There have been many great fantasy sagas that have had animals rather than humans as their central characters. Perhaps the most famous example of ‘anthropomorphic fantasy’ is Richard Adams’ tale of the rabbit kingdom of Watership Down but there are many other distinguished entries in this sub-genre. The Silver Tide and the other books in Michael Tod’s Dorset Squirrels series tell of the struggles of England’s indigenous Red Squirrels against invaders from overseas. Tod has also written fantasy novels with other animal characters – including elephants and dolphins – as his main protagonists. The hallmark of Tod’s books is his ability to make readers sympathise fully with the animals despite (or perhaps because of) their non-human nature. Of older vintage are the novels in the Kine saga by A R Lloyd, an heroic fantasy trilogy that charts the struggles of a wild weasel from youth to old age. Lloyd’s anti-hero Kine (which is an old English word for weasel) is presented realistically – there is no ‘magic’ as such in his world – but his ‘kingdom’ in the form of the English countryside is every bit as fully realised as Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or any other fantasy world which you might care to mention, thanks to Lloyd’s lovingly descriptive prose. Martin Hocke’s The Ancient Solitary Reign tells of the struggle of a community of barn owls against a ‘monster’ eagle owl that encroaches on their territory, forcing them into an uneasy alliance with their traditional rivals, the tawny owls. Tod, Lloyd and Hocke all portray nature unflinchingly as ‘red in tooth and claw’ – there is nothing ‘cute’ about the squirrels, weasels and owls that feature in their novels, any more than the rabbits of Watership Down resemble fluffy cartoon bunnies. In all of these animal fantasy sagas, each author’s serious approach, coupled with their obvious immersion in the world which they are striving to depict and their devotion to realising their protagonists as fully-developed characters rather than animals with human characteristics, is what makes their work so unforgettable. William Horwood’s Duncton Chronicles are a worthy addition to the creature fantasy sub-genre, as well as a superb illustration of everything that is great about these types of books.
Describing Duncton Wood as Watership Down with moles may be convenient but it is also does a disservice to Horwood because, for me, Richard Adams’ novel is to the Duncton Chronicles as The Hobbit is to the Lord of the Rings. The moles of Duncton Wood and its sequels are anthropomorphically portrayed as an intelligent society (referred to as a whole as ‘Moledom’) with their own social organization, religion, history and written form of communication. Despite this, the Duncton Chronicles all remain firmly grounded in reality in that the moles are limited to the physical behaviours of their real-world burrow-dwelling counterparts, and neither wear clothing nor exhibit any special technological aptitude. Even the fantasy element has a solid basis in the English countryside, its history and traditions. Although the titular wood is fictional, it is recognisable as having been inspired by both Wittenham Clumps and Wytham Woods, near Oxford, and borrows its name from a village in West Sussex. The fictitious mole religion that plays an increasingly central role in the Duncton books is based on the standing stones and stone circles of Britain and, as such, the novels are predominantly set in and around locales known for their megaliths, such as Avebury and Rollright. Horwood himself has described Duncton Quest and Duncton Found as inspired in part by the historical conflict between the pagan Britons and the incoming Christian religion. The two novels depict a religious conflict between The Stone faith and an opposing crusading order known as The Word, which seeks to stamp out ruthlessly all other religions. In the midst of these events is the birth and martyrdom of the Stone Mole, a focal messianic figure. The latter trilogy – Duncton Tales, Duncton Rising and Duncton Stone – again features a religious conflict as its main storyline, this time pitting the true followers of the Stone against an inquisitorial sectarian cult within their own faith.
There is so much to recommend the Duncton Chronicles that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. There are the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, which are easily on a par with the prose of Adams, Peake or Tolkien. The mole characters in the series are as original, real and memorable as Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Sparrowhawk, Titus Groan, Elric of Melnibone or any other human (or non-human) character in the fantasy genre. The first volume, originally written as a standalone novel, tells the story of the romance between the Duncton moles Bracken and Rebecca as the long-held traditions surrounding Moledom recede under the rule of Rebecca’s tyrannical father Mandrake and the evil and manipulative Rune. The main characters in the second and third volume are Tryfan, the son of Bracken and Rebecca, the ‘white mole’ Boswell the seer and Beechen, who *may* be the long-foretold Stone Mole of scripture. Even the minor characters stay with you for years afterwards. Well thought out and utterly absorbing, as a reader you feel fully a part of Horwood’s world while you are reading the Duncton novels and you never for a moment take his characters’ trials and tribulations less seriously because they are ‘only’ moles. Be warned, however, that despite its beauty Horwood’s work is often harrowing in its intensity – nature can be merciless and so can his story. For me, though, this only adds to the brilliance of the Duncton Chronicles, which leads me to the one sour note – this superb, original, massively influential series is now out of print.
It really is inexplicable to me that no new editions of any of the Duncton novels have appeared since the 1990s. The only explanation that I can think of is that the series’ subject matter deals with moles and is so unusual that publishers have simply assumed that no one wants to read it in this day and age. Perhaps if Horwood had set the Duncton Chronicles on a parallel world, a post-apocalyptic Earth or another planet entirely he might have enjoyed the endless re-printings that vastly inferior authors have had over the years (I’m talking about you Terry Goodkind!). Such a short-sighted view on the part of publishers is not only regrettable, it flies in the face of the evidence that Horwood’s novels are, in fact, widely read and loved. Just head over to the amazon website and type ‘Duncton Wood’ into the search box – suffice to say there can’t be many out-of-print novels which have so many positive reviews as this one. The Duncton Chronicles are so much more than an obscure cult classic – well-written, moving, unique and utterly unforgettable, they are books to be treasured and deserve to have their praises sung from the rafters of every bookshop in the world.