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Myth & Sacrifice

The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 11

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Verily ‘tis I; the purblind one, the dew-hopper, the furze cat, the stag of the stubble, he with the leathery horns, the legs of the four winds – the moon-sent angel.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  There’s a lot to absorb in this chapter, but I think many of us might’ve remembered the last page or so better than the rest of it. Come on, admit it, we all sighed a soppy sigh when Ysabelle and Vesper finally smooched. They’ve had such development and growth – both as individuals and together – over the course of the story, that by the time they decide they’re in star-crossed, house-plagued love with each other it seems like the most natural of progressions. (‘At long last!’ exclaims every reader ever.)

With that out of the way, we can wind back a little and consider the Ancient. If the chapters leading up to the meeting with him were a riff on the most over-used motifs of talking animal fantasy, the scene with the moon-sent angel is a deeply elegant and quite moving Robin Jarvis original. It has basis in myth, and most certainly involves sacrifice on the part of all those who are brought in audience. We also get swathes of Deptford universe lore, and more is brought to light regarding the bats and their beliefs. The illustration for this chapter is also very striking; something about the great hare’s staring, silver eyes draws and holds the attention until we, too, feel like puny creatures brought be.

His meeting with the Ancient could almost be pinpointed as Vesper’s coming-of-age moment. Ysabelle does not have such cause to be spiritually moved as the Ancient is not sacred to her people, and Fenny has a different and less immediate destiny. For Vesper, however, meeting the Ancient is his version of Ysabelle’s heart-to-heart with the Green in Chapter 7, and he is quite within his rights to be weeping into his wings. We do not yet know how he will go about his alarmingly grand task of uniting the forces of the Lady and the Green, but we only have a few chapters left, and we’re all along for the ride.

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, that theme I was talking about in the last chapter is developed even more as the Ancient sees that Vesper has truly learned to see past lies. ‘Both sides canst thou see and the truth is but a glimmer away.’ Such a magnificent chapter, because it shows Vesper and Ysabelle as now being equally brave and ready to do great things.

Which does, of course, means that they’re perfect for each other, right? But no scene of romance is going to last too long in a Jarvis book before being interrupted by something not quite right. In this case, an increasingly sinister guy with puppets. Really, aside from Geppetto, would you trust a puppeteer? Eurgh … (And not the end of creepy puppets in the Jarvis world, but we’ll get to that in due time.)

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 10

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Captain!’. the hedgehog declared. ‘See what trespassers we have captured!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Ah, Fenny! I daresay there may have been a bit of applause and maybe a few groans of trepidation from our long-time readers when that mousey captain came on the scene. There he is, folks, the one and only.

With Fenny’s introduction, we have another juxtaposition between the legends of the Mice trilogy, and the salt-and-porridge medieval reality. The Fennywolders of The Crystal Prison would have us believe that Fenlyn Purfote was a saintly, peace-loving figure, and despite the proof in that book that he did eventually hang up his sword, one gets the impression that the tales and songs have perhaps done their work rather too well over the years.

Regardless, he certainly cuts a dashing, and, dare I say, familiar figure for those of you who know your talking animal fantasy. Captain Fenny is Martin the Warrior with a little of the gold leaf flaking off, but I probably speak for a few of us when I say that Fenny seems a gratifyingly solid character next to the ephemeral guardian of Redwall Abbey. For myself, I’m obliged to detest the cultist-butchering captain on principle, but I find that I just can’t​. Despite the bad first impression of this chapter, he has the glory of ages shining out of his ears, and I can understand how woodlanders of all kinds might rally to the sound of his name.

Matt’s Thoughts: FENNY! I had forgotten that the Fennywolde namesake makes an appearance in this book, which just makes the story even more awesome. (And I’m also keen to get back to the Deptford Mouselets now.) I love the idea of a bunch of brave but diminutive anti-Hobbers, determined to make a desperate stand against the forces of evil.

But the bit that I found most impressive in this chapter, especially reading it now in my late 30s, is the bat conversation that Vesper overhears.

