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In Defence of 'Triss'
August 21st, 2005

Of all the Tales of Redwall, it seems a fair assessment to say that Triss is the most unpopular in the ROC today. You may not be a fan of the book yourself, and I openly admit that it is not one of my favourites in the series, however, the purpose of this editorial is not to make you suddenly epiphanicly love it, nay nor even like it, but rather to show its worth and maybe encourage some readers to give it a second chance.

If my memory serves me correctly, the first criticism I heard of it was this: that the story was simply a mess of plots, held together by little more than the books binding and cover, each strand belonging in its own tale yet none meriting such treatment alone. At first glance, one can see their point. Of the three character groupings, there is no obvious interaction between them until over 55% of the way through the novel and it is not until the final hundred pages that all three are united. However, pay a little closer attention and one finds the plot is not quite so loosely knit.

The most obvious and solid link is the mystery of what occurred in and around Brockhall all those seasons ago. From quite early on it becomes apparent that the pawring found in the ancient home of badgerlords is that which was lost by the Riftguarders, immediately forming a strong link between Kurda and Bladdıs voyage to Mossflower, in search of crown, pawring and escaped slaves, and the abbeybeastsı efforts to rediscover Brockhall and deal with the serpent peril. The runaways from Salamandastron are by no means excluded from this. As their own seemingly unrelated adventure proceeds, Brian litters it with frequent references to Riftguard and the past events, although they mean little to Sagax, Scarum and Kroova at the time.

However, beyond this there are subtler connections. For example, the quickly quelled mutiny by the DAB in chapter 2 leading to the escape of Ruggum and Bikkle foreshadows the failed uprising by the slaves of Riftguard later on, enabling Triss, Welfo and Shogg to escape. Contrasts are cleverly drawn between seemingly separate plots: Sagax, Scarum, Bikkle and Ruggumıs running away is put into context by the plight of the escaped slaves, making it abundantly clear how fortunate and ungrateful they are; the gluttonous hareıs grub-pinching antics rub uncomfortably against Triss, Welfo and Shoggıs suffering as they slowly die from lack of food and water; the disrespect the two young beasts from Salamandastron show towards their fathers is made all the more shameful by the fact that Triss, Kroova and most likely Shogg and Welfo have all lost their parents. But for me the cleverest connection drawn between apparently distant plots is the symmetry of the character triads, which works to reinforce the message they singularly present. In each we have a father figure, Shogg or Kroova, and two characters showing two different responses to a choice. For Triss and Welfo the question is this: How do they use the gift of freedom? Do they seek peace, away from war and suffering, or do they stand up to tyranny, bringing liberty to others? By contrast, Sagax and Scarum must choose between clinging to childish ways and relinquishing them, accepting responsibility. Contrary to the title, Triss is not about one single character, but rather uses an ensemble where the whole is truly more than a sum of its parts.

Kroova and Shogg have emerged pretty much unscathed by fan criticism, and in many ways they are the same character, performing similar functions in the story. They are the parental figures of their respective triads, protecting and nurturing its members as they develop. However, their most obvious distinguishing factor is their fate: Shogg dies while Kroova goes on to become a husband and adoptive father. Both are fitting conclusions for their respective plots. Shoggıs death represents the third loss of a father figure that Triss has suffered and lays her choice plainly before her. Kroovaıs emergence as a patriarch is not simply an appropriate resolution for his development from roguish loner to responsible father figure for Sagax and Scarum, but also an effective contrast to Scarum, son of a well-respected Salamandastron general, revealed to the reader as a glutton, appearance and reality differing starkly.

Sagax, too, has not received the brunt of fansı anger, although some have labelled him as a case of Brian revisiting an old archetype, and to be fair this is quite an understandable point. He is not the first character to go from immature young beast to responsible adult and not even the first badger from Salamandastron to do so. It is, without doubt, a recurring theme throughout the series, but I do feel Brian presented it in a new and interesting way in Triss. As I mentioned above, powerful contrasts are drawn between his experience and that of characters such as Triss. Against this background one soon desires his attitude to change. This in itself adds a fresh angle.

