It might seem that a story about moles might not be particularly exciting. After all, they spend a lot of time underground and can barely see. But William Horwood has created an epic tale of love, faith, and overcoming all odds, which any lover of fantasy will enjoy.
“Duncton Wood” is the story of Bracken and Rebecca, two moles who are destined to be together. They look for meaning and love in a world that is often very violent, and seemingly becoming worse all the time. Their coming together is a journey that lasts their entire lives, and involves spiritual journeys towards understanding of themselves and their environment as well as some long and often dangerous physical journeys. It is a ‘hero’s journey’ story, where Bracken, accompanied by his companion Boswell, goes first on a pilgrimage from his home of Duncton Wood to Uffington, and then, in atonement for an accidental crime, to Siabod, a mole ‘system’ which no one had visited for a long time. This combines with a ‘quest’ sub-plot, mostly concerning the supporting character Boswell, a ‘scribe-mole’ from the ‘Holy Burrows’ at Uffington. He is in search of the seventh book and seventh still-stone, which I will come to later.
The above summary doesn’t really do the story justice, as it has so many layers and themes. The characters themselves are very vivid and the author really brings them to life. He is very good at describing things in terms of how they sound, how they feel, rather than what they look like (as moles don’t see very well). Despite this the reader is easily immersed in the world that he is describing. It’s an interesting structure in that it has three protagonists and two antagonists.
Bracken himself goes through a lot of changes throughout his adventures, and the reader can identify with his hopes, fears, disillusionment and refound hope through the various ups and downs of his life. He is not depicted as a saint by any means. He makes mistakes, gets angry, becomes over-proud (when he suddenly finds himself in charge of Duncton Wood), and loses sight of his faith, and his love, only to find both again. Some of his early comments, for example, are very reminiscent of a young man who doesn’t want to talk about emotional stuff:
For Bracken changed when pressed about Rebecca and laughed about her, pretending she was just ‘one of the Duncton females, and a very pretty one, too.’
Rebecca is a character who is very much a lover of nature, an indication of her healing nature and her ultimate role as healer. She is seen by others as a bringer of light and peace, healing as much by her presence and touch as by herbs or other remedies. She also has to go through a journey, of lost innocence, despair, followed by a renewed purpose and belief in herself and others. Her relationship with Bracken has many ups and downs, as the two are parted for long stretches, and even when together don’t always see eye to eye. Only at the end of the story are the two together and in a frame of mind where they can love and be at peace with each other, after the many trials that have led them to that point. Rebecca seems to me a kind of nature spirit, and the story itself frames her as the embodiment of a previous Rebecca who had mythical status as a healer and bringer of life.
‘Rebecca is the wild flower that grows in spring, whose leaves are the freshest green; she is as strong and graceful as the tallest grass that grows down the Marsh End. Rebecca’s laughter and dance are like the sun dappling the wood’s floor when the trees sway lightly in the summer wind. Hers is the love of life itself, and love with her is as big and strong as a great oak tree, with a thousand branches for its feelings and a million trembling leaves for its caresses.’
Boswell is the third protagonist, a ‘scribe mole’ from the ‘Holy Burrows’ of Uffington. Boswell is crippled, something that would normally condemn a mole to an early death due to an inability to defend himself, however Boswell shows a talent for survival, mostly because he never appears as a threat. (Also he’s also extremely intelligent.) A casual reader might be forgiven for finding Boswell a little too saintly to be real, but I would not agree. When the author is illustrating Boswell’s inner thoughts he shows someone who, while he is a lot closer to his faith and more grounded than most of the other characters, has his moments of faltering, of doubting himself, believing as others did that he was too crippled to do anything of importance.
He himself doubted this voice, believing it to be but his vanity and pride making an excuse for him to follow the urgings he felt to leave the system. But, over the weeks that followed, it persisted, and eventually he too asked permission of the Holy Mole to see if he could find the system, whose location was known, though no scribe had visited it – or at least returned from it – for many generations.