It reminded me of a movie and book that I loved as a teenager. The movie was Gettysburg, and it was based on a novel from the 70s called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The book was a work of historical fiction that described the Battle of Gettysburg (the major battle in the American Civil War that took place in the 1860s). I didn’t know a lot about the Civil War at the time, and it’s obviously still a hugely contentious issue in America, but Shaara took a different approach than many other authors.

Rather than dig too deeply into the cause, he simply but effectively portrayed the different commanders, with scenes on both sides of the conflict, so that by the end of the book, you understood the characters and the dreadful toll that so much bloodshed was taking on them. While it could be argued that Shaara could have been more particular about the causes of the war, I found it opened my eyes to a fact about life: there aren’t always simple black and white causes when it comes to war. And for the rest of my life, it has been important to me to avoid quick narratives of right and wrong, and actually try to understand other people – particularly in conflicts.

So this scene with Vesper in the tree is a really important lesson, not just for Vesper, but for all of us. As he hears the bats sharing the same old narrative about ‘evil squirrels’ that he has grown up with – that he himself believed until recently – he realises that this simplistic version of events is driving dreadful bloodshed and evil. In understanding that the truth is more complex than he knew, it draws him away from violence. It’s another subtle strand to the story that I’m appreciating more this time around.

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 9

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Join us in the deep,’ their icy voices rang. ‘Walk no more under the sun. Come rot, let your flesh dissolve and take on other guises.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The first section of this chapter is a series of small, disparate scenes sewn together, but in the tapestry of the story they are extremely important.

With a familiar friend returned, there is a renewal of hope for our pilgrims. The feud between Wendel and Giraldus is set up rather well in a few short lines, and I have to say that I am on the mole’s side this time. The group have just been in fear for their lives yet again, and there’s no joke nor magic trick in the world that can make light of the imminent arising of the  Lord Hobb from the unlit regions of the Pit.

Here we also have Ysabelle and Vesper inadvertently tearing holes in the stories and sermons they were fed as children. They’re still a ways from reconciliation yet, but progress is certainly being made. I know this book more or less cover-to-cover, but it’s still rewarding to see the growth in these characters and watch them start to realise that, hey, maybe the dread foe isn’t so dread after all.

And finally, the wraiths of the mere. I think we all remember those wheezy horrors! They’re definitely high on the list of infamous Robiny beasties, and for good reason. All that ‘moulder with us’ is probably worse than the gorecrow’s song last chapter, and the icy, choking end which Vesper almost meets is at least as bad as having one’s eyes and innards devoured by irate corvids. Brr!

Matt’s Thoughts: I love grey ambiguous characters in a YA book. While there is something comfortable when you’re very young about really obvious bad guys (the ones who are ugly, or sinister, etc) – and Mr Jarvis has created plenty of those – the ones that mess you up a bit are the ones who you can’t read properly.

Apart from Ysabelle and Vesper, who we trust (they’re the innocent ones who anchor us as everything unfolds around them), everyone else puts me on edge a bit. Wendel, Giraldus, Tysle: are any of them what they seem? The fact that we’re not sure is enough to keep the tension up … until some decomposing fish skeletons climb out of the pond and try to kill everyone and then we’re more worried about our heroes’ survival!

Actually, I am curious about those fellows – they feel very much like they started life as a model. Would that be the case, Mr Jarvis?

Up Next Reminder | The Whitby Child

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We quickly interrupt our epic quest through the forests to remind you that you’ll want to pick up a copy of The Whitby Child for next month’s read-along. They’ve defeated witches, werewolves, warlocks, and massive serpents (which sadly don’t lend themselves to alliteration like the first three) but the end of Book 2 left us with a pregnant Nelda, a wheelchair-bound Miss Boston and a somewhat traumatised Ben and Jennet.

Can the curse of the Deeps be lifted once more? Will Miss Boston recover? What on earth could possibly hit Whitby worse than the apocalyptic disasters of the last two books?You’ll just have to join us and find out!

