Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

★★★★★

Mythago Wood: Book I

Mythago Wood was first recommended to me five years ago, but it was only last weekend that I saw a copy in my local library and pounced. I hadn’t been at all sure whether I would like it – indeed, I hadn’t been at all sure what it was about – but reading it has been a truly remarkable experience. I suppose the book does fall under the fantasy banner, but it’s actually about myths and legends, the collective unconscious, and what Peter Ackroyd calls in his book Albion ‘the English imagination’. And it’s about woods: those deep, old English woodlands which can give you a thrill of unease when walking through them simply due to their antiquity. What might be hiding in the depths of such primeval forests? Playing with notions of relativity, time and space, Holdstock creates a world of such fascinating allure that I was captivated from the very first page. I may have taken half a decade to get round to this recommendation, but by heaven it was worth the wait.

Stephen Huxley returns home to Oak Lodge in 1947, after a protracted recovery from the trauma of the Second World War. He comes unwillingly, for he has few happy memories of his childhood. His father was an eccentric scholar, increasingly obsessed with the patch of ancient woodland adjoining their house, and prone to increasingly extended absences as he worked to chart its paths and wildlife. And now Stephen comes home on the news that his father has died, after a long and distressing illness, tended in his final days by Stephen’s older brother Christian. But if Stephen hoped that the lure of the woodland has been broken, he soon finds he is mistaken. Christian has developed that gaunt, distracted look he remembers seeing on his father’s face. Now Christian is the one who disappears into this patch of woodland for days, if not weeks, on end. What is he doing in there? What is he looking for? And what has happened to the young woman of whom he wrote to Stephen with such joy, saying that they were married? Something very strange is going on in Ryhope Wood – and yet even Stephen’s wildest imaginings can’t prepare him for the ‘truths’ that Christian eventually unveils.

Imagine, Christian says, the mythical figures that have woven their way through the English imagination. Some are very familiar – Robin Hood; King Arthur – while others may be less well-defined – green men; sorcerers; questing knights in armour; or the Wild Hunt. These figures grow out of the deep-seated needs of a population or a community. When an invader comes, such as the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings or the Normans, the native people often turn to myths of a saviour-figure, someone who will stand up for them against these new masters. Or people turn to myths of magic, not just stories of Merlin or Nimue, but tales of the next valley, or the village over the hill, or hidden communities deep in the uplands. Legendary archetypes come into being because people need something to believe in. Humans are storytellers by nature.

Now, says Christian, imagine these stories told time and again over the years. Each time a community tells this story, it becomes strengthened in the popular imagination. And what if, Christian says, these archetypes somehow take form from the collective unconscious? Hidden deep within our ancestral memories, we carry the stories of these warriors, magicians, fabulous beasts or dark villains. And that belief, when strong enough, generates these archetypes as flesh and blood, hidden deep within the most ancient parts of our island – those few patches of original Ice-Age woodland that haven’t yet been cut back, tamed and coppiced. Such is Ryhope Wood – not just a wild patch of woodland, but a path into England’s soul. And, within it, you find the mythagos – mythic imagos, embodiments of popular belief. This wood protects itself, befuddling anyone who wanders in from the outside world. And, adds Christian, the space within the wood is much greater than the space outside. The deeper you go, the more primitive the mythagos you encounter; the deeper you go back into our collective memory. Space and time stretch; paths twist impossibly; and there is always danger. But Christian has become fascinated by this world and, most of all, by Guiwenneth, the woman who he loved and lost. But who is Guiwenneth? Is she truly a woman at all?

Obviously Stephen takes all of this with a considerable pinch of salt. But soon he starts to see things – glimpses of strange figures on the border of the wood – that persuade him there’s something in Christian’s bizarre claims. And then the worst happens. Christian goes missing. And Stephen, going in search of his brother, comes across a fascinating young woman – the ancient British warrior Guiwenneth, who captures his soul.

I loved this novel; absolutely adored it. It isn’t just a cheap excuse to get King Arthur and Robin Hood together for cameos. On the contrary, it’s a dark, rugged tale of the violence that lies at the heart of our most ancient stories. I’m fascinated by puzzling out how myths came to be, and I’m growing increasingly intrigued by that period in Britain before and just after the Roman invasion, trying to understand more about our ancient past. The setting here is very wise: 1947 is modern enough to allow for scientific scepticism, but old enough to predate mobile phones and GPS and other things that spoil the magic of exploration. Holdstock writes with such deep sensitivity about landscape and woodland – he has a painter’s eye for such things and a lyricism which reminded me of Tolkien’s deep connection to the English landscape. But he’s also so very clever, weaving in just enough pseudo-science to make it seem plausible. Plus there’s the quest element, the great tale of good against evil, and the way that Stephen himself becomes drawn into that oldest mythic conflict of all: brother against brother. It’s made me want to go off walking in some great dark forest, but more immediately it’s made me very keen to get my hands on the rest of the series. I think the library also had Lavondyss, the next book, so I’m heading back this morning to rootle it out.

Highly recommended, even if you don’t like fantasy per se. This is an intriguing journey into a world of myths and dreams and half-forgotten legends, which feels all the more special because we live in a modern world which has shrugged off these old stories. People don’t sit round the fire and tell tales any more, but you can get much the same feeling from this book. As the autumn closes in on England, this may well be the perfect novel to curl up with as the evenings grow shorter and the wind rattles at the windowpanes. Magnificent stuff. (And plus points for the gorgeous cover.)

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3 thoughts on “Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

  1. Melita says:

    I believe I first read this when I was on a year abroad in the UK (Wales). Didn’t do too well on my courses, but read a lot of books. Anyway, I enjoyed the myths-become-real and very atmospheric writing. I didn’t like Lavondyss as much. Too much of a retread of the same themes. I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  2. RT says:

    First Mary Gentle and now Rob Holdstock – you’re sending me (delightfully) down memory lane! I was at Gollancz when this was published and everyone knew right from the start that it was going to be a classic. I don’t remember the story well, but I do remember how much I enjoyed it, particularly the mind-expanding concept of the wood…I’m going to have to read it again! Thanks for reminding me of it.

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