Duncton Wood by William Horwood
Review by Floresiensis
Duncton Wood is the moving love story of Bracken and Rebecca and the trials they must face and overcome to be as one. It is unfortunate that this work must be compared to Watership Down but that is the only book with which I can really compare it to in terms of story-line and excellence. This book is about moles and unlike anything you have ever read before. The animal kingdom is savage and survival of the fittest is a fact of life (or death). This is a book for adults and is at times as dark as it is uplifting. The book was first published in 1980 and has since become a best-selling novel.
The narrative begins with Bracken, outside in a storm and finally coming to terms with himself. He has finally accepted who he is, not a fighting mole, but a gentle, spiritual and caring mole, a lover of sun and with a hatred of fighting. Rebecca loves life and brings joy to all she encounters but her father is Mandrake, the most feared mole in Duncton, a leader whose control is marked with blood.
It is not easy to suddenly have moles as the characters that are centre to the entire work and with whom you must feel compassion towards but that only lasts a very short time. William Horwood is a wonderful author who, in Bracken, Rebecca, Mandrake, Rune and all other Duncton Wood moles, gives us characters who match any in fantasy literature.
The moles are given human elements (speech and faith for example) and this makes them easily identifiable to the reader. The research that William Horwood conducted in the writing of Duncton Wood must have been extensive, as there appears to be no guesswork and every single line and chapter rings true. I am sorry to have to mention Watership Down again but in both these books the English countryside is depicted in such a beautiful way that it helps English readers like I realised what a lovely country we do live in.
The Ancient System took in the injured Bracken as a mother tending a gravely hurt pup. It caressed him with silence, soothed him with its darkness, and its labyrinths were to give him the space in which to find himself again.
The theme of love runs strong throughout Duncton Wood, Bracken and Hulver, the aged mole who teaches him so much runs parallel to Rebecca and Rose, the healer who trains her to take over her duties as she ages. Bracken and Bosworth, Rebecca and Cairn, Mandrake and Rebecca, all these relationships are portrayed with great empathy and capable a bringing out great compassion from the reader.
He tried to comfort her but she pulled away, looking at him from a cold and far-off place he knew he could never reach. His hold on her fell limp and she crossed over to where Mandrake lay, paused for a moment as she touched his head gently, looked back at Bracken and Stonecrop with a fierce and cold pity, and then went out of the clearing and into the dark.
This is a long book at over 700 words in length and takes some reading, especially as it is only the first part of a trilogy. The themes that I felt were contained in it, other than the overriding theme of love, was the comfort that can be gained from faith when faced with a society that is deteriorating around you.
I read an excellent review of Duncton Wood on another site where the reviewer had researched the various locations of the mole systems. Duncton Wood itself is located in Sussex, Uffington is in Shropshire and the system from which Mandrake came is in mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales. This puts into perspective the journeys that the moles undertook during the course of Duncton Wood.
Duncton Wood is a truly breathtaking and enchanting read that reminds us how savage yet full of love the animal kingdom truly is.
Links related to Duncton Wood on WilliamHorwood.net
Luke from Durham, north England
The duncton series as a hole was a series which was recommended to me at the age of twelve, but which I only managed to track down four years later. Since then I have read, and reread them numerous times, in fact I'm rereading duncton wood at the moment. I can absolutely agree with the comments in Floresiensis review and those by others, that the writing, characterization and spirituality of the series are something truly staggering especially in a time when descriptive writing seems to have become a thing of the past and many books read essentially like modified film scripts. This is in fact where Duncton wood always scores over watership down for me, since where watership down has a somewhat impersonal style which often emphasized the animalistic nature of the characters, (I don't want a long explanation of how rabbits can't count up to four when I'm just introduced to a new character), duncton marries the natural and the anthropomorphic flawlessly, where fights for food, territory and mates go hand in hand with very human relationships, despite the fact that the characters are moles. Stylistically the book is pure beauty, with passages unafraid to tackle emotion yet flawlessly blended with natural detail. Not only does Horwood have a brilliant grasp of the natural settings of his books, from temperature to plant life, but also he does not ram this down readers throats, so that the "beauty" of flowers, rocks and hills is not overshadowed by their scientific nature or even their uses in the life of moles. Horwood is also a multisensory writer, especially talking of scents, echoes and over all atmosphere and tone in a quite frank yet