The Mythago Cycle Afterwards

Taken from the omnibus editions of the Mythago Cycle.


Mythago Wood and Lavondyss

Afterword: Waking to the Dream.

When Nigel Kneale’s television play Quatermass and the Pit was shown in 1959, I was eleven years old, and completely entranced by what I was watching on the screen in eerie black and white: buried spaceships, stone age men walking through walls, Martians, the devil himself… Here was a rational scientist encountering superstition, a superstition based on something that was genuinely alien, very real, and very ancient. And it all ended up making sense.

Perhaps an echo of that thrill continued to haunt me for the next twenty years, when, under pressure to write a story for a writers’ workshop, I began to think about the nature of ghosts, and the way our unconscious mind plays with old stories and old histories, I coined the word ‘mythago’, a fusion of ‘Myth Imago’, the ‘image of the myth’. (I pronounce ‘mythago’ with the emphasis on the second syllable.) It was what you might call a ‘eureka’ moment. Out of our deepest memories come the forgotten forms of the past, given new life by the living sentience of an ancient and eternal forest. The story wrote itself from that point on, drawing on the landscape close to my grandparents’ country cottage, and the woods and the mill ponds, and the sense of distance from the real world that was an abiding part of my childhood.

I used the name Huxley for the scientist who has discovered the primordial and mythogenetic nature of Ryhope (Mythago) Wood quite deliberately. His journal, an account of the mysteries and wonders that he discovers when he finally succeeds in entering the ‘heartwood’, reflects in its way the sort of thesis I’d always longed to write; but I had become too entranced by fiction ever to apply my mind to the serious task of science.

George Huxley indulges in my own passion for attempting to understand the unknowable, for discovering the ‘forgotten’, the legends, the heroes, the tales that never made it into the written record: their power, their prose, their sense of wonder, all dying with the last, ancient voice that spoke of them. Huxley finds traces of those lost legends. And like the author, he becomes obsessed with them.

Many writers create their own lands, their own worlds, their own story sequences. Asked, in a radio interview as I was writing the first book, whether I was inclined to do the same thing, my answer was ‘No’. But afterwards it occurred to me that I had the possibility of inventing new mythologies, new legends, and juxtaposing them with the tales and characters with which we are already familiar. The wood itself, then, was the world, and there could be many characters from our own world who, in their own way, might untangle the mysteries of that Unknown Region.

So Lavondyss is not a sequel to Mythago Wood, but rather a new visit, crammed with echoes of past visits, but seeking new answers to old mysteries. Having written Mythago Wood, day in and day out to the sublime sound of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, I could not resist the temptation of having the spirit of the man encounter my young heroine (Tallis) quite early on in this second novel. It’s my small salute to a great composer, and to the man who discovered folk music in much the same way as I had discovered folklore itself. In his own words:

“I had that sense of recognition. Here was something which I had known all my life, only I didn’t know it.”

In Lavondyss I introduced ten masks that I believe may have been a part of our earliest culture. Call them spirit masks, or shaman masks, or Old Land masks, or Dreamtime masks (which I do)… call them anything. But they represent the great encounter of our earliest conscious minds with the curiosity and memory that is such an important part of what makes us human. New mythology juxtaposed with what we know.

And Walt Whitman? Whitman’s poetry is extraordinary. Endlessly quotable. A wild and wonderful mind. I’ve taken a few of his words for Lavondyss, again as a tribute to a deep and thoughtful presenter of the power of imagination:

“All is a blank before us. All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.”


“I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.”

For myself, I have been ‘dreaming’ Ryhope Wood for more than twenty years, now. I live at its edge, half asleep in reality. Then I hear the sounding of a horn, or the howling of a hound. Someone or some thing steps out from the edge of the wood, and beckons to me. And once again, it’s time to wake up. Time to journey.

