I still clearly remember the day in high school English when my teacher decried the evils of formulaic writing, citing Stephen King as a prime offender. I’ve long since forgotten my teacher’s name but King’s popularity prevails, as does that of another serial offender, children’s author Brian Jacques. His Redwall series has been around since 1986 and the cover of High Rhulain, the 18th book in the series, proclaims “over 5 million Redwall books sold”.
So in spite of what I was taught in school, formulas seem to work well for both authors and readers. High Rhulain shows Brian Jacques at the top of his game: he seems comfortable with the elaborate animal world that he’s created, and the comfortingly familiar plot flows easily from his fingers. The usual elements are present: the Abbey and its peaceful-yet-feisty inhabitants, the comically militant hares and their solemn badger lord from the mountain fortress of Salamandastron, an evil race of vermin (in this case, wild cats) bent on oppression and destruction of their enemies, a group of oppressed innocents looking for a leader (otter slaves), and an unlikely hero in the guise of young otter maid Tiria Wildlough.
The animal races are a very simple and effective shorthand to help younger readers understand the various allegiances, and also make for affable characters, with different species identified by their accents. Like Terry Pratchett, Jacques has a great talent for representing these in text form. The battles are violent and young readers are not spared from both the horrors war and death, although bravery is rewarded and the forces of good prevails. (A quick aside: conservative political ideology resonates with kids, resulting in leftists worrying about a new generation of conservatives that will undo their efforts.)
I only wonder how much longer Jacques can keep his stories fresh – there are only so many animal species and so many types of accent. Having said that, 3 more Redwall books have been published since Rhulain, so if nothing else, it could just be that Brian Jacques has found a winning formula.