In addition to this, one observes how his relationship with Scarum changes in a way quite unusual in the series: they drift apart. Our first picture of them is of two young beasts running away from home, friendly banter firing back and forth. In that first chapter it becomes clear that they have been partners in crime for many seasons and Lady Merolaıs reference to Lord Hightorıs own adventuring as a young rip raises the question: How will their experiences affect them? As they travel up the coast, we see the way they relate to each other change. Both may initially be disrespectful to his parents, but their attitude to strangers is markedly different. As Scarumıs gluttony and general bad behaviour worsens and becomes an embarrassment to Sagax, he begins to treat him in a different way-- Kroova and he having to excuse their companion's bad manners and sometimes even punishing him. At this point, one may well be expecting to see the book ending with either the utter break down of their relationship or the sudden reformation of ill-mannered hare, but Brian takes a different path. Instead of either condemning or redeeming Scarum, Sagax establishes a different relationship with the hare. In the second half of their adventure, the badger develops a new fondness for the outrageous beast. At no point does he ignore his faults, but recognises also his ability to make others laugh, a talent not usually given to serious badgerlords. In the end, we reach equilibrium: Sagaxı relationship with Scarum will not return to what it was, but he has reached a point of acceptance and tolerance of his friendıs weakness- quite an unusual line of development for Brian.

Sagax tolerance of Scarum has most certainly not been something shared by all fans. For many, this hare is the most unappealing aspect of the book, a failed attempt at a comic character, a rascal whom few can bring themselves to like. I would most certainly not deny that he brings out some of the less likeable aspects of his species: their love of food in him becomes gluttony; their roguish nature in him becomes dishonesty. Is this a case of miscalculation on Brianıs part or perhaps part of the wider structure? Few fans will deny to themselves that at some point in the book Scarumıs antics did make them smile, whether it was when he managed to get his teeth stuck in the deck of the Stopdog, when his mother ironically greeted him as a returning hero or in any other of the many comic moments, but also few will say they did not feel he had gone too far when he stole the trifle from the abbey dibbuns or when he selfishly devoured Mammeeıs food, leaving others without dinner. In my opinion Scarum works on two levels: he does provide comedy, adding levity to what could have been a straightforward case of beasts running away from home; but he also provides a contrast to Sagaxı growth towards maturity, showing a beast who has gone in the opposite direction, acting more like a babe, doing what he will without considering the consequences of his actions and expecting others to clear up after him. While some fans have commented, viewing him in isolation, that it presents a poor moral example to have the central comic character behave so badly, within the framework of the wider narrative he actually contributes to quite a laudable message: that such behaviour is not good and can only strain and hurt friendships, but that one should accept people with their faults, not commending their misdeeds but also seeing what is good in them. I must confess to being rather perplexed by some fansı reactions to him. While I would not call him a grey character, he displays a complexity that comes almost as an answer to their calls for greater ambiguity.

Of all the central characters in Triss, Welfo seems to get the least frequent mention. This is not at all surprising, as before we are halfway through the novel she has settled down and is no longer in the readerıs immediate focus. However, the opinions I have found of her have fallen into two sharply different categories. Some dismiss her as forgettable and purposeless in the wider tale, barely having the courage to escape from Riftguard in the first place, while for the second group, myself included, it is this very fear and weakness that marks her out as truly distinct and original. Just as Sagax and Scarum are judged against each other in their plot thread, so, too, is Welfo best seen in contrast with Triss herself. They represent starkly different responses to the same choice, but what is interesting is that, while the hogmaidıs fear does highlight the squirrelmaidıs courage, Brian cultivates an understanding for her, beyond what we have seen in the past. He acknowledges very clearly that the life of a warrior is not for everybeast and that her choice is right for her. Perhaps one the best features of Triss is its focus on and acceptance of personal weakness, while also encouraging one to overcome it. Welfo not only contributes to the overall dramatic structure, but also adds a different flavour of character that enriches the tale as a whole.

