Book Two of the ‘Duncton Chronicles’ trilogy follows the son of the main characters Bracken and Rebecca from the first book, Tryfan. It describes a violent struggle between two warring factions, the moles who follow the Stone, revering the standing stones near their dwellings, and the moles of the Word, a heretical cult that wants to forcibly convert or kill all Stone worshippers. It’s a story of warring faiths, and has strong allegorical connections to Christianity. Also, parents do not make the mistake of believing this is a children’s book because it is about animals. It is most definitely NOT suitable for children.
Firstly, the book is about a war of ideologies. The reader is seeing this from the point of view of those who follow the Stone, and the moles who follow the Word are portrayed as violently fundamentalist in their views. They are violent, they are authoritarian, they force conversion to their way of thinking and will torture and kill any who maintain faith in the Stone. They remove young moles from their parents and indoctrinate them. They put out false narratives (such as spreading the rumour that Tryfan betrayed his friends) in order to discredit their enemies. Of course, all these methods are those which have been used by totalitarian governments since time began. Curiously enough, it is not really clear what ‘the Word’ might be. One gets the impression that many of those who are the soldiers (grikes, in the story) of the Word have very little understanding of the matter. I think the author may be trying to suggest that militant fundamentalism of any faith often has little true understanding of the faith they are purportedly killing for. They speak in absolutes and in slogans – there is no real attempt at understanding or communication.
“No prisoners, no witnesses, for these are traitors to the Word, and blasphemers, and deserve to die!”
The story has only a few characters from the first book. Tryfan, son of Bracken and Rebecca, is the main character, who becomes a leader of the moles who follow the Stone and resist the Word. His development through this book follows him being taught by Boswell to be a scribe, his growing understanding of what it means to find the ‘silence’ of the Stone, and his suffering at the hands of his enemies. Though he survives the experience, he nearly becomes a martyr to his cause when the leader of the followers of the Word has him beaten and maimed. All of this is a process for Tryfan to a full understanding of his faith, and how to communicate this to others. Tryfan is a character who suffers a great deal of guilt, disillusionment and heartbreak from being a leader and having followers die under his leadership. He is a humble character, who often feels unworthy of his role and unequal to his task. But, like all those who resist evil, he keeps on trying because he knows he must. The author always gives his characters many shades – no one is all black or all white. Tryfan makes mistakes (sleeping with the enemy being a big one) but he comes through in the end.
‘I was never worthy,’ he whispered, certain of his coming death, ‘yet I did the best I could. Let Spindle be safe. Let the others go free. Let these moles be forgiven for I understand their anger. Let no mole be hurt this day in consequence of my own suffering.’ Then he added what nomole heard: ‘Boswell, I have failed you.’
The main allegory in relation to Christianity refers to the coming of the ‘Stone Mole’, a Messiah character who will lead all moles to the Silence of the Stone. In keeping with the allegory, the Stone Mole is seen as a warrior who will defeat the followers of the Word in battle. The enemy are looking out for such a warrior. But the Stone Mole passes right in front of them, still in the womb of his mother, Feverfew, who has become pregnant even though she suffers from an illness which has rendered other females infertile, and even though she has not been with a mate since she and Tryfan were parted a long time before. While this point is not belaboured, it points to the virgin birth of Jesus. The book even uses a sign of a star to indicate the Stone Mole’s imminent arrival. It comes three times, as a sign of hope for the good guys and disturbance for the bad guys. So, in this sense the ‘quest’ of the title is a quest for salvation from the dark times that have fallen over the world of the moles.
Then something more, and that which all moles remembered who saw the sky that night. It was a star, seeming solitary, big and bright and there. There before them in the east from where that warming wind came. A star which, however hard a mole might try not to stare at it, drew a mole’s eyes back again and again, and held him in awe.
Of the many characters in the book, I personally found that the most interesting one, with the most development in his story arc, is Mayweed. Mayweed is first introduced in the ‘system’ (mole community) of Buckland, which has been taken over and where he is a prisoner. Mayweed refers to himself in the third person, talks a lot, and is looked down on even by the other prisoners. He also suffers from a disease the moles call ‘scalpskin’ and which he expects to die from. Over the course of the book Mayweed escapes with Tryfan, is healed by the Stone (through Tryfan) from his disease, and becomes a courageous asset to Tryfan and others, because he is extremely good at finding the way to places and remembering routes. Though at the start he is afraid of the Word followers who have abused him terribly and is reluctant to join Tryfan because of this, he becomes more confident, brave, and the reader finds out over time that he is extremely clever. I really liked Mayweed, perhaps the most of all the characters in the novel.
Mayweed. Masquerading Mayweed. Many-sided Mayweed. Now medieval Mayweed come to life.
‘Quite overwhelmed Madam, hello. Humble me emerges from the wet he’s hidden in too long, and will be brief and to the point. Desperate us can only take two pups, so decide.’
The antagonists are just as important to the impact of the story. The character of Rune makes a return, as the leader of the system of Whern, home of the Word. (A small gripe – it is actually very hard to believe Rune is still alive given the length of time involved. Even Boswell was very old and he was younger than Rune in the first book.) However, the author to some extent gets around this by portraying a character whose malevolence and evil is what is keeping him going. He surrounds himself by loyal guards, and everyone else is so scared of him that they haven’t even thought of going against him. His daughter Henbane, the ‘Word-Speaker’, has been twisted by training into a character every bit as malevolent and dark as her father. Now she is more nuanced than Rune. She shows moments (when she is dealing with young Bailey, for example) where she almost seems to relish the opportunity to play like she never was able to when she was a pup. When she is with Tryfan, she is influenced by him in the same way he is influenced by her, confessing to him about the appalling way she was born and raised. She wants to save the pups of their union, though once she has killed Rune and occupied his position her darkness reasserts itself and she orders the grikes to hunt down Mayweed and Sleekit and the pups they have saved. The one pup with her, she says, is all she needs. The reader knows that this one, apparently born with some aura of malice that warned Mayweed away, will be trained as Henbane was to be just as twisted. Henbane’s moments of ‘normality’ makes her a three-dimensional villain.
The author is in my opinion an expert world-builder. The characters are very much alive and vibrant, without the reader forgetting that they are moles. The society of moles and the different ‘systems’, including the so-called great systems that have a standing stone or stones nearby, is a rich and complex one, a world the reader can be fully immersed in. Horwood creates a culture and a world that the reader can get lost in, a world just as multi-faceted as any other major fantasy novel. “Duncton Quest” in my opinion offers a fantastical and mystical world to immerse yourself in. Lose yourself in “Duncton Quest” – you won’t regret it.