How to bodge badgers
I have always enjoyed exploring alternative viewpoints and alien worlds; even when these worlds are right here on earth under our very noses. Stories like Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song or Richard Adams' Watership Down, posseting the idea that animals, whilst still being animals, also have their own society, language and concerns. William Horwood's Duncton Chronicles trilogy ranks among my favourite books of all time, and is a series I return to every few years.
Therefore when I ran across Aeron Clement's The Cold Moons, which attempted the same sort of story with badgers, I definitely had to give it a try.
Bamber lives happily in Yellow Copse with his beloved mate Dainty, however Bamber's idyllic life is about to change. A scaremongering rumour that badgers cause tuberculosis has led to the formation of badger extermination squads and the decision to wipe out all badgers in Britain. So, Bamber's peace is shattered, his family cruelly murdered, and the badly wounded Bamber left with just enough time to warn the large badger community of Cilgwyn. The Cilgwyn badgers, despite mistrust among their own kind and the ambitions of the vile Kronos, set out to find Elysia; a new and peaceful home outside the reach of human persecution, a journey through cold and hunger, across mountains and swamps, with the threat of extermination ever looming behind.
One interesting thing about The Cold Moons, is while the basic shape of the plot resembles Watership Down, Clements' intentions are rather different. I've been distantly aware that humans haven't exactly treated badgers very well, however I had no idea that things had been quite this insane, with literal extermination squads (yes they were apparently called that), roaming Britain and massacring badgers with an efficiency and ruthlessness that would make a Dalek proud. Indeed, rarely have I seen humanity depicted with quite this level of omnipotent power and menace, turning the squalid practice of slaughtering animals into an unnatural disaster. Yet, Clement also gives us a distant human's eye view of events through occasional cuts to articles and local news programs, which both tell us about the widespread human insanity, the hunt for the badger characters we see in the rest of the book, and even details some of the rising protests to the badger exterminations, though all at the distant level of historical secondary sources. Indeed, I found a review in praise of The Cold Moons on the badgerland.co.uk website, and it's not hard to see why.
Unfortunately, whilst Clement communicates the human atrocity rather well, where he falls down is with the depiction of the badger characters and the society they live in.
Clement's style is florid, wordy, and melodramatic almost to the point of caricature. Indeed, if I didn't know the book was written in 1987 and detailed a disaster of the 1970's, I'd have assumed it was fifty or more years older. "show, don't tell" is one of the first rules told to any writer, after all readers will feel far more that say, two characters are in love if they behave lovingly towards one another than if the narrator says so. Of course, this rule isn't a cast iron one, and emotionally descriptive language can be a powerful tool if used effectively in the right place. Unfortunately, Clement uses emotive language with all the delicacy of a bulldozer.
We know that Bamber loves Dainty because we are repeatedly told he does, indeed Clement constantly refers to her as "Bamber's adored Dainty," or "Bamber's beloved Dainty." Similarly when Dainty is tragically killed, along with Bamber's cubs and brother, Clement spares no superlative to tell us just how profoundly, terribly and irredeemably tragic her death is. Yet, we know absolutely nothing else about Dainty, or for that matter Bamber other than their feelings for each other and their tragic end.
This continues all the way through the book. When we arrive with the Cilgwyn badgers and meet Buckwheat, the book's second protagonist, we are told in no uncertain terms how much Buckwheat loves his wife Fern, and how much the other badgers respect him, as well as how much Buckwheat's son Beaufort, looks up to and adores his noble and strong and commanding father.
This also brings me on to a second problem with Clement's character depictions. Not only are we told what characters feel in no uncertain terms, but Clement's own narration praises characters so effusively that the narrative became almost fawning. Of course, to go along with this the villain Kronos is downright slandered by the verbiage Clement employs, whilst Beaufort's uncertainty and unwillingness to step forward and lead is hammered home to the point that I wanted Clement to leave the poor badger alone; though of course Beaufort effortlessly steps up and assumes the mantle of magnificence instantly once the plot requires him to do so, after which he's pretty much a carbon copy of his father.
These problems were compounded by the fact that the book has absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. In what I believe is a misguided attempt to keep his badger characters naturalistic, Conversations are all recounted rather than written. We are told that someone explained something to someone else, or someone agreed to something, or that "someone argued this, whilst someone else argued that', but nobody ever actually speaks. This gave much of the book the feeling of reading a wiki summary rather than a novel, and just further compounded the distance from the characters already caused by the over dramatic dialogue and spoon fed descriptions. Indeed, even though a lot of horrible things happen in the book, and many badgers; including some named main characters, die, the style was so effusive and trying so hard to elicit sympathy, that the overall effect was precisely the opposite.
All that being said, the book's style wasn't universally bad. It is clear that Clement had an extensive knowledge of both the lives of badgers and the Welsh countryside, and furthermore just how difficult that countryside might be to travel across. Indeed, much of his detailing of wilderness survival, distant though it was from the characters did have a tinge of reality to it, and felt rather like reading a historical account of a real migration across a hostile land. I also appreciated the way he detailed many badger characteristics, from scent marking territory to the variety of different foods badgers eat or prefer, often described with a gourmet's appreciation.
