Welcome to the scurrying world of animal fantasy literature! Duncton Wood (1980) is the bestselling first novel in William Horwood’s epic six-book series about moles. The moles of Horwood’s ‘moledom’ are kung-fu fighters, writers, and liturgy-chanters, but are otherwise styled naturalistically, like Richard Adams’ rabbits in Watership Down (1972).
Duncton Wood is an epic modern mythology, and some suggest it trumps The Lord of the Rings — perhaps not such a difficult thing, depending on your take on Tolkien! Horwood weaves a tale of struggle, love, renewal, and prophecies fulfilled. The story centres around the lives of Bracken and Rebecca, following them from puphood into adulthood. The final third of the book shifts (or loses?) momentum as the massive story burrows even further afield. Still, Duncton Wood is magnificently crafted.
Horwood’s prose is passionate and evocative, powerfully and tenderly expressing a great sweep of feeling from beauty, to horror, to serenity. The story brims wonderfully with protracted descriptions of the woodland world throughout the seasons. Yet, there is a scene of incest rendered so vividly that even adults may find it sickening.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Duncton series is its deep religious dimension, distinguishing it from both fantasy works generally and other pieces of ‘rodent fantasy’. Rather than a mere description of a detailed religious system, Duncton Wood’s religion of ‘the Stone’ is central to the lives and destinies of every character in its story. The Stone refers to the megaliths found throughout England, most famously at Stonehenge, at which Horwood’s moles worship. The Stone is the all-encompassing life force, resembling Brahman in Hinduism. All moles come from the Stone, return to the Stone, and are one in the Stone, as is the entire natural world. This is essentially pantheistic. Even the focal story of Bracken and Rebecca’s love is ultimately significant because they discover in the Stone the unity of their beings. The Stone itself is impersonal and, well, stony — unknowable and defined by its silence. However, while hatred and darkness are presumably also part of the Stone, the Duncton series describes the struggle for ascendancy of love and light. At the same time, Duncton Wood draws on mystical and contemplative expressions of Christianity; Horwood himself is an ex-Christian. This is seen in the use of terms like ‘grace’ and the monastic activities of the scribemoles. The overall flavour is a curious mixture of New Age and churchiness.
Many of the themes of Duncton Wood will find immediate appeal with spiritually-minded people — themes like redemption, sacrifice, weakness, suffering, healing, and spiritual struggle. As the series continues, Horwood’s religious scope broadens to include sectarianism, inquisitions and extreme persecution. It even features a messiah mole, complete with passion narrative! Throughout, Horwood’s writing vividly depicts what we might call the coin of life, with twin sides of beauty and frailty. This is characteristic of his novels in general.
For a Christian like myself, the underlying philosophy of the silent Stone is pretty grim. Speaking as a Christian, it is so good to know a caring, speaking God! In God’s family, we are not absorbed but defined and then nurtured. We can depend on God in everything because God cares personally for us (1 Peter 5:7). God has rescued us because he delighted in us (Psalm 18:19).
I’ve been wondering, how is it that animal fantasy can be remotely interesting to anyone? Doesn’t it somehow lack humanity? I find that Horwood’s moledom is so intricately woven that it draws us outside ourselves into another world altogether, yet a world so vivid and coursing with emotion that it is at once deeply human. While perhaps the Duncton series became a massive allegory on religion, Duncton Wood is simply a captivating story.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.