Continuing our celebration of the works of Robert Holdstock, we’re delighted to re-present Mark Charan Newton‘s SFX Book Club article on Mythago Wood. Many thanks to Mark and, as ever, to our friends at SFX . . .
The woodlands are one of the great settings for fantasy fiction. For the Lord Dunsanys and Neil Gaimans of this world, they stand for a wonderfully quaint, magical frontier between human and faerie cultures. For Tolkien, tapping Anglo Saxon myths, they meant something quite different, perhaps a history and civilisation in themselves, as much a presence in Middle-earth as any city. Mythago Wood acknowledges many of these approaches and facets, yet transcends them all. It encompasses many stories written before it – even acknowledges that fact – yet manages to create something brilliantly original.
In fiction, woodlands are wild, often unfamiliar regions – places that haven’t been tamed by humans, places of great uncertainty that stir up primitive emotions. Robert Holdstock taps into all these qualities and yet produces something quite different. There’s much to fear in Ryhope Wood, the central setting of Mythago Wood – but there’s even more to desire.
After World War Two, upon hearing of his father George’s death, Stephen Huxley returns to his family home, Oak Lodge, on the outskirts of Ryhope Wood. At its fringes, it may seem an ordinary enough ancient English forest, but Stephen’s father spent the majority of his life researching some mysterious force within. Stephen discovers his brother Christian has taken up the mantle of pursuing the secrets of the forest. And what wonderful secrets they are: mythagos – creatures from myth and legend that appear to the mind (in the mind, perhaps) of ordinary humans. Within certain zones of Ryhope, they morph into real flesh and blood creations. They’re not phantasms; they’re quite real: “That’s myth imago, the image of the idealised form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing, and – as you saw – weaponry… images of our past are locked in each and every one of us.”
All heroes throughout history are brought to life again, generated by collective consciousnesses, and their new states are deeply dependent upon the surrounding minds. Holdstock’s mythagos are bound to Jungian influences. He shows us well-known heroes such as Robin Hood, but many mythagos are unlikely to be found in historical records.
The novel’s also quintessentially and quixotically of our island – in later Ryhope books, Holdstock expands on this Britishness with walk-ons by English composer Vaughan Williams, out collecting tunes from folklore. The series serves as an ode to Britain’s pre-Christian culture and psychologies, bringing to life the echo of Arthurian, Roman and Celtic memories.
Some of the great themes of this novel concern obsession and desire. George Huxley’s obsession was the woodlands, and soon both his sons share this passion. A mythago called Guiwenneth becomes an object of desire for the brothers, just like their father, and their shared intoxication for her, in her various appearances, holds the various strands of the novel together. Holdstock’s prose echoes this with its mellow sensuality:
She was crouched by the bed; sparse moonlight reflected from the sheen of her hair, and when she glanced away from me, nervously I thought, that same light glinted from her eyes… She smelled strong. It was the sort of smell I would come to associate with a life in the forest and remote places of a barren land.
While he’s very much alone for much of the novel, Stephen’s encounters with the forest, the mythagos, and his attempts to explore his deceased father’s journals quickly become meditations on the ability to imagine – a keystone of our genre. Blurring the lines of myth and belief, it’s a novel about the very nature of fantasy itself.
It may seem unfashionable these days but, while cities have sprouted their own genre of urban fantasy, Holdstock has written the definitive rural fantasy. It’s the story of obsession, a hymn of mythology, an anthem of the woods.
Mythago Wood is available as a Fantasy Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Robert Holdstock’s work via his Author page on the SF Gateway, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
This piece was written by Mark Charan Newton and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.