Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Reading Nook: Duncton Wood

One day about a month ago I was hit with an overwhelming urge to re-read my beaten up old copy of Watership Down.  I went to the bookcases and did a quick search, then frowned and went back through all my books meticulously searching for it.  I messaged my sister (she has a bad habit of claiming books she stole from my room during her early teenage years whilst I was at University were hers all along - I've lost many a treasured classic through that particular little foible) but she claimed ignorance.

There was only one place left it could be - in my parents attic in storage.  Not the easiest place to get to at that particular moment in time.

Instead, my eye landed upon a book that I have owned for about 20 years but have never read.  It was originally my mothers, and handed down to me along with my copies of Watership Down, The Plague Dogs and Shardik.  She had a fondness for anthropomorphic animal tales where the animals still behave as they do in reality (unlike, for example the Redwall chronicles or the Deptford Mice Trilogy).
This book was beaten and battered but still in the same vein as Watership Down, and indeed has a better reputation.  It was Duncton Wood, by William Horwood.

I picked it up and struggled my way through the first two chapters, then became utterly immersed.  This book is nothing short of beautiful.  I think my mother may have been slightly over optimistic giving it to me when I was 12 (I was a precocious reader, but this would have been a stretch) but as an adult I am fully able to appreciate the sheer poetry of Horwood's writing.

Duncton Wood, written in 1980, is the first in a series of books that explores the society and trials of a community of moles living in Duncton Wood in Oxfordshire.  The  moles have their own society, religion and hierarchy and laws.  The story in particular follows the tale of Bracken and Rebecca, two moles who are fated to pass into mole legend for their exploits.  Indeed, Duncton Wood starts with their story as it is recorded in the moles holy books by their friend, Boswell the Scribe.
The moles central religion is based around the Standing Stones and Stone Circles of the United Kingdom, with the seven ancient mole systems each based around one of the major standing stone circles (such as Stonehenge or the Rollright Stones).  At the start of Duncton Wood, the moles faith and belief in the power of the Stones has much diminished under the leadership of the tyrannical and fearsome Mandrake and his bullish henchmen moles, one of whom is Bracken's father.  Mandrake himself is the father of Rebecca, a mole with a purity of spirit and joy for life that infects all around her. 
Through Bracken and Rebecca, the runt and the tyrants daughter, the Duncton Moles face plague and fire, despair and hope, love and faith and finally rediscover their spirit and their faith in the Sone.  Bracken himself is forced to make life and death decisions, to abandon everything he holds dear and make a perilous quest that will take him many moleyears away from Duncton into the Welsh wilds.
From the inside cover of the hardback version of Duncton Wood
Horwood's ability to create an entire world, with history and government, rituals and rules, legendary figures and day to day survival rivals that of Tolkein.  Every aspect of mole society has been considered, from the concept of a mole year (approximately one human month) to the fighting rights for territory and mates.  The books are filled with nature, with vivid descriptions of the flowers, the woods, the other animals, even the 'roaring owls' whose behaviour the moles cannot understand (cars).  You see the world through the eyes of a creature who is basically blind, who relies on touch and taste and scent and sound to make sense of the environment around him.  If you read this book, you will never look at a molehill quite the same way again.  Their world is beautiful and brutal, death is violent and painful and often inflicted by another mole.
There are two more books in the original Duncton Chronicles, written almost ten years after the original.  Duncton Quest follows the journey of Rebecca and Bracken's son, Tryfan whilst Duncton Found follows the Stone Mole.  The three books of The Book of Silence follow the community years later, as a new, rival religion rises to threaten everything that the Stone, and Moledom, stands for.  I will be reading the rest of the books, the story is too engrossing not to.

Oh, and back onto Watership Down?  If you haven't read it, please, please do.  It is so much more complex and richer than the animated film.  

If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my facebook group or twitter!

1 comment:

  1. Hello. I also really like these books. Unfortunately, in Russia, they are not published praktichski and now they are very hard to find.