Review by Casimir Laski
A Black Fox Running is one of those rare hidden gems whose quality justifies venturing through forests’ worth of lesser-known novels. Originally published in 1981 only to quickly fall into obscurity, this mythic story of foxes set in postwar England received a much-deserved reprinting in 2018, complemented by a deeply appreciative foreword from author Melissa Harrison.
In the world of literary xenofiction, Richard Adams’ Watership Down stands as a towering monument against which all subsequent stories blending naturalism and mythic cultural anthropomorphizing have inevitably been measured. William Horwood (Duncton Wood, The Wolves of Time), David Clement-Davies (Firebringer, The Sight), and Garry Kilworth (Hunter’s Moon, Midnight’s Sun) have all carved out territory in the long shadow cast by Adams’ lapine epic, some with more distinction than others, and yet any afficionado of animal literature will be familiar with the refrain, “This story is just Watership Down with [insert other species].”
And while this comparison is fairer in some instances than others (Firebringer follows the beats of its precursor far more closely than Hunter’s Moon, for instance), Carter’s nearly forgotten masterpiece may very well be the only work of mythic xenofiction to truly venture beyond the creative territory demarcated by Watership Down. Blending the radically inventive societal worldbuilding of its predecessor with the brutal, unflinching realism of Daniel Mannix’s The Fox and the Hound and the mystically infused existentialism of Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, Carter transcribes every line of his vulpine tale of adventure and survival in prose as magnificent and lyrical as that of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine—take, for instance, this early passage, where the sickly fox Runeheath is run down by a pack of hounds:
"Numbness cancelled out the sudden flash of fear and beyond the black silence of Lancer’s jaws the country of abundant game and eternal summer moonlight opened to receive him. The crash of hound clamour ended as the beasts milled around the body Runeheath had left behind."
Set in the rural hinterlands of an England still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, A Black Fox Running follows a year in the life of the titular fox, Wulfgar, as well as a number of others of his kind living around Dartmoor, dwelling within the domain of a haunted and vengeful human trapper. On its surface, at least initially, Carter’s narrative follows the familiar beats of the classic English “fox in foxhunting country” tale, and yet from the first few pages, readers will be struck by the bold new path the author carves into the uncharted frontier of animal literature.
Unlike in the majority of novels, understandable as the anthropocentric literary status quo may be, in A Black Fox Running humans are not awarded center stage—nor, as in most animal fiction, are we depicted as alien beings set apart from the rest of the natural world, serving only as mysterious, malevolent antagonists or making brief displays of immense power for good or ill. But neither does Carter reserve a central place for the beasts of his story. Though the primary narrative of A Black Fox Running focuses on the rivalry between Wulfgar and Leonard Scoble, a foul-tempered, war-traumatized, misanthropic trapper, the author takes a transcendental approach to the novel’s focalization: a passage featuring a fox loping down to a stream to drink may pause to take in the distorted starscape rippling on the water’s surface, sweep away to follow an owl flying overhead as it dives for a vole, linger with a pair of nearby humans who hear the rodent’s dying scream while chatting after a hard day’s work, and then circle back to the vulpine protagonist without breaking a stride.
In the hands of a less capable author, such an approach could have easily rendered the novel hopelessly confused if not nigh unreadable, and yet Carter’s elegant and dexterous use of this style only serves to elevate both the primary narrative and the themes which suffuse the entirety of the story. In one early example, when Wulfgar fails to bring down a heron, the author briefly shifts to the bird’s eyes, giving the fox’s would-be prey a name and a sentence or two describing the circumstances that brought it so close to death. From time to time, even a feature of the landscape may have its history unearthed for readers to ponder, as towering oaks, ancient hill forts or murky ponds find themselves the focus, however passingly, of Carter’s fluid, graceful prose, divulging a secret or two before readers are shepherded on their way.
