I struggle now to remember how, but in my first years of high school I discovered Duncton Wood. I knew of Watership Down only through the cartoon movie of the novel, and the allegorical elements of this first in what would become William Horwood’s six-volume mole series similarly passed me by. I read it, then, as a standalone tale, and I remember being very fond of it: whatever I might make of it now (and I have never re-read it), at the time I was thrilled, surprised, enlightened and immersed. As I proceeded to the sequel novels, however, I became less and less engaged. As Horwood went on, his allegories became ever more obvious, and the mole society increasingly baroque; at he same time, the structure of the story grew slacker and slacker, more and more expending energy upon exposition and scene-setting. I became sceptical.
Perhaps none of this was a characteristic of the real progress of the series; perhaps I was simply developing as a reader as I made my way through the novels. I suggest this now because, as I read Laline Paull’s The Bees I saw many of the flaws I came to see in Horwood. Its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist is surely down to its remarkable feats of imagination: like Duncton Wood, The Bees conjures an entirely alien civilisation for its chosen species, complete with social strata, religious belief, political division and personal conflicts. That bees are significantly harder than cute little moles to anthropomorphise, and thus to encourage sympathy for them in the reader, makes Paull’s achievement all the greater.
But I’m still left asking a question: what are animal fantasies for? From Aesop’s Fables to Animal Farm, that whiff of allegory is never far from the bouquet of the mode. Predictably, then, in The Bees we experience a fantasy of societal collapse: the hive is in danger, crumbling as a result of environmental pressures beyond the bees’ control. This is grafted onto specific real-world danger, however: these bees are absolutely a part of our own world (an extremely slight frame story features humans), and the decline of bee populations so worried at in recent years is affecting Paull’s particular colony, too (indeed, she offers some of her own explanations for them). This means that the bees in this novel are real bees – victims of events we can identify, resident in our own world – but also a sort of abstraction – human in their confused, doomed attempts to adapt to the natural changes around them.
So what are animal fantasies for? Do they help us understand the other better, or do they help us understand ourselves? Paull might want us to leave her novel believing it can be both – and certainly The Bees attempts to prove its case – but its dual purpose also leads to an uncertainty which can trouble the reader as she makes her way through the novel.
Paull’s protagonist is Flora 717 – all bees are of a particular kin-type (Flora, Sage, Lily) and assigned a number within their clan. Those clans have very strict roles, and Flora is a member of the lowest order, tasked with cleaning the hive. She is also large and exceptionally ugly, and yet despite these impediments she is, upon birth, rapidly saved from immediate execution for abnormalities – the bee society is brutal and violent – by a high priestess of the bee religion, which revolves around worship, of course, of the Queen. Though the Queen, the bees’ faith, and the priestesses become key to the novel’s plot in its second half, Paull never really makes clear if this initial rescue is part of that later narrative. Indeed, the novels’ first and second halves feel quite separate: one focuses on world-building, often dilatory and even when rather beautiful always a little episodic; the second quickly develops into a sort of political thriller.
Nevertheless, saved Flora is and swiftly are we introduced to the novel’s themes: “knowledge only causes pain” [p. 10]; “variation is not the same as deformity” [p. 16]; “that is the seed of it: you wanted” [p. 25]. This is a novel about the interaction between community and individual. It’s also a dystopia: the hive is hell-bent on the collective good, and in its pursuit commits all manner of atrocity against members of the hive. Only foragers – those bees sent out to seek pollen, and who upon their return ‘dance’ the story of what they have experienced to a hive hungry for shared knowledge – are allowed, “in the Air, […] to think for yourselves” [p. 193]. All but the Queen, then, are denied the right to reproduce (though Flora does, in secret, with significant consequences). Bees seen to have pursued their own wants are executed immediately and brutally. And, as we see in one of the most memorable scenes of joyous misandry I may have ever read, each year the male bees produced to leave the hive and found new colonies are, upon their occassionally failed return, massacred by the majority-female hive in an orgy of sexualised blood-lust (“She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it” [p. 213).
That is, The Bees is full of evocative and striking writing. It is with this prose that Paull absolutely wins, despite their thorough other-ness, our sympathy for Flora and the other bees – for example, Sir Linden, one of the puffed-up and preening males whom is first worshipped and then turned on by the hive. As the plot picks up pace, the time we have spent learning the bees’ world pays off in our rooting for them. There is a Name of the Rose-ish awakening at work: “She tried to remember which scripture ordained the Sage the power of life and death.” [p. 228] The second half of the novel culminates, like the Duncton Chronicles, in a religious schism out of which we urgently hope for Flora to emerge emancipated: “every girl child is born a worker but it is how we feed her that makes her Queen!” [p. 304]
But here the novel’s unresolved dual purpose tells against it. The reader spends much of The Bees avoiding being bumped out of the text by odd moments in which the bees – these real insects behaving with their royal jelly and hive mind in the ways in which we know our own, depopulated, bees behave – also act as the human analogues the novel insists they must equally be. They open doors and serve pastries, have hands and arms; they take part in debates about the individual and the community. But then, at the novel’s end, they also fly off and form a new hive which we know – because these are bees and bees in the real world do not have religions and political disputes – will be governed in exactly the same despotic, hive-mind, collectivist way as the one Flora has spent a novel fighting against. That is, the novel wants its cake (or pastry) and it also wants to eat it, and in the resulting imbalance – repeating at every level of the text – it hobbles itself.
When I read Duncton Wood, I understood that its characters were moles, not humans. That the lead antagonist was named Mandrake, and shared this name with the magician from Defenders of the Earth, meant, however, that I imagined one, and only one, of the moles as wearing human dress (the terrifying villain of the piece war a mole-sized top hat). My mind’s eye just couldn’t help it. But Horwood pitched his animal society in such a way that it didn’t quite matter – these moles resembled our own, but were not. The top hat was absurd, but not fatal to my immersion in the story. The Bees, however, is, for all its arresting moments and the often soaring poetry of its imagination, a little less well-pitched, and, in its attempt to contain both aspects of the animal fantasy, a little – and, yes, I’ll go there – over-pollinated.