“It’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – 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.”

So says Christian Huxley, in the old house, as the world grows dark, and he and his brother Steven study their father’s writings.

Does one understand this? Does one accept it? The words come early in Robert Holdstock’s powerful novel. I believe that one’s response is at once to understand and to fail to understand: for Mythago Wood is about the shadowy, the ungraspable. In a way, no explanation is possible; it is dreamtime stuff, although probed continually by the rational minds of the Huxleys.

The territory of that wood is primary oak woodland, untouched forest from a distant time when the whole country was covered with similar forest. It is seemingly small in extent yet – as with the human mind – vast when entered into. There are indeed, “persistent images of our past that are locked in each and every one of us.”

Phylogeny presides over ontogeny, over our own private histories and destinies. Our bones are old. Perhaps if the residues of phylogeny mature within the composts of Ryhope Wood, that terrifying metaphor for our mental labyrinths, then such as Guiwenneth, the woman from Roman times, buried three feet deep between the chicken huts, may indeed live a thousand lives yet have no life at all. For all is paradox.

Steven Huxley, the central character, is himself confused; he remains frightened and yet he too generates imagos, as did his father before him. As the woods creep closer to the house, that mouldering domicile which seems always to sink back into time as a galleon sinks into the ocean, Steven begins to desire Guiwenneth. At first, when she invades the house, she is only a scent, an intriguing aroma of earthiness and sex; then she appears to him when he is in bed. She is feral, overpowering, and the scene is also overpowering, for it reflects something of our dreams and our inner cogitations.

Other mythagos are ferocious and unfriendly. Soon Steven is among them, struggling to survive what has no right to be there.

The extraordinary spell Holdstock weaves means that we are led deep into the incredible, yet we believe every word of it.

We believe that the hideous Urscumug is also the senior Huxley, now dead, that Guiwenneth can live again and again. We believe that there is eternal winter, and an eternal feud with those things deep within our minds, our bodies. Don’t we?

Mythago Wood is neither fantasy nor science fiction. It is sui generis. There are other books in the cycle; Lavondyss comes next, to lead us deeper into the thickets of Holdstock’s imagination. We have here a powerful and profound work of creation which I believe will be read, not merely in the present, but in a hundred years’ time, and in the eternal entanglements and winters yet to come.

Brian Aldiss
Written as a preface to the Folio SF edition of La Forêt des Mythagos (Mythago Wood), 2004.