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Medieval Fantasy and a Spot of Tea

Brian Jacques spins magical yarns based on pure imagination and his Liverpool roots.

April 29, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Jacques' right hand was killing him. It was wrapped in an ace bandage as he sat at the table, signing his name over and over again. Yet the line of people who had come to see him at Borders Books in Torrance still wound its way past the sports section and into self-help.

Most of those in line were youngsters, with a sprinkling of parents and adult fans. They were waiting for their moment with the man who had brought them the world of Redwall, with its mice and rats, shoats and weasels, hawks and moles, anthropomorphized forest creatures constantly flung into battles of good versus evil.

As each fan reached the front of the line, Jacques (pronounced "Jakes") would glance up from the table and his eyes would crinkle as he espied the next autograph hound.

"Hello, lad," he said to one nervous boy in his deep, stentorian voice. "Too shy for a photo? Come on around. Now make a big [muscle]. There you go, lad." And then, "Cheers, mate," after a picture had been snapped and the boy was leaving, beaming at his good fortune.

The scene went on for an hour and a half as more than 400 people made their way to the table for the autograph of the most famous children's storyteller this side of J.K. Rowling. When the last book was signed, Jacques happily retreated to the store's loading dock for a cigarette and a cup of tea before moving on to San Diego.

The Torrance stop was part of a grueling 36-city tour of the United States to promote his new book, this one featuring real people but still retaining the air of magic and mysticism that characterized the 14 books of the "Redwall" series.

Inside the store, Madrona Middle School English teacher Sally Jackson was rhapsodizing about the luck of finding out weeks earlier that Jacques would be on hand. A small army of her students had made posters and participated in "Redwall" book talks in anticipation of the big day when they would get to see the man himself at this signing. "I've never seen anything like it," said Jackson. "They'll never forget this."

Such is the mystique of Jacques, who grew up poor in Liverpool and wasn't much better off as he entered middle age. Yet at 61, he has 3.5 million books in print, a televised series based on the books for PBS, and he's squired about on tour in a stretch limousine.

For the uninitiated, the "Redwall" series is populated by robed forest creatures constantly locked in mortal and very bloody combat. Mice, moles, otters, hares and badgers are the good guys. They are, without fail, brave, true and kind. Rats, foxes, snakes, ferrets and the like are evil, cunning and depraved. They also are predictably vanquished by the end of each book.

In the inevitable comparison between himself and Rowling, a bemused Jacques likes to point out that he arrived on the scene first. And that before Rowling became immensely popular, he was often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien.

In Jacques' latest effort, "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman," the protagonists are a boy and his dog who wander through the centuries without aging, righting wrongs in places an angel tells them to go. Though a departure from the "Redwall" menagerie, the formula is the tried-and-true good versus evil. In "Castaways," it's the greedy land developer versus the aging, defenseless widow who is about to lose everything.

And, like Jacques' other books, "Castaways" is filled with riddles and puzzles that have become part of his trademark, one that has won him legions of young readers.

"They don't desert me, you know," said Jacques, while sipping yet another cup of tea at a nearby restaurant. On this day, he was dressed completely in black, with a thick gold chain adorning his neck. Gold rings flashed on both hands, and a pricey gold watch was affixed to his wrist. At home in Liverpool is a Lexus that cost more than his first home. On the night he bought the car, Jacques awoke several times to look out the window at it, as if it were an improbable vision.

"I was a poor man until 15 years ago," he said. "I had very little to look forward to. Sometimes I'd wake up at 3 in the morning wondering how I was going to pay a bill. And the great thing is that I don't have to do that anymore."

There may be some storyteller's exaggeration in Jacques' poor-to-rich saga, but not much. Raised around the Liverpool docks, the son of a truck driver, he left school at 15 and went to sea with the merchant marine. His list of jobs for the next 25 years was a long road of drudgery rather than a track toward authordom--railway fireman, longshoreman, long-distance trucker, logger, bus driver, policeman and postmaster. Along the way, he fathered two sons, now a bricklayer and a muralist, but beyond that he demurs in discussing his private life, the inference being that it has been a rough road at times.

The only hint of fun is two entries on the informal resume: folk singer and stand-up comic, both of which he borrows from to entertain his young audiences, who giggle with delight at his humorous monologues and expressive face.

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