Old Thoughts and New

It came as a shock to realise that 2009 is the 25th anniversary of Mythago Wood, the novel I wrote from my dreams, and under the influence of my grandfather’s eerie tales, told to me when I was a child. I loved his stories: frightening and vivid. They shaped me.

The Mythago Cycle began as a short story, written under pressure for a writers’ workshop (Milford) in 1979. The moment the short tale was completed I had the whole novel in my head. A science fiction novel (Where Times Winds Blow) intervened, but Mythago Wood was finished in 1983, and published by Gollancz the following year. And now it comes out again from the same publisher. It is good to have returned.

1984. A prophetic year. It marked the start, for me, of a wonderful relationship with a wildwood (Ryhope Wood) that refused to let me go. It was also the start of my relationship with Sarah, who is my best and closest friend and critic.

From the start, there were requests for a sequel. But how can you write a sequel to a story that has come to its natural conclusion? I resisted. Nevertheless, Ryhope Wood itself suggested stories, journeys, and – yes – adventures that could embrace its strange complexities of not just space and time, but the ‘meeting place of all ages’.

Two elements thread their way through the cycle, from Mythago Wood itself, to this new volume, Avilion, the latest addition and the closest I am able to come to a sequel to the original story, even though it stands alone.

The first is the wood itself.

The second is in the form of the ancient masks that first feature in Lavondyss. Sequels and follow-ups do not have always to deal with the same characters. A common myth, a common landscape, can suffice.

Ryhope Wood exists because it is First Forest, and has never been interfered with. A sentience abides there, feeding on human dreams, on the collective unconscious, on lost memory: bringing it all alive. But it is also the repository of first consciousness, and the ten masks of Lavondyss, created by my young heroine, Tallis, reflect all of the primordial mind with which we are still engaged.

There is the land, the water, the air; the child and the woman; the grief that signifies ancestor worship; the storytelling that is the first form of entertainment and education through remembering. There is the fear of the forest, the fear of winter; there is the green-face, the delight of spring and summer.

These masks – wonderfully evoked by Alan Lee for the first edition, and used throughout most later editions – thread their way into other books, though in different contexts.

Merlin’s Wood and Ancient Echoes do not fit strictly into the Mythago Cycle of stories, but all embrace the same unconscious dreams. Ancient Echoes is my story that suggests to the reader: “Let me take you to where the ‘mythagoes’ grow.”

The masks become important again in Celtika, first of my Merlin Codex trilogy. But here I gave them human attributes, a sense of their once vibrant life before they became dreamtime. Literally: the Ancient of Days.

Lavondyss, second in the Mythago Cycle, is a story of a girl’s search for understanding her place in the world, during which she is transformed, and during which she witnesses an Ice Age murder, the memory of which, as told through story after story over the millennia, is the foundation of the Arthurian myth. To untangle the connections is a tease and a test to the reader.

The Hollowing explores how the sentient being that is Ryhope Wood deals with the intrusion of a mind damaged by a childhood stroke. The mythagos are as distorted as the wild, creative mind of the boy. It is a study of the origins of Trickster.

Gate of Ivory begins the story of the ironically named Christian Huxley, brother to Steven, hero of Mythago Wood, a man almost destroyed by his sibling. Only in Gate of Ivory is there (I confess) a touch of humour (which went down well!) injected after a sombre and solemn professorial type referred to Mythago Wood, on Sarah Lefanu’s Radio 4’s A Good Read, as ‘not having a lot of laughs.’ It doesn’t need to. It has a lot of wonder. But it was good to find a reason for a smile or two, a touch of undermining of the hero ethic, all there in the last part of Gate of Ivory.

And so at last to Avilion.

Quite why Tennyson chose to refer to Avalon as Avilion, in his magnificent prose poem ‘The Idylls of the King’, I don’t know. But what an interpretation of the myth! I fell with abandon on the chapter ‘Merlin and Vivien’ for Merlin’s Wood. And the lines from ‘The Passing of Arthur’: “But now farewell. I am going a long way…To the island-valley of Avilion…where I will heal me of my grievous wound”, suggested at once a tale of simple vengeance, and love rediscovered.

Avilion is not an epic. It is a love story. It is exactly the sequel to Mythago Wood that I would have written twenty something years ago, had I thought it through: what must it be like to be half human, half mythago? From where, if you are part nature and part the ferocity of human rage, does true emotion come?

My hero characters are the son and daughter of Guiwenneth – a mythago – and Steven, all human and very much lost in the heartwood.

From an early age Jack is fascinated by stories of the outside world; Yssobel by the mystery of what lies at the forest’s heart. When their family world is shattered, it is Yssobel’s fate to follow her own dream – and find Avilion, and deadly danger. Jack’s dream takes him to the edge of the forest, to find answers to his sister’s disappearance. He finds more than he expected.

Unlike Mythago Wood, told from the naive viewpoint of Steven Huxley, Avilion is written from a variety of points of view, a deliberate choice: to create a narrative weave between several of the characters, and by so doing, draw them slowly together.

One of the delights for me was to engage briefly with Odysseus as a youth — wandering and out of his world, as yet unaware of what the Fates have been preparing for him.

As with Mythago Wood, much that is witnessed in Avilion is a fragment of a greater story – a moment’s rest at a crossing-place, where my two young friends, Jack and Yssobel, get time to see and wonder about time past and time to come. I love to play with Time.

Although Avilion stands alone among the ‘Mythago Cycle’ of books, I decided to add an ‘Echo’ at the beginning, a small dream of what had gone before.

And I append four poems at the end, the first of which is one of a small group of prose/poems reflecting all that I recall of my grandfather’s accounts of his experience during the Somme campaign in 1916. It links with events behind the text of Avilion through the image across the ages of the fallen fields of tartan-cloaked warriors. The other three are what might be called ’summoning’ charms – the seeking of change.

Some books defy the writer who seeks to extend the story. But children echo the life of family, and their discoveries through their obsessions are fascinating to explore. My ‘mythago wood’ is a very personal and very vivid womb-place for me, constantly birthing, sometimes with pain. It continues to intrigue, more than a quarter century on. No matter how far you walk into an Unknown Region, the horizon is always ahead of you. There are stories in the glades and shadows. There are lost, forgotten and fabulous legends just waiting to emerge when the right eyes are keen to see them.

Robert Holdstock
June 2009