Duncton Found by William Horwood

Duncton Found book cover
Rating 9.3/10
A truly remarkable and unforgettable experience.

Upon my first reading of the Duncton books back when I was sixteen, I remember being slightly underwhelmed by Duncton Found. I'd enjoyed Duncton Wood, despite some uneven pacing; I'd absolutely adored Duncton Quest which felt half the length of Duncton Wood given how engaging it was, but I really didn't know what to make of Duncton Found. Some elements felt as good as those in Duncton Quest, some even better, yet other passages or characters seemed to serve no purpose or go nowhere, and still other elements of the novel were actively jarring.

Thirteen years, and more importantly about six rereads later, I now realize what the problem is with Duncton Found and why my original reaction to it was so mixed. In thinking of books, especially in the modern era, we are inclined to think of them as a series of elements put together. we say "oh the characterization was fantastic, but the writing was too long winded", or "the plot had some exceptional twists and turns but some elements were under developed". Duncton Found however is one book where that sort of analysis just isn't worthy or adequate, indeed it isn't a book that can be appreciated in such a piecemeal way at all. Like a great symphony, or a dish cooked by a master chef, in Duncton Found it is the elements taken as a whole. How the narrative emphasises the characters, how the actions of one character echoes another, how the plot does not so much twist into surprising coincidences but show focal similarities and contrasts between a number of different threads and themes.

Even Horwood's honest, emotional yet poetic writing here is not merely a background element to enjoy as poetry or criticise as ill timed, rather it is the glue that binds all the other elements together. This holistic style makes the third of the Duncton books both a richer, but also more difficult book than Duncton Quest or even Duncton Wood, and certainly not one for a casual reader. Like Duncton Quest, the events in Duncton Found have moved on a generation, yet unlike Duncton Quest many of the characters from the previous book, both dark and light, return, most notably Tryfan, though sadly without his faithful friend Spindle.

You could say that the principle main character of the book, the one whole events revolve around is Beechen, the long awaited Stone Mole. Yet Beechen is not a main character in the strictest sense, since while we get some events told from his perspective, we also get to view him through the eyes of many others, from his beloved Missle, to the obsessive and cruel Wart, and even the longer viewpoint of moleish history. Beechen indeed is part of the reason that I felt uncomfortable when I first read the book, since there is an unmistakable parallel to Christ, one which I felt was a little too close to home. Beechen after all was born (according to prophecy), within the sight of a special star at a time of religious and political persecution. He undertakes a career of teaching none violence and ways of peace and love to others often preaching to large gatherings, despite the threats of the zealous and dogmatic Moles of the Word. He even is said to perform miraculous healings, though at least in the context of the Duncton series such things are not new. However, Horwood is not an exclusively Christian writer, indeed in the introduction to one of his other works, his sequel to Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows, he states that he thinks of the divinity of nature (much like Graham) in pantheistic, none religious terms. It is also true that the idea of a religious leader who preaches to crowds of followers, and risks death by his ministry is a predominant trope of Western culture, even Fredric Nietzsche used it for the character Zarathustra to expound his philosophy despite his ethical position being almost the total opposite of the Christian one. Neither are Beechen's personality or teachings exclusively Christian accept perhaps in their emphasis on personal love and none violence, though even here Beechen represents none violence as the difficult path or "the path of the warrior" and emphasises the importance of personal courage and understanding rather than obedience to the will of a higher power. The Stone indeed, is certainly not the Christian God by any means. Beechen also differs from Christ in his life's structure, since we learn of his childhood and parentage, his friends (often characters like Mayweed who we know from Duncton Quest), and even his romantic and blameless love for the faithful Missle. One of the strengths of Beechen as a character is that even more than his father Boswell he is as he so often states "but mole" and in no sense Divine. He has arguments, frustrations and fears and it is in his resolution of these that his heroism or spiritual integrity really come through, again in fact, this is an area where Beechen would appear a shallow character simply by virtue of his ability to come to terms with the circumstances around him and follow his chosen path. Unless readers can understand Beechen's contrast to other of Horwood's characters and that his very simplicity and lack of conflict is a mark of his extraordinary nature.

Another thing that not only distances Beechen from the idea of the life of Jesus, but also is one of the most salient factors in the book is the one set directly against him, not as antagonist, but as contrast, that being the character of Lucerne, son of Henbane, Mistress of the Word, and Tryfan. One of my initial disappointments with Duncton Found, and indeed something which people will doubtless find unexpected, is that Lucerne and Beechen never meet. Yet, it is only now I realize that the story of Lucerne is as integral to Duncton Found as Beechen's, and it is in the counterbalance of the two characters, their opposing philosophies and life stories that much of the greater beauty of Duncton Found exists. The antagonists of the previous Duncton novels have been complex characters with unique and distinct motivations that can be understood as a direct result of examining their history, the unexpressed incestuous love of Duncton Wood's Mandrake, or the theme of both fragility and desire to corrupt characterizing Henbane (a theme continued into Duncton Found). Even Rune, the closest thing the Duncton series has to an ultimate villain, is a character with distinct motivations of his own. Lucerne however tops all of these, since we understand in detail how he becomes what he is, and why for him, there are no redeeming features. We are even straight out told (in Horwood's honest, and here quite brutal emotional style), how his education and corruption is stage managed from the beginning by Henbane and a high official of the Moles of the Word, Keeper Terse. In Lucerne, Horwood achieves something that even later Duncton novels fail at, a villain who knows who and what he is, and who is the creation of the dark intentions of others even down to the engineering of the weakness that may destroy him. Lucerne is, in many ways an embodiment of evil, its attraction and charisma, and its intrinsically self destructive nature, yet in his studied self awareness of the very facts that make him what he is, and a kind of cold, power hungry level of emotional perversion that is far more repellent than any gross sadism or sexual gratification. Horwood achieves something truly unique and quite frightening, a character who is fully understandable, but totally without a shred of possible sympathy despite what trials and sufferings he undoubtedly does undergo.