Indeed, speaking of gourmets, whilst Clement's praise for the book's protagonists was decidedly off-putting, the one character I did feel for, and the one who had a definite journey here was Eldon, the old, fat indolent leader of Cilgwyn. Indeed, Eldon was the one character who grew and changed throughout the book, rather than just being endlessly awesome or bad through and through, and whose journey at times I found exasperating, comic and surprisingly touching, indeed had more characters been this varied, this would likely be a very different review.
Clement's depiction of a badger society was in some respects fascinating, in others sadly lacking. For example, we learn a little about badger traditions, often based on real badger behaviour (I never knew badgers actually bury their dead). Unfortunately, some of these traditions were undercut by some rather odd choices, for example basically transplanting a hodgepodge of western mythology, with badgers believing in a heaven, hell and purgatory, rather strangely named Asgard, Sheol and Gehenna respectively, along with a creator god called Logos, (the Greek for Word, a title often ascribed to Jesus Christ).
I'm a little sorry that Clement didn't' do as Horwood, Adams and Williams all did, and invent his own set of badger beliefs, especially since he at times tantalises us by saying that a character recounted some legend of past badger heroes, without actually telling us what the legend contains.
Clement also attempts something of a political plot, with much conflict coming through elections to the cadre; Cilgwyn's council of leaders, however since political plots tend to require a lot of backstabbing and character ambiguity, factors which are sadly lacking in Clement's characters, this largely didn't work out.
One other respect in which the book feels distinctly dated is its depiction of female characters. Where Richard Adams literally forgot female rabbits exist for two thirds of the narrative, Clement does include female characters, but only in an incredibly limited fashion. With the exception of the rarely seen healer, all of the named female characters in the book are the wives (apparently not mates), of the male characters. Furthermore, we learn that Cilgwyn employs a matchmaker, and so these marriages were arranged, combine this with the fact that we're explicitly told the political positions of Cilgwyn (except for that of healer), are only open to boar badgers, and the social implications of this are rather disturbing; particularly when it's casually mentioned that one badger occasionally cuffs or bites his wife when she displeases him. All of this isn't a problem in storytelling terms, after all there is plenty of scope for conflict, action and tension in exploring an unjust society or abusive relationships. What is the problem however, is that none of this is explored at all. Most of the time when we see sow badgers, they are providing food and bedding and comforting their boars. Similarly, with his usual lack of subtlety, Clement tells us outright how gentle and sweet all of these wives are, how their chief feelings are those of adoration for their strong and handsome husbands. Again, gentleness is not in itself a negative character trait, (I'm married to a very gentle lady myself), however when it exists as literally the only defining character trait of not one, but all the female characters in a book, there might well be some authorial biases showing through.
What makes these depictions even more irritating, is that there are a few places where Clement seemed to be consciously trying to give his female characters some agency, but missed the mark entirely, such as when Beaufort's wife Corntop climbs a mountain to galvanise the exhausted badgers into going a little further, and the boars follow since they do not want to be out done by a weak sow, or when, during a battle with a hostile band of badgers, the sows join the fight "for love of their boars” and their home.
I also found it quite strange that the book has zero romance, or even mating at all, indeed we only learn towards the end that Buckwheat forbad all mating on the march (and of course nobody would ever disobey such an order). Indeed, another highly problematic moment is when a group of sows leave to join the hostile party since they desire to have cubs, and are derided in the narration as "foolish" or "silly", and of course come to a sticky end. Indeed, the marital relations in the book are so puritanical that I wonder if Clement; and perhaps also his wife who provided the illustrations for the first edition, had some strongly conservative beliefs which are showing here.
There was one female character whose depiction was touching enough to actually engage my attention, the lonely tendril who nurses the wounded Bamber on his journey to Cilgwyn, who has like Bamber lost her family to the extermination squads and been badly scarred and lamed by gunshot. Unfortunately, here again, Clement's tendency to sideline female characters; and indeed his one disabled character, reared its ugly head, since; despite his weakened state, Bamber manfully (borefully?), carries on to warn other badgers of the danger of the extermination squads, and leaves poor Tendril to be entirely dropped from the story once her service to the bold Bamber was finished.
Whilst the book's climax was almost inevitable, at the same time there were a few surprises during the ending that did strike a better note. One of these was the conclusion of the story told in human newspapers, and how that conclusion both tied in to the badger's journey, and the fate of several characters. Also, for all I had my issues with Clement's style, I will say, the final view the next generation, and even a sweet if cliched boar meets sow moment actually did strike a pleasant chord at the end.
I really want to like The Cold Moons. I appreciate the research Clement did, the memorial of a truly horrendous mistake in British history, and the attempt once again to give us an animal centric view of the world complete with its own society and beliefs. The problem is, the over-dramatic language, the stylised descriptions, the cold and distant view, the lack of dialogue and the active sidelining of female characters just make it really hard to do so.
I am also aware that given how special the Duncton series has been to me, I am not exactly coming at the book from an entirely unbiased perspective either.
So, whilst I personally would suggest people interested in this type of story look elsewhere, it's also possible that those with a specific interest in badgers might still find something to enjoy here.
Review by Dark
5/10 from 1 reviews
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