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Essay: Nature vs. Nurture in the Redwall Universe

Raperm July 7, 2009 User blog:Raperm

The debate about what forms the major parts of an individual’s personality has been going on for years. There are two schools of thought; one, that personality is inbred and has more to do with our genes than our upbringing, and two, that our personality is a result of our environment and experiences. Brian Jacques would seem to be a staunch supporter of the first, given the nature of good and evil in the Redwall stories.

In the entirety of the Redwall mythos, there are only a very, very few examples of “bad” creatures being “good”, and vice versa. For the most part, the lines are sharply drawn. Mice, voles, shrews, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, squirrels, hares and other assorted woodlanders are good. Rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and other “vermin” are bad. This is the more or less inviolate rule of the series, and most readers can instantly tell when a “good” character arrives simply by its species.

The only exceptions to this rule I can recall – and I’ve read all the books save for Doomwyte – are Gingevere and Sandinghom the wildcats from Mossflower, and the sea rat Blaggut from The Bellmaker. (One could argue that Romsca the ferret from The Pearls of Lutra could also fit this category, but she was a relatively minor character and her motives are somewhat unclear…she did save Abbott Durall from Lask Fildur and his monitor lizards, but since she hated Lask and wanted to kill him, there’s no way to be sure why she really did it.) As for “good” species turning bad, I can’t think of any that are genuinely evil. A few may have hot tempers or be a bit selfish, but I cannot think of a single truly evil hare, mouse or squirrel in the entire Redwall storyline. And that’s what I find most interesting, and why I think Jacques is a big fan of the “nature” end of the spectrum of personality development. This is shown most clearly in two characters, each raised by the opposite camp; Deyna the otter, raised by vermin in the story Taggerung, and Veil the ferret, raised by the mice of Redwall in the story The Outcast of Redwall.

Let’s start with Deyna, a prototypical good species raised by vermin. Deyna is raised in a vermin horde, but not as a captive or a slave. He’s raised as Chief Sawney Rath’s son, given special treatment, respect, and even a form of fatherly love and affection. It is clear in the story that Deyna loves Sawney, even though he knows he is “a bad old beast” and doesn’t always agree with Sawney’s rules and policies. But despite his upbringing, Deyna is never evil and shows none of the character traits of the typical Redwall vermin. He doesn’t kill unnecessarily, he is unselfish, has a well developed sense of right and wrong, and displays genuine affection, respect and love for his “father”. What he does show, however, are all the traits of the Redwall heroes; a strong sense of justice, fair play, love and friendship, protection for the weak, and a love of peace and plenty. In short, though raised by vermin to be a living weapon, Deyna’s personality is that of most any other Otter or “good” character in the stories.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Veil. Veil the ferret is raised by the Redwallers, and taught all the typical Redwall lessons of good behavior, generosity of spirit, peaceful coexistence, and above all the preservation of life. Despite all this, Veil is an evil character who attempts murder not once but several times in the course of his story. He shows no remorse for his actions, not even against Byrony, his mother figure who follows him after he’s banished from Redwall for attempting to poison another Abby dweller. Byrony never gives up on Veil, always trying to persuade him to return with her and mend his ways. Finally, however, she realizes Veil is evil, and admits as much to Mother Mellus and Abbess Meriam, both of whom feel they shouldn’t have put the burden of raising Veil on Byrony in the first place. Despite his upbringing as a dibbun in the Abby – and who wouldn’t love such a life – Veil turns into as evil a vermin as any in the stories, driven by greed, a lust for power, and the hatred of his Redwall family. At one point he even swears to return to the Abbey one day to murder them all…not the actions of a good character in any shape or form.

Now, there are those who might argue that Veil is a bit more grey than black, given his last act was to save Byrony from Swartt. However, I don’t think that’s the case. In reading the story, I don’t think Veil had any intention of deliberately taking a spear in the back to save Byrony; he did push her out of the way, but would he have done so if he had known he would be killed in the process? I think not. As Byrony herself said, Veil was bad…she just hadn’t been able to see it. He shows all the behaviors of the typical Redwall vermin. He showed no remorse for his attempted poisoning of the Abbey cook Friar Bunfold, and instead bragged out loud that he would eventually kill him. He refused to take any blame for his various crimes, always putting the fault with some other creature, no matter how flimsy the excuse. He was lazy and selfish, and his only ambition was to gain power for himself, so that he could punish those around him whom he didn’t like. These attitudes were not learned in the Abbey, and must have been part of his inborn personality. It’s worth noting that in the entire series, Veil is the only character to ever suffer banishment from the Abbey. Since he’s the only “vermin” character to ever live there, it’s not difficult to make the connection between his inward nature and his species.

In any case, I think it’s pretty clear that Jacques believes that personality is determined mostly be genetics, and that certain creatures will always be good, while others will always be bad. It’s not true in the real world, of course, but it’s good to know that when you pick up a Redwall novel, you know what to expect. There’s definitely some comfort to be derived from knowing who your friends are, and who aren’t.

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