The Mythago Process

I finished Mythago Wood in the late summer of 1983. The last scenes came as a complete surprise to me, in particular the true nature of the primal ‘mythago’ which I called the Urscumug. But equally surprising was Christian Huxley’s reflections on the nature of Lavondyss, the mysterious realm that lies at the heart of Ryhope Wood. He referred to it as ‘”The realm guarded not against Man but against Man’s curiosity. The inaccessible place. The unknowable, forgotten past.”

I had been planning to write a direct sequel to Mythago Wood, but now I realised there was a more profound and ‘timeless’ story to tell. I would have to break away from the characters of the first novel. In fact, I’d been planning on writing an arcane murder mystery of tremendous age, and that story — an Ice Age murder witnessed by a boy who would be the first ‘storyteller’ — slotted effortlessly into the plot.

I created an Ice Age language, words that had the ‘ring’ of the past about them (rajathuk, Tig, cruig-morn etc.) The book really began to come together one dawn when Sarah woke me. I was sitting up in bed and apparently speaking in this strange language. Sarah was hugely amused. What was so funny, I asked her. “It actually sounds like you know what you’re talking about”, she said.

Lavondyss was a novel built from dreams. I dreamed of ‘Old Forbidden Place’ and ‘The Mortuary House’, which feature very powerfully in the novel. The book took three years to write and there is no question that I became depressed in the middle of the writing. I wrote about this at the time: that I reached too deeply into my unconscious. I spent days meditating and trying to ‘touch’ the world I was creating, and some very sinister and frightening waking horrors emerged as a consequence. It was a relief to finish the book, but the journey had been fantastic. I used Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Darest Thou Now, Oh Soul‘ (Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region…) as inspiration.

The reader response to the book was extraordinary. Mostly very favourable, occasionally hostile, though the hostility turned out to be more disappointment that I hadn’t written a direct sequel. (My editor at the time apparently flung the MS across the room in disgust, though now he claims it to be the best of the Mythago Cycle). It has sold in 20 or so countries, generates more mail than all my other books put together, has been turned into an operetta, inspired the German heavy metal rock band Alvaz Perez (fine stuff from a Siouxie and Banshees-like group), artwork and — of course — masks. For a few years in the early 90’s I was given masks wherever I went (there are ten masks in the novel, all of them ‘gateways’ into different unknown regions of the past). (By the way: I’m planning that direct sequel to Mythago Wood right now.)

I went on to write The Fetch — very different novel — and then tackled Mythago Wood 3: The Hollowing.

The Hollowing is a novel — set in Mythago Wood — about the European ‘trickster’ figure, the Jack figure. Embedded in the text is an aspect of the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, and Jason — an older, more savage Jason than the figure from the Greek myth — appears in a cameo role, a set-piece tale that stands apart from the rest of the book. I’d wanted to try a different structure of storytelling, and The Hollowing tells several stories all of which entwine towards the end. For the first time I was able to give full rein to the ‘Green Men’ I created, the ‘daurog’; and I was also able to give my characters a better diet! Several interviews at international conventions had pointed out that my characters existed on a diet of nuts, berries, squirrels and tree fungus. Didn’t they ever get a decent meal? I incorporated a French psychology — Arnauld Lacan — who was also a cordon bleu cook. The Hollowing contains the complete recipe for Hare Stew a la Royale, straight out of Elizabeth David (and based on an eighteenth century recipe) delivered as part of an action scene. I’m glad to say, however, that the food gets worse as things fall apart and the mythago world takes over reality!.

The Hollowing was a joy to write. When Jason entered the tale he set me up for the Merlin Codex, still ongoing. I love working with the mix and match of different legends, and The Hollowing, of all my work, is probably the richest and most complex novel in this way.

Robert Holdstock
April 2003