There are two main editions of this one, the original one (pictured above) or the silver-spine edition below, both of which feature Robin’s classic illustrations. Sadly, both are out-of-print but well worth tracking down.

 

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The Hodder Silver edition from 2001

 

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The holy well had become a hideous place – for the Children of the Raith Sidhe had come and left their infernal marks there. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  I love the wonderfully eerie set that Ysabelle and her entourage find themselves in. This I could definitely picture in grainy 90s animation, with a bit of purply mist for good measure. If I may bring up The Black Cauldron once again, this track in particular is quite apt, I think, for the terrible scene where our heroes are pursued by the Children of the Raith Sidhe.

In the lead up to that, though, we have Pountfrey and Mahtild, a pair of rather excellent and somewhat hilarious riffs on the classic friendly medieval mouse. I don’t know if any of it was intentional, but if I’m honest, a lot about the walk through the woods in this chapter reads like a gentle send-up of medieval talking animal fantasy in general.

First of all there’s the trademark supernatural ice, reminiscent of the Chamber of Winter in The Dark Portal, along with a few heads on sticks for that grisly Robin Jarvis touch. In the hands of a gentler author, I daresay a chill breeze might blow through the wood, but nothing more untoward than that, and certainly no evil black rime or gory, charred remains.

Then there’s the mouse couple, eking out a wretched existence, hiding from cultists every night, eager to share neither information nor their warm hearth. Rosy-cheeked and welcoming they most definitely are not, and neither is that rabbit, though at least he has good intentions.

All playful ribbing aside, this is the first time the gorecrows come into the spotlight, and how marvellously malevolent they are! What terrors! Their nasty little ditty about eyeballs and ruby blood is going to haunt me, that’s for sure.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: The word ‘unfilmable’ was running through my head as I read this chapter. There is just so much grim stuff going on – Hobbers in the forest, the Jarvis version of The Birds and some particularly grim decapitations. Not to mention obscene scrawlings and defilings of sacred wells which are probably best left to the imagination.

Also, I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the whole forest section of these last few chapters has an immersiveness that feels even worse than the sewers in the Deptford Mice trilogy. Maybe Robin’s powers of description had grown, or the forest is less of a confined space than the old sewers, but this place gets nastier every chapter.

Frodo and Co took several hundred pages to get to the really grim parts of Middle Earth. In The Oaken Throne, we got there in just a couple of hundred pages …

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘When thou bringest the silver to the Starglass, all things are possible, child.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Apparently, Giraldus and Tysle were the first characters to appear to Mr Jarvis and demand that The Oaken Throne be written. The leprous mole and his shrew companion started it all, and I can think of no better beginning to what would become one of the greatest legends of the Deptford Histories.

These two also bring with them the concept of the good old medieval pilgrimage. Like the Black Plague back in The Alchymist’s Cat, pilgrimage was something I knew about as a child, but not in any great detail. Giraldus and Tysle not only introduce it as an idea, but address it in a three-dimensional way, which I just think is fantastic.

First, we have this pair of creatures, both afflicted in some way and seeking the healing power of the divine for their ills. Then, we have the idea that these two are not only two individuals who just happened to be going the same way, but that they have bonded in such a manner that we could no longer picture one without the other, and that their pilgrimage has cemented this bond. We have their fear that their quest is fruitless when they hear of the despoiling of their destination, combined with their unshakable faith. Finally, we have Tysle’s heartbreaking willingness to deceive Giraldus about the state of the Orchard of Duir, determined that the old mole’s suffering to get that far would not be in vain.

All of this, in some form or another, is what real pilgrims experienced – the idea that the journey and the faith of the journeyers is more important than the destinations rings very true, even today. Medieval pilgrims must have banded together on the road, been disappointed by holy sites that did not live up their expectations, and had their faith grow the greater for the hardships they endured. In their bumbly way, Giraldus and Tysle embody traditional pilgrimage, and Ysabelle and Vesper could stand to learn from their stalwart example.

Matt’s Thoughts: Aufwader has pretty much said everything I was feeling as well – it brings the idea of pilgrimage to life in a way that old history books often can’t. (I particularly loved the nice touch of the ‘caterpillar penance’.)

