopilot that I relayed it through my Redwall websites. Words escaped me. As the days passed, the weight of his loss only grew. Brian was a man I looked up to, admired, and sought to emulate. I still do. He was kind, genuine, and a truly gifted man, but humble as well. He seemed thankful of the blessings in his life. Since learning of his passing, thoughts and memories of yesteryear have been tumbling around in my head non-stop. What I kept coming back to, though, were the memories that were made possible by the man we have, over the years, affectionately referred to as "BJ". Snapshots of my life, influenced at every turn by a British author who one day dreamt of sword-wielding mice and villainous rats.
The earliest of these memories, which I can still see clear as day, is of sitting in the car on my way home from the bookstore, having just gotten my first Redwall book: Outcast of Redwall. I had been given a list of the books in the series by a friend who had (rather inaccurately) described them as "Narnia without all the humans", but Outcast of Redwall was not on that list-- only the first seven books of the series were. The smell of the bookstore as I wandered up and down the aisles, looking for these "Tales of Redwall" is vivid. Coffee beans mixed with the smell of undisturbed print. A thorough search of the bookstore yielded only two finds-- Salamandastron in paperback and Outcast of Redwall in hardcover. The choice was difficult, especially for an untried series, but I would opt for the latter because it actually had "Redwall" in the title and I assumed that would be important. And so, new book in hand, my family returned to the car for the ride home. On that ride, I remember passing the book to my mother (from whom it had been a gift) who inscribed the book with the date. When she had finished, I cracked the cover and took my first step into the magical world of Brian Jacques.
I can still recall nearly every detail of the story of Sunflash and Skarlath, discovering the world of Redwall with every turn of the page. The chairs I sat in, the unorthodox places I took the book to-- all of it. There were goodies, baddies, the heroic, and the cowardly. There was an expansive world with connections to past volumes that I had yet to discover, but which only made me anxious to. Concepts like Badger Lords, Badger Mothers, Foremoles, Log a Logs, and the like were foreign to me, but immediately captured my imagination and I wanted to know their full history. When Sunflash discovered the hidden room in the forge, to be greeted by Old Lord Brocktree's armored remains, I hungered for the backstory. I had my first taste of Brian's masterful prose and wanted more.
Over the next two months, I would devour the entire Redwall Series, all the way to Pearls of Lutra, which I'd taken the extra step of importing from Canada (as it still got the books early in those days). Mossflower in the doctor's waiting room, Mariel of Redwall at Disney World, Martin the Warrior at a relative's house, Pearls of Lutra in the car during a road trip-- that entire summer is etched in my mind. That copy of Outcast of Redwall was the first, though, which is why when I was privileged to meet Brian, it was the book I made sure he signed. With both Brian's personalized message and my mother's inscription, that book is the most cherished item in my Redwall collection.
Having discovered the world of Brian's imagination, I still knew very little about the man himself. The earliest picture I can remember seeing of him came from the website "Bryony and Rose's Redwall Page!" In it, he stood in front of shelves full of the U.K. edition of Redwall, his hair still more pepper than salt, and he wore one of the biggest smiles you ever saw.
I remember thinking, "Here's a happy man". There's no mistaking smiles that reach a person's eyes. Well aware of how often childhood idols fail to live up to expectations, I was glad that Brian at least seemed like a nice man. I would breathe a sigh of relief when that impression was vindicated by Brian's own words and actions. He treated his fans with the utmost respect and gratitude, for he knew he owed his success to them. Through it all, that picture is still how I think of Brian: a jovial man. His zest for life was evident every time he spoke, and I can still recall the first time I ever got to hear Brian Jacques' voice. It was a WAV file uploaded on The Official Brian Jacques Homepage (the precursor to Redwall.org), which I could recite by heart:
Hello! My name is Brian Jacques and I've come from Liverpool England to America to tour with my latest book in the Redwall Series. It is my... aheh... my book of adventure, poems, songs, there's a lot of action, and of course there's always good food in my books, there's lots of good food. Written for children from nine to fifteen, but lots of moms, dads, and grandmas and grandpas read it because, y'see, I'm still a child at heart. Heh. A lot of Americans call it fantasy writing, but I like to think it is a romantic adventure, the sort of thing that my dad used to call "a good yarn". Hope that all my young readers will enjoy it! Join me in an adventure at Redwall Abbey!Brian's voice was pure storyteller. He would pull you in, have you hanging on every word, and take you on grand adventures from the northlands to the caverns of Malkariss. Anyone who has ever heard him narrate the audio books-- or perform as the definitive Foremole-- knows exactly what I mean.
The next summer, my family drove for two days so that I could meet Brian in person (listening to the Pearls of Lutra audio book along the way). I've written about that encounter before-- how the bookstore graciously allowed me to be first in line since we'd come so far, but because Brian was still settling in, I got rushed through. Undeterred, we hung around at the end of the line (which numbered over 200) so that I could have a moment with the man. I left the other, unsigned books I'd brought in my bag, because (ever the stickler for rules) I didn't want him to think I just wanted to get around the store's signing limit. I honestly just wanted to speak properly to the man. (I now wish I'd at least asked for one more signature on my copy of Martin the Warrior.) As I stood and watched Brian sign the book of the last child in line, what struck me was how he'd been able to maintain the same joviality for several hours, signing hundreds of books and meeting just as many fans. It was at that moment that my earlier impression of him was well-and-truly vindicated. Brian understood, if not why, that meeting him was important to us and he wouldn't want to ruin it with a frown.