Mandrake, one of two antagonists in the story, is Rebecca’s father, and has come to Duncton Wood from the mysterious Siabod system where Bracken has to go later in the story. Mandrake takes over Duncton Wood simply by being bigger and nastier than anyone else, killing others without compunction or remorse. The story tells us that his birth was traumatic and he survived by sheer luck. His behaviour is erratic and becomes more so as the story develops. This is most obvious in his relationship with Rebecca. The author juxtaposes the two characters, in that the character of darkness fathers the character of light. Mandrake is abusive to Rebecca because he is obsessed by her, and in fact rapes her to show his power. He also ambushes and murders her first mate Cairn (along with his second, Rune) and murders their children as soon as they are born. His obsession is seen to be a weird, twisted sort of love. Rebecca instinctively seems to understand this, and cannot bring herself to hate him even though his actions traumatise and nearly kill her. Mandrake is, essentially, quite bonkers.
‘He has gone, gone to his death,’ screamed Mandrake. ‘I caught him with my talons before he went and ripped his flesh.’ And then Mandrake laughed terribly into the darkness beyond.
The second antagonist, though not as large or physically as powerful as Mandrake, is more dangerous, because he is neither crazy nor obsessed. Rune is a plotter, allying himself to Mandrake with the idea ultimately of taking power when the time is right. He gains allies among the ‘henchmoles’ (this term did make me smile and think of James Bond movies) by feigning sympathy and doling out favours. So when he calls for them to turn against Mandrake, he has gained their support and they do what he says. Rune is clever, devious, and also a murderer of children. I found it very interesting that the author chose to use two characters in the antagonist role, one dangerous due to insanity, the other dangerous due to his machinations and quest for power.
…here, he was surrendering his will to what, for him, was the only reality of life, its dark and arcane side where a mole might learn to agonise the souls of others by wielding the same black power that seemed to lie behind the shining flint eyes of the owl.
There is a small incident in the story where a ‘henchmole’ rescued Rebecca and managed to take her to where she could get help. The character is not named, and is one of Mandrake’s followers, but has been horrified by what Mandrake has done to Rebecca and has decided he can’t stand by. I mention it here because it leads to the quote below that I thought it was quite beautiful. Not all heroes have names.
But it is in such forgotten moles as he, as well as in those whose names are recorded in the books of Uffington, that the actions of truth and love fulfil themselves. So nameless though he is, let him be remembered.
A massive part of the story is the faith of the moles, a faith that has lost ground in Duncton Wood. Moles believe in the ‘Stone’, and this seems to reference actual standing stones at the various great ‘systems’ (mole communities) that are spoken of in the story. The ‘holy burrows’ at Uffington keep records including six books and ‘stillstones’ that are especially important to the moles. The quest part of the story refers to Boswell’s search for a seventh book and stillstone, though we learn quite early on that Bracken and Rebecca have seen the seventh stillstone (they don’t know what it is at that point). Minor characters are important in the development of this side of the story. Hulver, an old mole and the last mole at Duncton who knows about the rituals of the Stone, is targeted and eventually murdered by Mandrake and Rune, who want to break the religion and stop people believing and having hope. Unbeknownst to them, Hulver has already passed his knowledge on to Bracken, and Mandrake does his best to kill Bracken too. Mandrake wants the moles to believe only in him, which they will do in the absence of anything else. Rune wants the moles to be scared and without comfort, as he knows they will more easily be controlled. Rose the healer and teacher of Rebecca, also is a role model of faith in that she is able to be led by the Stone’s influence without resistance. Mekkins is a mole leader who hasn’t thought much about the Stone, but, as many do, resorts back to the faith when in desperate circumstance. He then comes back to the faith as his prayers are answered. The eventual triumph over dark forces and return to the Stone’s worship is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The author shows a real understanding of how people approach and come to faith in different ways.
“Duncton Wood” is a beautifully crafted story that contains well-rounded characters, adventure, loss, courage, and faith. It is not what I would describe as a children’s book, despite it having animal characters (similar to “Watership Down” in that respect). It is compelling reading, a real page-turner. It contains many parallels to society. I would strongly recommend this book.