Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock was an early example of what has come to be called celtic or mythic fantasy. I had read some of this type of work years ago, but hadn’t liked it. I probably should have started with Mythago Wood, because it is excellent.

Holdstock originally wrote it as a novella and then expanded it, it later became the first book of a series. Despite the extension into a series Mythago Wood is completely self contained, and a very satisfying read.

Steven Huxley was raised near Ryhope Wood, and it’s deep dark recesses scared him, and to a lesser extent his older brother Christian when they were children. The boy’s father developed a fascination with the place, something that later became obsession and not only estranged the man from his family, but may have contributed to his death at a relatively young age.

Steven is summoned home by Christian from France, where he is convalescing after his experiences in WW II. He arrives home to find his brother physically and mentally altered, and also cagey about what happened to his wife; Gwyneth. The wood that so fascinated their father has also exerted its influence on Christian and the brother disappears in the wood itself.

Steven starts to research his father’s notes and even seeks out papers from a man his father collaborated with. They developed the idea that the wood contained myth images  or mythagos from England’s past, everything from prehistoric warriors to cavaliers from the British Civil War of the 17th century. One of these mythagos is an enchanting young woman, who calls herself Guiwenneth. For some reason she seems to exert a passion within the Huxley men, both George Huxley, and his son Christian, were obsessed with her, and Steven also falls in love with her. Of the 3 men Steven seems to share the healthiest relationship with her, but that could be because the book is written in first person, so readers only really see Steven’s side of the story.

It is Guiwenneth’s capture by a mythago of Christian that forces Steven and a companion; the pilot Harry Keeton into the wood to look for her. Harry’s an interesting character, he and Steven meet by chance to a certain extent, but the pilot encountered a similar wood in France when he was shot down during the war and has been trying to find his way back ever since. I kind of liked Harry the most of the characters in the book, and some of his diary entries were highly amusing, especially in contrast to Steven’s more measured, occasionally tortured voice. At times some of Steven's entries resembled the less coherent ravings of his father, possibly an indication of Steven's own failing sanity at the time of writing.

It will take everything Steven's got just to get out of the wood with his life and sanity both preserved.

It’s an extraordinary work, and read as 3 books in one. Holdstock’s language isn’t particularly complicated or poetic even, but is atmospheric. I could smell the wood and feel the coolness of it’s depths.

There’s a whole wealth of similar work. Charles DeLint, in particular, has written books in this vein. Holdstock wrote sequels to Mythago Wood as well. I may have to revisit DeLint as it’s made me reassess my opinion of his work.        

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