Rob Holdstock
February 2007


The Hollowing and Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn

Afterword: Imaging the world of myth

I have been ‘dreaming’ Ryhope ‘Mythago’ Wood for more than twenty years, now. I live at its edge, half asleep in reality. I write other things, journey elsewhere. But then I hear the sounding of a horn, or the howling of a hound. Someone or some thing steps out from the edge of the wood, and beckons to me. And once again, it’s time to wake up. Time to journey.

Those journeys are difficult, intriguing and always revealing. The writer never quite knows what he’s going to find there. All of legend is in Ryhope Wood, though often as fragments, briefly glimpsed in a glade, by a river, across a valley; most often from the corner of the eye, something half seen, which vanishes when it is gazed upon fully. All of legend: that which we remember, and most importantly: the vast amount that has been forgotten during time, because the tales faded from the oral tradition, the events, which had once burned in the story-tellers memory, have crumbled to ash.

But they are not forgotten. The wood itself remembers, and these ancient images of myth, these ‘myth-imagoes’, rise whenever a human mind becomes engaged with this oldest of woodlands.

The artist John Howe, in his illustrated Beowulf, describes the way that he sees the world of myth in his imagination as like looking through ‘an arrow slit in a high tower wall, affording a few details but above all the knowledge that the view will forever be tantalisingly inadequate.’ He has painted Beowulf whose ‘world may be remote, but is brought close by the very distance that separates us from him’. Time takes away the clutter of every day detail, but leaves a profoundly moving core of story, which can be embellished and represented in new ways.

I always feel, when I’m imagining the more ancient past, as if I’m sitting around a fire, but outside the ring of men and women, listening to, but not understanding the words being spoken, but aware of the laughter, the cheers, and the gestures that are made as someone brags of a hunt or a battle, someone is teased, someone remembers a lost friend, someone asks for advice on love. I get the shadow of the time, and make my own tale from it.

Ryhope ‘Mythago’ Wood is a place of memory, glimpses, and encounters, and nothing is as it seems, and no legendary figure, emerging from the edge of the wood, is ever the same twice, because they are created from different minds with different sensibilities, as the two books in this omnibus illustrate.

The Hollowing takes the exploration of Ryhope Wood forward in time to 1967. I was intrigued by the thought of a team of scientists, mythologists and anthropologists entering the wood in an attempt to understand the supernatural forces at work there. (As an aside: having been questioned closely, a few years before, about what exactly my characters ate when in the wood (nothing but squirrels, nuts and wild boar?) I included a chef in the team! He’s French, he’s larger than life, and he knows exactly how to cook!).

The main notion that appealed to me, when thinking about The Hollowing, was the idea of seeding the wood, creating mythago forms, from a disturbed, adolescent mind. From there it was an easy step to introducing the ‘trickster’ element of the novel.

The book is in two parts: a narrative followed by a series of encounters for the team. Each of the encounters is designed to illuminate an aspect of the young mind behind the ‘seeding’.  The sequence in which Jason and his rough-neck argonauts appear led to later work: Celtika, The Iron Grail and The Broken Kings. Those heroes of old haven’t remained in memory just by chance; they are powerfully iconic, and always available and interesting to explore further.

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn brings the Cycle full circle. In Mythago Wood, Christian, one of the two sons of the scientist and explorer George Huxley, becomes lost in the wood in more ways than one, and ends up a brutal and almost unrecognisable version of his more youthful self.

I had always wondered what event or events might have caused that terrible transformation, and in part at least, Gate of Ivory attempts to answer the question. The book is set at the same time as Mythago Wood. In one scene, it takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the nature of the Celtic ‘hero’. In the main, it deals with truth and lies: truth from the Gate of Horn, lies from the Gate of Ivory.

In the event, I didn’t take the story as far as I’d intended. A deeper and more exotic tale of love and frustration took over, that of Christian, Issabeau and Someone Son of Somebody. (The latter, by the way, is a real character from one of the Welsh myths.)

Christian’s fierce and tragic tale, then, remains to be written.

Rob Holdstock
May 2007