distinctly poetic way which is neither over inflated nor too brief. Many authors are somewhat weary to talk about characters "feeling love" or "hating" yet Horwood is able to use such emotive descriptions in a subtle and layered way which not only emphasizes the fact that as moles his characters probably do have a more primal method of expressing their emotions than humans, and also lets him explore some dark and subtle relationships from many angles. Rebecca’s mix of love, fear and concern for her tyrannical father, a character who we both can pity and also feel horror for in equal measure is a prime example. Of course, the main instance of this emotional subtlety is the book's central relationship, the abiding romance betwene Bracken and Rebecca, a romance that goes through many stages and gradations’ from initial mysterious attraction, to sudden intimacy, to dismissive unspoken tension, to physical love and finally a rich, fulfilled contentment which, (after it's progressing), is all the more fulfilling to us as readers for seeing how it came about. I also admire Horwood in that his villains and dark events are truly evil, with no shying back from descriptions of truly monstrous actions and feelings by his characters, while his light events are truly light! Horwood is one of the few writers I know who can describe the best, as well as the worst that people, or moles could do. There is also undoubtedly a spiritual element in his work, indeed Horwood is one of the few writers I know who can accurately portray a religious experience without either following too far into one religious tradition, or turning it into a pure fantasy of angels and sudden ghostly lights. Those who have a sense of what it is to experience the divine will certainly find something to recognize in Horwood's work, neither however does he ram this down everyone's throat, (I have purely agnostic friends who read such things as simply the experiences of moles in nature and elements of the story). All that being said however, Duncton wood was still William Horwood's first novel, and as such, while still an astounding work, has a number of rough edges when compared to the other books of the series. Though his characterisation of the daily and emotional life of the moles of Moledom is undoubtedly masterful (and remains so throughout the series), in Duncton wood the overall social structures and traditions that make up the society feel far less well emphasized and drawn than in later books. This is particularly of note since political power play by the manipulative Rune, and the decline of religious ritual are two major themes of the novel, yet neither feels as real here as later in the series. We are told for instance that the Duncton council of Elders did "business" at their meetings, but not of what nature that business is, or really what the elders did at all. I often get the impression in Duncton wood that the so called "tyrannical rule" of Rebecca's father Mandrake and certain other evil characters wasn't so much a rule as simply said moles going around beating up those who disagreed with them. this lack of social coherence also makes the scholarly and Vatican like community of Holy Moles at Uffington seem somewhat innocuous when set against the rest of Moledom. This is probably not something that would be evident to readers upon a first reading, and only really occurs when going on to later parts of the series, however one other miner flaw in Duncton wood is that of pacing. While the long setup and introductory section which covers at least the first 6 chapters is to be partly expected, and is interspersed with more than enough of Horwood's superb character portrayals and individual anecdotes to stop it being too much of an info dump, later parts of the novel can rather drag, mostly due to Horwoodd's often somewhat long winded passages of time skip, indeed sometimes when rereading the book now I do rather find myself waiting for the next significant incident to happen in betwene a long passage of generalized description. While Duncton wood's over all descriptive writing is more beautiful to read than most, and thus this pacing problem isn't quite as bad as in some series, undoubtedly it does exist rather more than elsewhere in Horwood's writing. Duncton wood also, as compared to it's sequels has few to no comedy elements. Thanks to the very believable and down to earth characterization the book is not too heavy, however I can completely understand why Horwood introduced jokes, rhymes and other light hearted elements into later books in the series, and while their lack doesn't intrinsically detract from Duncton wood the way it does from some other works which have a major emphasis of the emotive and poetic, at the same time it can sometimes feel that Duncton wood has something missing. Despite these issues though I'd still say Duncton wood is a must read for anyone who loves characterization, natural description and a sense of spirituality. While it is perhaps obvious that this was Horwood's first novel, it is still undoubtedly a master peace and one which is only enriched and enlivened by the rest of the series. The Duncton chronicles therefore for me stands not just as a fine work of animal literature in a very small subgenre, but also as a truly amazing series in its own right, and this, it's first chapter, while not perhaps it's finest entry is still absolutely worth reading, rereading, and in fact as I myself have done, reading yet again!