But what was interesting was that, just as the characters were settling down in the trees to sleep, I was thinking to myself, ‘This could be a long, miserable stretch of book here’ – all of a sudden, we have that amazing vision of the Green. And so it begs the fascinating question: is the holy site still just as alive and thriving as ever, but it only looks as if it’s old and decayed? Is it to do with a combination of the Green’s desire to reveal and the faith of his followers?

Either way, it’s a great section, and immediately has throwbacks to the summer pool in The Crystal Prison (without requiring you to have read that particular book). And also sets up that someone in Ysabelle’s party is a traitor … which is much more effective than you think, because all of the characters here are so ambiguous. Apart from Ysabelle and Vesper, who we sort of understand, everyone else is seen through their eyes. So do we really know who any of these characters are or what their real motivations are?

It makes you wonder whether Mr Jarvis just ran into one too many shifty people in his life and decided to populate his books with characters who look like one thing but may well be another … it certainly puts me on edge!

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Beware the sound of bells, oh Moonrider!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Cast into the wild dark wood with only each other, Vesper and Ysabelle do not exactly make the best protagonist duo, but that’s what makes the early scenes of this chapter so fun to read. They may have just witnessed terrifying blood sacrifice, but they are still only a pair of sheltered young creatures in way over their ear-tufts. Among the verbal sparring that goes on, my favourite quips have to be Ysabelle referring to Vesper as a ‘peasant’, and Vesper insisting that all squirrels worship trees. But all of it is great, especially when they go sliding down into that ditch.

Back in the frazzled ruins of the Hobber shindig, we have a classic ‘secondary villain reports to lead villain regarding a botch job’ scene. I know it’s supposed to be grim and imposing (and I would love to see that carven rat face on screen) but ever since I first read this book I’ve been calling the toad network ‘Hobb phone’, which kind of kills the atmosphere a little. You’re welcome.

In any case, having his ear chewed by Morwenna (not, I surmise, for the first time) only motivates the high priest to wreak a terrible vengeance upon our heroine and hero, which leads to the scene with the brook. This introduces a very interesting story aspect that we haven’t come across before – in Chapter 1 it is stated that the Green ‘still walks’ in some parts of the land, and here we see that in practice.

In this medieval age, the Spirit of Life evidently holds more sway than he did in the built-up, grimy world of the Deptford Mice Trilogy. What other powers does he possess in this forest-swathed and verdant age? Let us hope they are strong enough to protect the noble Lady and her batling guide in the chapters ahead.

Matt’s Thoughts: I do love the idea of a ‘Hobb phone’. I’m thinking that Aufwader and I should ditch the emails and Trello boards that we use to coordinate this blog and just install a toad each.

Anyway, enough joking. Curses have been laid and our young heroes are in danger unless they can stay in the magic stream.

One thing that has got me curious, especially thinking about the Green and the Lady of the Moon. You might remember, back when we were going through The Alchymist’s Cat, that I was speculating on who the goddess was that was referred to as being worshipped outside the church at Blackfriars. I’m now assuming that this was the Moon (which would also tie in with all the bats who were sitting up in the steeple, watching all the goings-on with the young cats and foreseeing what was going to happen).

Finally, I like the little moment of Vesper and his decision about whether to kill Ysabelle or not. Up till now, the bats have been fairly unsympathetic compared with the squirrels, but here we start to see a humanity in the characters. You get a first glimpse that there could be some sort of peace and respect between the two races …

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘In this sanctified place to we honour and revere the Mighty Three. Praise their unholy names and do obeisance – Hobb, Mabb, and Bauchan!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  All right ye mangy squirrel-munchers, this is yer moment. Declare yerselves so all among us know who n’ wot ye are. That’s right, everybody, the Children of the Raith Sidhe are with us still, in hovels and hideouts and under your stairs. ‘Hobb, Hobb, Hobb!’ I can hear you chanting already. (Ah, the vengeful shrieks of the ravening horde…)

In Chapter 2 I said that happy little critters singing and dancing has never been my kind of party, and what transpires in this chapter isn’t either, really. I may not be welcome at a knees-up in honour of the Mighty Three, but I daresay I would be invited to mingle over a bowl of Green Mouser blood afterwards. The Hobbers are my chums, and though they be heathen scum they are honourable heathen scum; worthy adversaries for such as I.