Tryfan's words upon meeting his son "oh Stone, I cannot love him" are also ours, This is why the contrast of the selfless, calm and heroic Beechen works so well against the story of the cold, driven and darkly attractive Lucerne and why I would site this contrast as one of the masterpieces of Horwood's final novel. He achieves two characters who are the progression of all that has gone before. Beechen is the product of Tryfan's struggle, Boswell's teachings and his mother's ancient wisdom, and Lucerne the systematic fulfilment of Rune's desire for personal glory as well as Henbane's genius for corrupting those around her. The book's plot is straightforward for all that it covers the adventures of several characters, however equally much depends upon contrast. I initially was disappointed with the way that the Welsh mole's military campaign was side-lined from the rest of the plot, that descriptions of battles were universally negative and yet it was through them that certain elements are freed from the domination of The Word. Yet again, it is only rereading the book that I realize how such elements relate. Horwood has never wanted to glorify war, yet at the same time he realizes that in a time of war it is a force for change. He therefore shows the devastation of war not only to the losers, but also to the victors, indeed he shows quite successfully that it was not so much the Moles of the Stone who won, as the Moles of the Word who lost by the individual self destruction of their own punitive creed and above all, the downfall and self defeat of their master. This gives the book an undoubtedly personal, if moral quality, implying that though grand events are behind historical change, it is personal change that matters most.

Other events are equally sharp and like those of Duncton Quest, often hark back even more so to religious intolerance, particularly since far more than in previous books Horwood follows characters (and even main characters of the series), through some of the darkest and grimmest persecutions of the Word. This combined with Lucerne's story and Beechen's faithful resistance makes for something that is not easy to read, but at the same time is profoundly thought-provoking. For instance, seeing Lucerne’s administrative talents in setting up a system of what are effectively concentration camps, then viewing such camps from the perspective of an inmate, and finally culminating with a return to Beechen's story and a discussion of suffering and maintaining hope. One problem I initially had with Duncton Found is that more than others in the series, Horwood here explicitly states morals, indeed in the direct formulation by Tryfan of a community rule, which could be best summed up as liberal toleration combined with personal integrity Horwood steps directly into the realm of ethics. While this explicitly stated moral can in part be seen as part of Tryfan's character, after all it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Tryfan, as a trained scribe mole who now wishes to pursue his calling including its philosophical and academic ends is making the rule in character, it cannot be denied that the reception of Tryfan's philosophy by those around him, it's visible effects on others and above all its final adoption by a seemingly utopian community give it an inherent force. In short, it is obvious that here Horwood has a point to make and he doesn't shy away from making it.

It is true that Horwood is far more subtle in his ethical delivery than several other writers who try this such as Terry Goodkind or Ursula Le Guin, however it is also true that Horwood doesn't adequately explore such ethical concerns and all their ramifications beyond their initial statement. It is only upon rereading the novel that I realize that Horwood's proposal is not intended either as a realistic ethical position for human communities to follow, or some alien system of thought fit only to the lives of moles, it is an ideal standard, indeed an ideal which is not reached in the book. It is by presenting us with what this ideal could be, then leaving the end of the book to show that the Duncton which is Found is perhaps closer to this ideal that makes this moral as much part of the holistic quality of the book, the idea that by committing both to personal betterment and to the freedom of others, people could form such a community as Duncton. That the spirituality of nature is awesome, personal and benign, but also not in any sense understandable or something which negates personal responsibility. It is through these overall themes that Duncton is truly Found.

Yet, for all these grand moral sentiments, the book still is a story, with its light and shade, laughter and sorrow, history and culture, indeed perhaps the biggest issue with Duncton Found is the tension between usual concerns of a storyteller, and the way certain ideas and characters serve the overall theme and style of the book. For instance Missle seems a comparatively weak character, yet if she is merely understood as providing a note of faithful love despite various trials, then she serves her purpose extremely well. Likewise, some of the things that happen to a number of major players from the previous Duncton books may seem jarring only if they are understood individually, rather than as part of the overall themes of redemption, damnation, and all the different varieties of courage in the face of adversity. This is something I have seen other writers attempt on many occasions, but Horwood is one of the few writers I know who pulls it off successfully without feeling either grandiose or too abstract. Horwood's style remains as beautiful as ever, indeed in many ways he even improves on Duncton Quest if that is at all possible since Duncton Found sees him blending his frank emotional discourse with humour, spirituality and the longer viewpoint of the chronicler of history. Throughout all however he in no way loses his connection to nature or his remembrances that his characters, history and civilization are those of Moles. Indeed it is the very subverting of nature to dark ends or it's appreciation for good that forms part of the quality of the conflict, since a river could be seen as an object of beauty or a place of fearful execution.

On a personal level, I also felt a connection to several areas of landscape mentioned in the novel since many principle events occur in the Derbyshire dales, an area of great natural splendour who's essence Horwood captures magnificently, and indeed my familiarity with that part of the country made those events even more real. Duncton Found is not a casual or easy book, and is far less accessible than Duncton Quest. For those who read Duncton Quest simply as an adventure story, or skipped over passages of spiritual significance, or for those who do not like the idea of bloody, shocking and unexpected things happening to beloved main characters this is likely not the right book. If however someone is able to appreciate all elements of Duncton Found, and bear in mind how each element, each chapter, each character and each passage contributes to those around it, then they will be in for a truly remarkable and unforgettable experience. Duncton Found is one of the best examples of a book where the committed reader, or indeed rereader is rewarded, but where the casual reader will find themselves left out.

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