Dan from South Africa
First off, loved Duncton Wood like I will probably not love another book in my lifetime. Secondly, for all you avid Horwood fans out there, begging for just a bit more, I have this: The Wolves of Time is another of Horwood's epic stories and definitely a must-read for anyone who enjoyed the Duncton Chronicles. Not moles. Wolves. But every bit as awesome. The Stonor Eagles. Art and nature, all brought together by Horwood's unique ability to pull you into this world he creates in such a way that you never want to leave. Callanish. It's not very long. But I wept like my dog had just died. Beautiful, moving story. For the strong of heart and emotion, Horwood takes a look at the human world, the world of online gaming, of programming and cerebal palsy. It breaks your heart but it literally one of the most inspiring stories I have ever read. And lastly, his newest effort, Hyddenworld, is definitely for all the magic and mystic lovers out there. A complete break from what he usually does, there is nevertheless the telltale Horwood style, the way of stringing words together that leaves you captivated into the wee hours of the morning.
Sharon from Fylde coast, Lancs
Something drew me to the first Duncton book many years ago and I have never regretted stumbling upon them despite the darkness one is asked to traverse amongst the many adventures in all six volumes! They are truly beautiful.. I experienced all emotions possible. I laughed and I cried ..... Mayweed's story broke my heart. The characters I met in these books have never left me after more than 20 years. As near to perfection as any author ever got in my opinion. Thank you William Horwood, I will never forget these books.
Franky from Folkestone
I started reading these books two years ago, when I was 12. They are wonderful books that both my parents read many years ago. Duncton has changed the way I see the world and view people. It has also improved my understanding of the English language and improved my literary techiniques. I'm on the 4th book now so I'm very used to the molespeak - I am almost confused now... If I read another book, when it says 'a helping hand' now instead of 'a helping paw'! If this book were in the curriculum I think it would have spoiled the magic for those who know about these books - the whole world would know about them but discover them in the terrible and boring place of the English class room! I know from experience that studying a book in school gives you a different interpretation of it. I think it would be sad if this happened with Duncton :) Wow, that's a lot of writing :)
Michelle from California
Anyone who thinks authors like William Horwood, Brian Jacques (Redwall), Erin Hunter (Warriors) & Tad Williams (Tailchaser's Song) weren't inspired by Richard Adams' groundbreaking 'Watership Down' are not giving proper respect to the novel which came before them all. 'Watership Down' was published in '72. These also-rans came out in the '80's or much later. Duncton Wood is good, but for me Watership Down is a solid 10.
Mark from Leyland
Duncton Wood is my favourite book. I have read it many times and I never tire of it. A masterpiece...
Ken from Perth Western Australia
A book for all ages (I'm 78) and having started reading it, have only been able to put it down in order to write this report.
Chris from Rochdale
The Duncton novels were the first 'adult' books I read, back when I was a ten year old child. So taken was I by the way they were written, they inspired me to ultimately become a writer. I only wish the bold William would produce another trilogy that I can enjoy reading as an adult. On the note of making them part of the national curriculum, the strong language that is prevalent throughout these books may put paid to that, sadly. I do think that both Duncton trilogies are very much written for adults, but that's not to say the children of today can learn a lot from the books' themes.
Elliott from Norwich
Duncton Wood is a book I come back to again and again. If you're considering reading it, DO NOT be put off by the idea of it being about moles, within pages you will be hooked. William Horwood writes with an almost hypnotic fluidity that draws you through the book and gets you quickly emotionally involved. The book raises questions about faith, religion and tradition as well as the battle between good and evil. Read it... but make sure you have plenty of time on your hands as you won't want to put it down!
Maureen from Lancashire
This book was given to me, I didn't really think that I would enjoy a story about moles but I loved it and didn't want it to end. I only finished reading it a few minutes ago and decided to look up the author, I'm delighted that there is more....so now the search begins.
Helen from Weston Super Mare
Absolutely fantastic - I have read the trilogy before and enjoying it even more the second time. Spellbinding!!
William from Shropshire
The Duncton Wood books really are magical, I'd never have thought the a story about moles could be so moving and realistic. The trilogy dwarfs The Lord of the Rings in size so it requires some dedication but it more than worth that effort. After reading these they will never leave you and you will often find yourself strangely drawn to them on your bookshelf and be tempted to read them all again. I'm surprised that they don't receive that acclaim that they deserve, hopefully one day they will.
Susan from Hull
Beautiful is exactly the right word for this book. Rare beauty, I might add. I know that Watership Down is read in schools throughout the UK as part of the English literature course but I honestly think that this is even better. Don't get me wrong, Watership Down is a book that is excellent in its own right but the themes and morals of Duncton Wood are on another level and children would really benefit from reading about the fight between good and evil that is integral to this book. I know this is perhaps too long (700+ pages) for many kids to get through but the ones that do will have read a book that will stay with them forever.
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