As a young’un I was – like many of you, I’m sure – morbidly fascinated by this chapter. If anybody ever needed and example of Robin Jarvis doing what Robin Jarvis does best, this is it. The fiery-eyed little devils leaping around the elderwood fire may be dressed in the medieval hoods and cloaks of classic talking animal fantasy, but these ‘hordebeasts’ are on another level. If you don’t already count yourself among their number, show them proper respect, or you’ll end up on the peeling block, being made into ‘art’!

As a last note, I’ve always felt that the soundtrack from The Black Cauldron fitted the tone of this book, and I think this sinister piece in particular perfectly captures the high priest’s grand entrance.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: While I doubt I’ll be able to say it anywhere near as eloquently as Aufwader, who doesn’t love a good sacrificial cult? It was such a memorable plot device in the 80s –  I’m remembering Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and also Young Sherlock Holmes (which possibly no one has seen, but got an interesting nod in the opening scene of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). And I’m sure there are many others.

The dreadful scene with the White Witch and her followers at the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

But Mr Jarvis is not going to let us have this just for fun. The stakes are ratcheted up. Pigwiggen is pretty unsettling, the high priest of the Hobbers is pretty vicious (especially if you have the silver-letter paperback, which features a particularly ferocious likeness of him on the front) and Godfrey’s departure from the story is pretty heartbreaking.

However, it does get the acorn back into Ysabelle’s hands and the quest can continue. (That’s another thing about this story – it fits into that mythical Tolkien ‘quest’ format where our heroes must take a long journey to achieve something.)

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘There is naught to say’, Vesper shrugged. ‘I shall not betray my brethren unto thee – whatever you might threaten. Your paltry forces hold no fear for me,’ he lied, ‘’tis thou who shouldst worry.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Last chapter, Lady Ninnia said that in order to become the Starwife ‘one must know terrible grief in order to learn compassion’, but I wonder if any of us expected Ysabelle’s lesson in loss to come so soon, and so brutally. Even when Ninnia sends all of the Hazel Realm’s defenders with her daughter, we as readers still want to believe that she and Cyllinus and their subjects might find a way to survive. This is Robin Jarvis, however, and, alas, it doesn’t work that way.

Now Vesper and Ysabelle at last come face to face. Both are grieving for parents they have lost to the conflict between their kinds, and their mutual contempt is understandable if you consider that, alongside the fact that both of them are really quite young still. In this chapter we see the sheltered upbringing of both characters working against them, but at least no blood is shed.

Once that little feud is nicely set up, the plot gets going in earnest with the arrival of the, er, ‘forces of darkness.’ I haven’t spoken about Griselda yet but she’s honestly one of my favourite minor characters in this book. She might seem tiresomely dithery and more of a comic figure than anything, but honestly, she has spent her entire life in the tiny domestic sphere of the royal house of Coll Regalis. Of course she’s unprepared for the wild wood and the terrors it harbours. Unfortunately for the rest of Ysabelle’s entourage, so are they. So much for a desperate hope.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Again, I have a mental blank on a lot of this book, so I really cannot remember Ysabelle and Ves’s story arc in this book. They have a classic Audrey/Piccadilly set-up (they meet each other for the first time and straight away hate each other), against a very Romeo and Juliet background (two warring houses). But does this turn into a romance? Or are they just going to become friends and (hopefully) kick Morwenna’s butt?

You’d want to hope so. Anyway, there was no time for me to speculate too long on those two because, as is the way with Mr Jarvis, as soon as you get a bit of breathing space (like Griselda stroking Ysabelle’s hair), things suddenly get Much. Worse. Like enormous rats wearing hoodies and armed with daggers. Not pleasant!

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