EVERY once in a while a book comes along that transcends age groups. Children can enjoy the book on one level, adults on quite another. Richard Adam's "Watership Down" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series come to mind, as well as Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."
British author Brian Jacques's four Redwall books can be included in this genre. Originally published for children, they are now in paperback as an adult series. "Salamandastron" is his latest addition.
Redwall is an abbey, surrounded by Mossflower Woods, manned, or rather mostly moused, by good woods animals. "Oh," says one young squirrel, "it's a happy place to be at anytime. Autumn is harvest time: The fruits and crops are gathered in ... chestnuts are candied in honey. We sit up late in Cavern Hole around a great fire, enjoying supper and listening to the stories and songs of bygone days. The mornings are quiet and misty. Leaves rustle in Mossflower Woods, and you can feel the dew on the grass betwe en your paw...."
Redwall has rules: "to live in harmony with the creatures about you, and help the sick, the aged and the very young. Also you must never raise a paw in anger against any creature." Unless of course, scores of vermin, rats, stoats, mean-eyed weasels, or shifty deceitful foxes try to take over the abbey.
The first four books of the series concentrated on the abbey and abbey lore - tales of Martin, the brave mouse warrior, and his fabled sword, which is stolen and regained with some regularity. In the fifth book, Jacques draws a new sector to the Redwall map and includes Salamandastron - "a place of mystery, heavy with the ages of badger lore," the mountain stronghold of Urthstripe the badger.
Urthstripe's domain comes under attack from a horde led by his old nemesis, the now seasoned and battle-scarred - but no less bloodthirsty - Ferragho the Assassin and his equally blood-thirsty son, Klitch, who wants to topple his dad and become leader of the vermin. It's all very psychological: Shakespearean, even.
Only by cunning and extreme bravery do the fortress inhabitants - aided by warrior shrews, hares, and the like - drive back the vermin. Jacques models his animal characters on people he has known (someone must have been pretty nasty to him to turn up as a stoat), and many are recognizable.
Take the woodvole: "I'm Furgle the Hermit. I live here all alone - always have done, can't stand the company of any creature for too long, prefer my own."
These books are meant to be read aloud. The dialogue is inventive, even inspired.
And Jacques is a master at pacing the adventure. Many chapters end with a dangerous situation unresolved. It's formulaic, but it works. Will Urthstripe's long-lost albino brother arrive in time to save his injured brother's stronghold? Will the two faithful hares, captured by Ferragho and bound on the beach with sword points at their chins, escape with their pelts? The resolutions to these dilemmas are never in doubt, but that doesn't matter. One reads on for the how, for Jacques shows remarkable ingenui ty in resolving them. His creatures are the Indiana Joneses of animaldom.
Adults will appreciate "Salamandastron" and the other Redwall books, because they are exciting and not the least bit condescending. Jacques uses sophisticated words like "miscreant," "purloin," and "myriad." Children will become attached to this animal fantasy world.
But it's adults these days, often harassed and overburdened, who need escape and fantasy. I can't think of a better place to find it than in "Salamandastron" and the rest of the Redwall series.