As the titular character, it is unsurprising that Triss has come in for the most criticism from fans. For some, she is simply Mariel without the feistiness, while for others it is her seemingly sudden fighting ability as she faces Kurda that grates. For yet more people, it is the lack of obviously dramatic moments in her journey that leave them feeling detached from her. Dubbed a cardboard cutout by some, I think she is the most misunderstood of all the characters in Triss. She undoubtedly follows very much in the footsteps of other Redwall heroes: her escape from Riftguard may remind some fans of the earlier parts of Martin the Warrior; her relationship with her father might prompt memories of Mariel of Redwall; in her final confrontation with Kurda, one perhaps recalls the climax of Redwall; her dreams about her identity clearly show links to (The) Taggerung. Yet while she takes on a lot of their spirit, her character is not simply a pastiche of theirs. Our first impression of Triss is surprising and rather telling. We do not see a bold, defiant heroine like Mariel, nor a rebellious slave ready to stand up to authority like Martin or Felldoh. Instead, we have a perhaps more realistic figure: Triss would rather soothe Kurdaıs foul temper than aggravate her with defiance; she would rather divert her attention from Drufo than instigate a confrontation. Had their escape gone to plan, it preferably would have been done quietly, slipping away secretly in their boat. Seasons under tyranny seem to have taught Triss and her friends to keep their heads down. This does not mean they do not desire deeply their freedom- there is no reason to think they want their liberty any less than our more outspoken heroes and heroines- but they have learnt to deal with their frustration and to work their way around difficulties. Her development throughout the book is quite different from anything we have seen before. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that she cannot simply flee from her oppressors; she must face them. Throughout the book, Triss and Kurda come face to face several times, the squirrelmaid on the run, the princess in pursuit, but when they meet for the final time it is very significant that it is the pure ferret who flees.

This raises an interesting question: At what point do the tables turn? When and how is Triss empowered to face her enemy? I, personally, do not think there is one defining moment, but rather we have several important changes. The first chapter of the book draws attention to her father, Rocc Arrem, and introduces the recurring theme of fathers and children. However, he is only the first of three male parental figures we see for Triss, the second being Drufo and the third Shogg. It is quite significant that each eventually die and with the latterıs demise we see her reach a vital point. Every beast she has ever known well has been killed or is now far across the ocean. She is, in many ways, quite alone. How does one deal with such isolation? No wonder she calls herself cursed, ³bad luck to know². We do not see how she responds to Sagax words, heightening the suspense, but what he says is deeply significant. He reminds her of the friendships she still has, though they be newly made, but there is a vital difference from her relationship with her parents, Drufo and Shogg: Sagax does not offer a father figure, but rather a friend; he will not be her protector, but her comrade. At this point, Triss must find a kind of maturity different from that which Sagax discovers; she must learn to be an adult.

However, this is not the only important change one sees. The other comes with her receiving Martinıs sword. It is clear throughout the novel that she is destined for Redwall, guided not only by the paw of fate, but also that of the abbeyıs co-founder and guardian. Some have questioned the believability of Trissı skilled swordplay at the end of the book, but as with Matthias in Redwall and Dann in Marlfox, it is clear that the warriorıs spirit rests upon her. This blade is not simply a blade, though; it is a symbol of the role of defender of Redwall. In taking on the sword, Triss makes the jump from being fugitive to guardian of others and it is in that capacity that she finally stands up to Kurda. It is an interesting contrast to many other Redwallian heroes, who are driven on by a desire for vengeance; she fights the ferret because she must protect Scarum and she returns to Riftguard because she must free the slaves. Triss is not hotheaded or driven by an appetite for revenge, but she is certainly not the bland passive figure some have suggested her to be; she is, in my opinion, at least equal in courage and complexity to many of the other heroes in the series.

