Brian Jacques died last week. I have been putting off writing about this for a while, and there are two reasons why.
The first reason is that I do not generally hold much stock in the idea of choosing our formative influences in retrospect. I am a determinist; I believe that our selves are the sum of influences which are, for the most part, imposed on our lives by forces external to our will. With this in mind, it seems pointless to speculate as to what I might have become had I not discovered a certain writer or musician or artist; I might as well wonder what might have happened had I been born to another family, speaking another language in another city, another world. Yet though the slightest of changes might have shaped my character forever, I can’t help but consider certain influences more significant than others. And the sentimentalist in me just knows that I would not be who I am today without the Redwall novels.
The second reason is that any attempt to write about how I once felt about Redwall will inevitably take on a confessional tone. Maybe this is true of any attempt to capture the experience of a childhood’s reading, especially when the books themselves have become totemic. They now seem to me unreadable, both in the sense of being an emblem of a lost world and, considered ‘objectively’, works of poorer quality than they once appeared.
Jacques was a genre writer who effectively occupied his own genre. On opening one of his new books, you’d know pretty much what to expect: stock good and evil characters loosely drawn along species lines, the lengthy and lavish descriptions of food, the odd dash of christian allegory, the riddles and jokes oddly juxtaposed with occasional moments of startling violence and loss. Whatever shame I might now feel about having been so moved by something so cliched, any criticism I can now muster is of little interest because the books themselves came to have little or nothing to do with my actual preoccupations. Redwall was always the most special because it came to represent my first, my most private and my most intense experience with an internet community.
The other day I wrote about how writing for the internet under an assumed name was almost like taking on the garb of a superhero. I really meant that stuff. It was an opinion formed from personal experience, not reason: at the back of my mind was not tumblr but my experience role-playing and writing fanfic all those years ago for a tiny community of like-minded and largely appreciative friends. I was a very quiet and lonely child, but in books I could forget the fairly miserable time I was having at school, and in writing online I really felt like I could actually become somebody better than who I was. I’m sure I was not alone in feeling this way about the internet. But though I may never have really been a hero to anyone other than myself, I feel confident in saying that I only ever used my powers for good.
This was my secret life: I played a character named Castor, at a site called Wildcat Mountain. I chose that name not because I was well-acquainted with the myth of Castor and Pollux, but because I saw Face/Off and thought Nicolas Cage was the best ever bad guy in that movie. I must have written thousands and thousands of words over the years, virtually none of which I shared with anyone ‘IRL’. It was an intensely private and extremely serious thing. I would type up all my posts on an ancient laptop in my bedroom, and then carry them two floors downstairs on a floppy disk to the family computer, where they would be uploaded via our superfast ISDN line to the faraway world of Geocities and Angelfire.
In a very small, Wildcat Mountain was kind of a big deal back then. I probably learned more about writing there than in any class I’ve taken since. And people really seemed to like things I’d written, which was a great help at a time when I mostly felt quite worthless. I can’t help but feel that this blog delivers a kind of replacement for that same old ‘zero to hero’ feeling. And try as I might, I’ve never quite been able to stop role playing while I write. Though you could write off these projects as merely preaching to the choir (what writing isn’t, to some degree?) I can’t stress enough how much better my secret life made me feel when I’d never developed any other talents, never distinguished myself in any other public sense. For so long it was such a significant part of my life that perhaps it was inevitable that I met my first girlfriend that way.
There was a pioneer spirit at work. This was many years before Twilight and Potter fandom; I suppose the only real equivalent was the David Eddings or Robert Jordan fans, but he Redwall online community had the advantage of being far smaller and, relatively speaking, more obscure than most. I have not kept up with the old sites for many years now, but looking back at a few old favourites for this post, it appears that the online community is no longer was what it once was. Though Jacques kept on writing Redwall books (there’s a new one coming out in a few months) the online community seems to have somehow fallen away from them, perhaps in quiet acknowledgement that they aren’t quite as good as they once were. That said, I am faintly astonished to find that what we wrote is now considered something of a high point in a briefly-flourishing community. Tiny as it might have been in internet terms, I really feel like had something there. It was great and unique and it was absolutely ours. I have one or two of my posts archived but for the most part most of what I wrote back then is all gone. But that is all right. It is as much a part of me as it ever was and I am, I hope, a better person for it.