Tuesday, 24 September 2019
On Redwall and the Flexible Imagination; Or, How Big is a Badger?
Because I have been reading some fairly heavy-density stuff lately during the day, at night for bed time reading I decided to revisit Redwall.
I can't have read Redwall in getting on for 30 years, and I've been surprised to rediscover how good it is. Later books in the series are soured in my memory slightly by repetition of plots and themes (and also, let's face it, the fact that your patience for talking-animal series wanes slightly as you age beyond 13 or so). But the first book is expertly paced, exciting, and very charming - even if the main character's overnight transformation from bumbling adolescent into heroic warrior is a bit far-fetched.
What is unusual about the Redwall books (well, one of many things that's unusual about them) is that its characters are of species ranging in size from shrews all the way up to wildcats and badgers, but their size in relation to one another is not defined.
On the one hand, these creatures are all part of the same society and inhabit them same buildings and use the same weapons and tools. While you do get a sense that a wildcat is bigger than a mouse, for example, it's still possible for a mouse to fight one with a sword on a roughly equal footing. So, at times, the different species seem more like simply different humanoid races of basically similar size, each of which is based cosmetically on a type of animal found in the British Isles.
On the other hand, though, when it suits the author, "big" animals (wild cats, badgers, otters, etc.) are suddenly a lot bigger than "small" ones (mice, rats and so on) despite the fact they're all in the same social milieu. You get a badger character all of a sudden being able to pull a cart around for passengers in a way that implies it's as big to them as a horse is to us, for example. You also get predatory creatures like pikes and snakes being portrayed as being roughly as big as you would expect them to be in proportion to a human-sized mouse.
The experience of reading Redwall at a phenomenological level, then, is an odd one. Your brain has to constantly conjure and then re-conjure mental images that are forever changing. On one page, it seems as though everybody's roughly the same size. On the next, suddenly things can only make sense if one character is much bigger (or smaller) than the others. Then on the page after that you're back to having to assume they're about as big as each other. And so on, endlessly.
Strangely, this doesn't affect the entertainment value of the book, and I think this is evidence for the argument that text provides much more imaginative flexibility than art. If Redwall was a picture book, an artist would have to make decisions about how big the different animal species are in relation to one another, and the reader would from that point onwards inevitably adopt that framework in his or her imagination. Because it's not a picture book, we can read it as taking place in a kind of liminal space in which things are as big as they need to be on one page and then as big as they need to be on the other. The visual imagery your own mind comes up with is consequentially contingent and subject to never-ending revision and reassessment and review. And that's okay.