One of the most original and most criticised aspects of Triss is the way Brian chose to finish his story. For many, the seemingly truncated ending squanders the dramatic pay-off they have been anticipating throughout the novel. However, unlike many previous tales, the overthrow of the political centre of evil constitutes the resolution of the plot rather than its climax, which is actually seen in Trissı defeat of Kurda and the slaying of the three snakes. The fall of Riftguard provides a necessary conclusion and it is vital that the reader is well aware that it has happened, but it is a credit to Brianıs restraint that he does not try and turn it into another dramatic confrontation. To do so would be to carry on racing on an empty tank, for there would be insufficient emotional fuel to sustain the narrative. Now, this may sound rather odd: surely the defeat of such an oppressive regime is in itself powerful and important enough to hold the reader. Yes, but what is important to see is that this has already occurred. Our experience of Riftguard throughout the novel, its tyranny, absurdity and evil, has been embodied in Kurda. Trissı final defiance and defeat of the ferret princess takes the place of the anticipated liberation of the slaves in the dramatic structure. This is symptomatic of a broader trend one notices in Brianıs more recent writing: the tales boil down far more clearly to a small strong set of relationships. Rakkety Tam, with its epic battles and pretty sizeable armies, ultimately rests upon a fight between two beasts; The Taggerung, in spite of the suggestion of large-scale conflict, comes down instead to personal confrontations.

The neatness of the conclusion is quite admirable. Any ³real-time² storytelling would have simply created dramaturgical drag, but by means of diary entries Brian gives us an emotional immediacy that draws attention to the most significant points of the conclusion: the tragedy of Shoggıs death; Malbunıs new-found appreciation of her abbey after having originally desired adventure; Churkıs new role as Head Scholar; Sagaxı change from ³young rip² to warrior; Scarumıs unchanged gluttony; Welfoıs new life of peace; Kroova and Mokugıs new family; the abbeyıs regained peace; and finally Trissı identity as swordmaiden and protector of the abbey. All in all, it suits the needs of the tale perfectly.

The final criticism I wish to address is perhaps the most common of all. Tales of Redwall have always been a rather intriguing mixture of things and this variety is one of the seriesı most appealing qualities. From Basil through to Doogy Plumm, Brianıs writing brims with comic characters who are perhaps the best loved among fans. It is quite unsurprising that he has written his fair share of pieces for the stage, for Liverpudlian playwrights are known for their lively fusion of comedy with more serious drama. However, for many fans Triss dwelt too long on the comic aspects of the tale, favouring broad slapstick over emotional integrity. For some, it felt like Brian had devoted an entire plotline simply to light comedy, whereas before he had woven it skilfully around the central narrative, and upon my first reading I somewhat agreed. But as one reads the tale again, one begins to see the skill of what Brian has achieved: comedy has become more, rather than less, closely integrated into the plot. In past books, we seem to know who our clowns are, but in Triss Brian significantly muddies the waters. We both laugh at the antics of Scarum, Sagax and the DAB while simultaneously desiring them to be combated. Few scenes are purely comic without a dramatic undercurrent. No main character is a jester and nothing more; each manages to convey pathos, selfishness, menace, political cunning or vulnerability alongside general humour. Brian walks a delicate line and for some it can feel like we are always one mishap away from farce, but it is the personal journeys that form the dramatic backbone of the novel and it is because of this that it succeeds. Far from being a lighter view of the Redwall universe, Triss presents us with an unusually dark vision of Mossflower country. The body count may not be as high as in other tales, but the presentation of society is far less whiter than white than in some books. Characters such as Scarum, Sagax, Ruggum and Bikkle depict in a subtle way the kind juvenile ingratitude we find in our own time, youths who have never had to face real hardship see no reason why they should pay respect to the beasts who have provided them with the peaceful conditions they enjoy. Kurda and Bladd may initially appear simply immature in their petty squabbles, but this behaviour is symptomatic of their capricious and blinkered worldview, quick to notice their own minor discomforts while ignoring the suffering of many beasts around them. Few jokes are there without a purpose beyond humour.

In conclusion, I believe that of Brianıs most recent releases, it is Triss that most needs and merits a second chance. While it is not one of my favourite Tales of Redwall, there is far more to it than initially meets the eye. Of the newer books in the series, it is probably the easiest to jump to criticise, but sadly this seems to have stopped people from enjoying its delights. While by no means perfect, Triss cries out for a re-appraisal.


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