‘Duncton Wood’, William Horwood’s first novel, falls into that niche brand of fantasy that is often referred to as ‘animal’. There’s no other way to describe it really, fantasy set in ‘the real world’ but relating stories through the eyes of fauna. There are levels of anthropomorphism, of course, ‘Wind In The Willows’ sets the animal world as one that co-exists peacefully (or not in Mr Toad’s case) with the Edwardian society around it. ‘Watership Down’ resists the trappings of being human and the animals simply have names taken from plants, speak English and hold a complex belief system. These characteristics are borrowed almost entirely by Horwood for ‘Duncton Wood’, published eight years after Adams’ book. It is a love story between two moles, the compassionate and kind Rebecca and the heroic, resolute Bracken. It details how the ‘Duncton Wood’ system comes to be under the control of two moles, Mandrake and Rune, and how Bracken leads the fight back for freedom.
At points, the book feels like Joseph Campbell by numbers. Bracken stands-up to evil authority, disappears, discovers an ancient secret, journeys to a distant land, picks up his own chronicler, gets trained in mole kung fu (no, really) by an elderly sensei and returns home to kick some serious arse. Underpinning this journey is relationship with Rebecca, Mandrake’s daughter, who is filled with nothing but love for dear old Bracken.
However knowingly structured though the book is, it is without doubt utterly charming. Horwood constructs memorable and beloved characters such as the elderly guardian of traditions Hulver or the spiv with a heart of gold, Mekkins. Such deft characterisation is the genius of the novel. Moles largely look alike and with some exceptions in the book most of the moles are similar, however their personalities shine through. You root for the good guys, you boo the bad guys and empathise with the whole tragic situation the moles are in. Such distinction in a timeless rural setting gives the whole book a Hardy-esque feel. There are many more passages in the book about taking joy in the beauty of the countryside than by worrying about the many, many ways you might die in the woods.
Another of the book’s key strengths is its conveyance of the mysticism that the moles practice. Mole systems are set-up around ancient stone circles and other features from antiquity. Uffington, home of the White Horse, features prominently. The moles of Duncton are viewed with suspicion by moles from other systems for carrying out their weird rituals in front of the Stone. It is the elimination of these rituals that spurs Bracken into action. There are also monk moles who attend to books, carved on bark. It’s endearing and ingenious.
At over 700 pages, ‘Duncton Wood’ is not a book undertaken lightly and, at points towards the end, I felt the story sagging. However this should not put you off experiencing a novel that supports a great tradition of animal-based literature, showcases the English countryside in all its glory and borrows all the best bits from ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘Star Wars’. I enjoyed ‘Duncton Wood’ and will probably seek out the next two books in the trilogy ‘Duncton Quest’ and ‘Duncton Found’.
(pub: Arrow Books. 736 page paperback. Price: £ 4.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-09944-300-1)