When my second turn came, I explained that I wasn't going to bother him for another signature, but would like another picture. "Absolutely!" he cried, rising from the table. "Come on!" Grabbing my hand in a firm shake, he threw his other arm around my shoulder, turned to the camera and flashed that smile of his. For the next several minutes, I told him of my fan club, The Long Patrol, and how at that time it numbered 568 members. The eyes of Brian's wife, Liz, grew wide and she repeated, "Really? Over 500?" She instructed me to write them and both seemed genuinely touched and supportive.
As we thanked the staff of the store for their hospitality, Brian snuck out ahead of us into the parking lot to have a cigarette. I can remember him standing there, staring off in the distance, his face glistening with sweat, his tan shirt sticking to him, cigarette in his mouth, and for the first time that day exhaustion showed on his face. I was still only a few feet away from one of my heroes, though, so I said one last time, "It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Jacques." He turned to me with a smile, one more time, and said, "Pleasure meetin' you!"
That was the last time I got to speak with Brian Jacques. I'd always planned on making another signing, of refreshing his memory of our encounter and giving him an update, getting Martin the Warrior and The Long Patrol signed, but the opportunity never arose.
I remained a devoted Jacques-fan. Around the time the Redwall animated TV series was set to premiere in Canada, Brian made an appearance on the CBS Early Show-- Saturday edition-- to promote both it and his latest book. There are few people I would get up at 5:00 AM on a Saturday for, but Brian was one of them. The chance to see him talk about his life and work was simply too good to pass up. The interview was fantastic. Brian flashed his smile, told his stories, and worked his magic. He spoke of his dislike of the word "fantasy" (preferring "yarn"), how his old teacher had caned him for writing an excellent story as a child, and how important it was to paint pictures with words. I still have that interview on VHS. At the time, I played it over and over, transcribing his every word in longhand to be typed up and relayed to my club members later that week. While average fans were naturally fixated on the adventures of the Abbeyfolk, I was becoming more interested in the author. This was a man that should be seen by all of his fans! These were stories that each of them should know! I began to see it as my job to help them. I remember this experience fondly, along with my later transcriptions of Brian's interviews on the RWTV bumpers for PBS, as it gave me plenty of practice with Brian's accent.
Despite not getting to see Brian again in person, I did get to interact with him in the two online chats he held in Redwall.org's official chat room, The Courtyard. Brian hit the room with a bang, dropping hints about The Legend of Luke and responding to several of the questions we threw at him. While the experience was largely chaotic, the overriding sense of the day was "This is Brian Jacques!!!!!!!" so it didn't matter. Once again, he had taken the time to give his fans an experience that they'd never forget.
In 2002, the Redwall e-zine Terrouge snagged their first and (to my knowledge) only interview with the chappie himself. It was a wonderful interview on Terrouge's part and a joy to read. But, there was another interview in that issue-- with me. While my interview was inconsequential and hardly worth noting, what I'll always treasure is that, for that month, I was featured alongside Brian Jacques. (Naturally, he got top billing.)
And here they come, those comrades mine,Relaying these memories has been a rather long-winded way of saying-- Brian Jacques mattered to me. Not as an author whose books I read, but as a person, as a man I admired and who had touched every facet of my life for a very long time. Some people recall their past through song, remembering where they were when they first heard it on the radio or what they were doing the summer they had that CD in their stereo. For me, that was Brian Jacques. I have spent so much time immersed in his world, both fictional and factual, that he was almost an extension of my family.
When I heard that Brian had passed away, my first reaction was, "Not this prank again". It was the go-to April Fool's prank in the online community, designed to send gullible fans into a tizzy. But, just as quickly, I paused.
It wasn't April 1st.
I went to Google News and typed in "Brian Jacques", as I had done thousands of times before. To my great sorrow, three hits came back from reputable sources and all confirmed the terrible news. Brian Jacques, my favorite author, the man that had shaped over fourteen years of my life, was gone.
Mechanically relaying the news on my sites, I next sent off an e-mail to my friends who had been there every step of the way with me. I walked around with this growing hole in my heart that only got larger as the days passed. I didn't know what to say, how to even begin to find the words that I desperately needed in order to honor this man who had touched my life so profoundly.
I went for a walk to clear my head. I set my iPod to the 2008 Thalia Book Club interview Brian gave with Jon Scieszka. Within seconds, there was Brian-- fine as can be-- and I could tell even with just the audio that he had the biggest smile on his face. He was laughing, telling the stories of how he grew up (which by now I'd heard several variations of), and enjoying every minute of it. In the second half of the interview, Scieszka had the children in the audience create their own woodland characters and tell Brian about them. That sequence was everything about Brian that I'd long admired, because no matter what the child said, he received it with all seriousness, complimented them, and gave them advice and encouragement. Brian understood his position in children's lives well and he never once showed disdain for it, as others might have.
I have long called Brian a "Master Storyteller", for that's what he was. But I would add "mentor", as well, for while he may not have been able to personally visit each and every one of his readers, the lessons in his books, his poems, and most importantly his life, show each of us how we should live ours.
I went through each of Brian's books, looking for the poem or quote that best captured my feelings, and ultimately the one that felt most right came from the book that introduced me to this very special man.
For the rest of my life, Brian, I will keep expecting and hoping to see you, hear you, and escape into your latest book once more. My words are inadequate to convey the sorrow I feel, for you deserve so much more.
Thank you for touching my life.
~Martin the Warrior~
The Long Patrol
February 15th, 2011