If The Lord of the Rings got me addicted to epic fantasy series, Richard Adams’ Watership Down gave me hunger for novels whose protagonists are animals. And if The Wheel of Time is for me the best fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings, I’d say William Horwood’s Duncton Wood books are the best animal novels since Watership Down.
Moles Instead of Rabbits
The first book in the series, Duncton Wood, first came to my attention in 1985. “Ahhh!” I said in delight when I saw it in the bookshop. “It’s Watership Down with moles instead of rabbits!”. This was the book description on the back cover:
Enter the magical, colourful, poignant world of Bracken and Rebecca, Mandrake the tyrant, Boswell the scribe, Hulver, Comfrey…and all the other moles of Duncton Wood. Set deep in the English countryside, this enchanting story tells us of an ancient community losing its soul – but saved by courage and love.
Duncton wood was originally intended to be a standalone novel that tells the love story of Bracken and Rebecca and the trials that they faced. The book was my passport to the fascinating but often brutal world of moles with characters that would match any dwarfs, humans or elves of Middle Earth in terms of depth and complexity. With over 700 pages, I found Duncton Wood to be hard going in places. I was 15 at the time and the book was aimed at adults rather than children. I found some of the vocabulary too advanced and the adult themes of faith, survival and betrayal were sometimes difficult for me to fully absorb.
Despite these, I managed to finish the book and when the sequel Duncton Quest came out three years later, I did not hesitate in grabbing a copy. I found the second book to be even better: the narrative flowed and I just kept turning the pages. Perhaps it was because I was three years older and had acquired a wider vocabulary, or perhaps Horwood had achieved that rare feat of writing a sequel that was better than the original. Maybe it was a combination of the two. The third book, Duncton Found, was published in 1989 and I gobbled that up just as quickly. I was sad when it ended for it was hard saying goodbye to the beautiful world of Duncton Wood and the poignant creatures that inhabited it.
I needn’t have grieved for two years later, Horwood released the first book of the second trilogy: Duncton Tales, book one of The Book of Silence. It was set several generations after Duncton Found, centring on librarian mole Privet and her adopted son Whillan as they faced the rise of an inquisitorial cult called the Newborns. Duncton Rising (1992) and Duncton Stone (1993) completed the trilogy. The second trilogy was was even more of a spiritual journey for the moles involving bigger sacrifices to preserve all that they held dear.
The Duncton books are very much underrated, probably because the characters are moles – animals that aren’t as lovable as rabbits and who are often dirty. But the Duncton series is a true epic fantasy in every sense. It is set in a land full of beauty and wonder (the British countryside), but a kingdom ruled by dictators who would stop at nothing to get and retain power and it is up to their peace-loving and gentle subjects to ensure that good triumphs in the end. The series has dangerous quests for peace and justice, and battles for love and freedom.
The Times raved that Duncton Wood was “a massive read .. more readable and more rewarding than The Lord of the Rings.” As a big Tolkien fan, I would have to argue that The Times was exaggerating but I would also have to agree that Horwood has achieved for moles what Tolkien has achieved for hobbits.
Some have criticised the series for being overtly religious but the message that comfort can be gained from faith when faced with a society that is deteriorating around you is a powerful one, and something that we can all relate to in our society today. I find it tragic that the books are no longer in print, though Kindle editions are available. Moles may not be as cute or cuddly as rabbits, but they are just as heroic and worthy of our company and support as they fight to save their magical world.