In his 1981 novella ‘Mythago Wood’, Robert Holdstock wrote a story that was an instant classic; he created a work, and a world, with the power of myth, something that seemed even to its first readers to have pre-existed our reading of it.
Only the very best fantasies possess this timeless quality, which is also inherent in other things – landscape, art, rituals, folk-tales and music, as indicated in the comment made by Ralph Vaughan Williams about his discovery of British folk-music:
‘I had that sense of recognition . . . here was something which I had known all my life, only I didn’t know it . . . ’
Those words of Vaughan Williams were chosen by Rob (I can’t call him ‘Holdstock’ without hearing my old friend bursting into infectious laughter) as the epigraph for Mythago Wood, the novel which went on to win even more praise, awards and devoted readers than the original shorter work. What the composer felt about his first encounter with the ‘Ballad of Dives and Lazarus’ in 1893, echoed the author’s feelings about British folklore, and the mythic territory he had started to make his own.
Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region was published in 1988, announced as a ‘sequel’ to Mythago Wood – which it is, in a way, in that it takes place some years later and draws upon some events of the first novel as it explores the same territory – but it stands on its own, and, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the first book. Almost uniquely amongst sequels, Lavondyss is a greater, stranger, more powerful and original work than its prequel.
Mythago Wood is an easy book to love, at its heart an old-fashioned adventure story, a romance shaped around a recognizable pattern of myth and characters. Influenced by Jung’s concept of archetypes, inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell on the common roots of human mythology, Rob was drawn to the trope of the haunted woods, and used it to tell a terrific story, which was also (although not at all post-modern or metafictional) a story about story.
Lavondyss, which delves deeper into the mysterious realms of myth, is considerably more challenging for the reader, as it was also for the author. I remember talking with him about it for a magazine article in 1988. It was an important book for him, he said, because it contained so much of his own childhood. The setting – the real world setting – of Lavondyss is rural Kent in the 1950s, based on the area around Tenterden, home to his paternal grandparents:
‘That is my childhood landscape; that was where I had my greatest sense of freedom, and it was very formative. You know they say that when you go back you find things are smaller? That land is bigger. I was there two weeks ago, and it was bigger than I remembered. It has changed, of course, but it is still a magic place.’
For W.B. Yeats it was ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ – for Robert Holdstock, a patch of British woodland with many names – Ryhope Wood, Shadox Wood, Howling Wood, Mythago Wood – bigger inside than out, a place of ghosts and history, an old, winding path into pre-history, to the shadowy places where stories start.
‘One of my points was to juxtapose ordinary family life and contemporary folklore with very primordial, unconscious imagery and the source of ancient symbols. They are linked – and that has always been a part of life, the balance between the ordinary and the imagination. Out of that juxtaposition comes creativity and fantasy and story.’
Unlike many writers of contemporary fantasy who borrow figures from past mythologies for their own purposes, Rob was not looking for exotica or borrowed glory, nor was he bent on a modern re-interpretation of old legends; he was in pursuit of a different quarry: the myths that are not remembered, the distant roots of the legends we recall, if at all, only dimly today. For that, the usual sort of research is useless. Instead, Rob, always an organic, instinctual writer at heart, relied on imagination and dreams:
‘Most of the images in Lavondyss are from the unconscious. Not only did I allow my imagination a free rein, but I wouldn’t even start to work on a particular scene until images had come into my head that seemed vivid and realistic, and undeniably right.’
Tallis Keeton is the main character of Lavondyss. She begins as a bright, if odd, child; a budding artist/scientist/philosopher who has her own ways of exploring, and is receptive to the mysterious, invisible powers of the land. She gains admittance to the heart of the wood, and becomes a figure of legend, journeying into the underworld. The journey is both physical and metaphysical, and it can be hard going at times, especially for readers who expect fantasy to provide a comfortable escape, but, as John Clute wrote regarding ‘Difficulty’ (in The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror) ‘The language of daylight cannot penetrate the labyrinth into the coigns of the underworld.’
Lavondyss is a work of astonishing beauty and strangeness. Its difficulty is both necessary and rewarding. It is a thoughtful work of fiction about the importance of fantasy in the human soul which is not only a classic of the genre, but recreates a magical experience in the mind of the receptive reader. I hope this new edition will win it the greater recognition it deserves.