The Mythago Mythos

Before producing the Mythago Wood Cycle, his major fantasy work, Robert Holdstock was a prolific professional author of various fictions, including dark-hued but fairly standard heroic fantasy under the names Chris Carlsen (the ‘Berserker‘ series) and Richard Kirk (with Angus Wells, the ‘Raven‘ series). More indicative of deeper concerns are early s-f novels (Eye Among the Blind, Earthwind, Where Time Winds Blow), which touch on primal matters and the scientific process, and a run of imaginative para psychological horror novels, including Necromancer, the ‘Night Hunter‘ series (written as Robert Faulcon) and the more mature The Fetch. The ‘Mythago’ cycle germinates in the novella ‘Mythago Wood’, which aptly sprouted into the novel of the same name, and develops in the novels Lavondyss and The Hollowing and the novellas ‘The Bone Forest’ and ‘Merlin’s Wood’. Shadows of the cycle spread over much, if not most, of Holdstock’s other work, especially The Labyrinth, the climactic novel of the ‘Night Hunter’ series, and the stories collected in In the Valley of the Statues and The Bone Forest, even informing his novelisation of John Boorman’s film The Emerald Forest.

Set in Gloucestershire just after World War Two, Mythago Wood explores a vast tract of primal forest inhabited by mythagos, imagined-into-reality archetypes of old tales, songs and traditions, compelled to live out over and over their legends. A boldly original premise, worked through with enough thoroughness to suggest the all-pervasive importance of myth without damaging the essential mystery, Mythago Wood is a shamelessly enjoyable adventure novel. Young Steven Huxley follows his vanished brother Christian into haunted Ryhope Wood, vaguely guided by the jottings of his scientist father George (who first tracked the wood and invented the ‘mythago’ concept) and encountering perils, a breath-taking pagan princess and a pig monster of William Hope Hodgson proportions. Stirred in with the adventure is a serious and mind-stretching meditation on the nature of collective imagination, bristling with so many ideas that a series was not only inevitable but – a rare thing – necessary.

While replete with quests, magic, folklore and comings-of age, the Mythago cycle is by no means a conventional fantasy series. Each new component adds to the tapestry rather than simply extends the commercial life of the property. Lavondyss is no simple Tome Two in the Towering Trilogy, but a major novel in its own right, returning to Ryhope Wood for a deeper, darker, chillier journey into the source of all legendary. Tallis Keeton, thirteen-year-old sister of one of the adventurers from the first book, lives on the outskirts of the wood, and becomes aware of the magic around her. She is inspired to carve masks and tell stories, and attracts the attention of no less a personage than Ralph Vaughan Williams, who guest appears collecting tunes. Tallis has had a vision of the death of Scathach, a noble young warrior to whom she speaks from an oak, and is given an assortment of other clues as to the nature of her destiny and her mission. Inevitably, she is drawn into the woods in pursuit of her lost brother and finds herself travelling back through folk history to Lavondyss, the source of all myths, an edenic paradise that may also be an ice age wilderness.

Considerably less straightforward than Mythago Wood, Lavondyss subverts quests with dallyings and side-stories, is sometimes maddeningly difficult to follow. It soon loses its appealing innocence of tone as Tallis experiences the brutal, bloody, messy realities of Iron Age living and (in an astonishing section) is torn from her body and becomes a tree, witness to unspeakable depravities, and a female version of the Green Man of pub sign and ghost story fame. The imbecile smugness of much folkloric fantasy is nowhere to be found, and Holdstock marvelously evokes a physical environment as harsh and cruel as it is magical and beautiful. His theme is the reality at the heart of the myth, and he writes of the stinks and atrocities behind the heroic images, even as he reaffirms and recreates their beauty.

‘The Bone Forest’ returns to George Huxley and his family, already showing the tensions that will break them up in Mythago Wood. The Holdstockian obsession with taking different paths to the centre of the labyrinth (the central theme, fittingly, of The Labyrinth, a cross-over between his two main fantasy strands) expands into an almost Borgesian notion of shifting alternate realities, with George arguing through his diary with a doppelganger version of himself, and never quite sure if the world he returns to after his trips to the wood is the same as the one he has left. The Hollowing again changes mood subtly, with Richard Bradley (another of the relay team of protagonists who probe the wood) embarking on a quest to reclaim his son Alex, who has gone feral in the wood and is providing a new impetus to the creation of more ferocious, corrupt and corrupting mythagos. Like The Fetch, The Hollowing is at heart the story of a tangled father-son relationship, complicated by paranormal powers, but it takes a series of powerful by-paths, exploring variants on myths as powerful as the Tower of Babel and the Old Age of Jason. Sundered families are central to much of Holdstock’s fiction: the relatively simple, if neurotic, drive of the protagonist of the ‘Night Hunter’ books to rescue his kidnapped wife and son grows into the far stranger searches and reunions of the Mythago cycle and The Fetch.

Though wrapped up in an earthy take on the Matter of Britain, the Mythago series (developing themes from Necromancer and ‘Night Hunter’) also reflect Holdstock’s s-f background and scientific training, extending the parapsychotogical concerns of Nigel Kneale’s work (Quatermass and the Pit, The Road, The Stone Tape). A succession of blinkered but visionary scientists attempt to understand the processes they may have, in part, created, allowing Holdstock another, superficially more rational, way into the trackless wilderness that can only really be penetrated by the obsessed and heartbroken. Collectively, the Mythago series starts to feel like a life’s work and shows the development of a good writer painfully meta-morphosing into a genuinely important fantasist.

Kim Newman

Written for the Octocon 1994 Programme Book (Robert Holdstock was Guest of Honour)