Remarkably, no matter how varied the tones or circumstances he presents, from blue collar workers telling ribald jokes in a pub to the vulpine seer Stargrief meditating on the mysteries of creation beneath a sea of endless stars, and from a young boy exploring the wilds of Dartmoor to starving foxes tearing their prey limb from limb in the night, the author never fails to impress upon the reader the interconnectedness of these happenings, balancing an intimate closeness to his characters with a detached, Zen universality in immersing readers within the world these characters inhabit. In her wonderfully insightful foreword, which serves as both an excellent primer for an initial read and a means of deepening one’s appreciation for the novel’s uniqueness after completion, author Melissa Harrison describes Carter’s style as employing a “shamanistic ease” in inhabiting the bodies of all the creatures that make up the world of the novel—a phrase whose succinctness I cannot bring myself to surpass.
To paraphrase her foreword once more, every individual—be they man, beast, insect or even tree—is the center of its own universe. As readers, we see as much of the author’s constructed vulpine culture as we do of the local humans, with his foxes maintaining customs and remembering histories, revering the great Tod (an older term for a male fox, homonymous with the German word for “death”) as their deity, observing omens in the natural world, and retaining hope in an afterlife among the bountiful, temperate fields of the Star Place. The Dartmoor foxes have even incorporated the local hunt into their own culture, revering death at its hands as the noblest manner in which their lives can end—an authorial decision that may at first glance offend modern sensibilities, but melds seamlessly with the existentialist qualities that permeate the entire story. After all, our own religious practices frequently map themselves onto the traits of the environments in which they originate, and, to a wild beast, the alternatives to being run down while heroically testing their mettle against the speed and cunning of the hounds remain the slow, wasting creep of age and disease, the sudden violence of the poacher’s gun, and the drawn-out anguish of Scoble’s poisoned baits and steel traps.
But for all their myths and beliefs, their names and histories, these animal characters never feel like humans merely wearing the skins of beasts: Carter’s foxes hunt and fight, mate and groom, mark territory and lay scats like wild animals otherwise plucked straight from a Mannix novel, their lives so authentic in this manner that at times I could almost imagine that the author himself possessed some mystical insight into the inhabitants of the wild.
Fortunately, Carter’s talent for characterization does not falter at the borderline between man and beast, with the human members of his cast fulfilling his efforts to truly show every angle of creation, including our own species at its best, worst, and most mundane. A traumatized, nihilistic veteran of the First World War desperately and violently asserts his authority over the natural world as a former bombardier from the Second seeks to protect and preserve it; ordinary farmhands and laborers toil or hunt by day and gather in pubs come dusk, while children—including the author, who cameos as his younger self—roam the wilds of Dartmoor seeking innocent adventure. Even the primary antagonist of the foxes, the ruthless, temperamental, bitterly misanthropic trapper Scoble, is never reduced to caricature: his hatred of foxes comes from his own terrible wartime experience, stranded in the Hellish charnel pit of no man’s land for days on end, maimed, abandoned, and forced to watch as scavengers scoured the night for any available flesh, certain that they would inevitably come for his own.
Throughout it all, Carter’s prose remains among the most beautiful I have ever read, gracefully evocative while never stumbling into ostentatiousness. Flowing from word to word with an almost musical quality, his writing is able to make even the most minor or ordinary event seem like the center of creation, if only for a moment—a perfect marriage of style to the transcendental substance of the story. And while in some sense, the novel’s mortality-focused philosophy does echo the themes of Watership Down, A Black Fox Running builds boldly upon this common ground, culminating in a climactic scene that could never be properly transposed to the works of any of the author’s literary predecessors.
In crafting such a radically creative and yet undeniably authentic portrayal of the world he so loved as a child, Carter serves to immortalize that vanished past in a way which echoes far beyond it, and speaks to far more than a simple memoir could ever hope to. In a strange way, it almost seems poetic that Wulfgar’s story itself was very nearly lost to time. Capturing the magic of xenofiction at the peak of its power, alternatively adventurous and vulnerable, intimate and heart-wrenching, and imbued with a profound understanding of both humanity and nature at their most beautiful and terrible, A Black Fox Running deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of animal literature.