Mythago Wood is a fantasy novel by British writer Robert Holdstock, published in the United Kingdom in 1984. It won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985. It served as the first in a series of novels known as the Mythago Wood or Ryhope Wood cycle. It belongs to a type of fantasy literature known as mythic fiction. It has received critical acclaim for the quality of its prose, its forest setting, and its exploration of philosophical, spiritual and psychological themes.
|Cover artist||Eddi Gornall|
|Series||Mythago Wood series|
|Publisher||Victor Gollancz Ltd|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
|Followed by||Lavondyss (1988)|
Mythago Wood is set in Herefordshire, England, in and around a stand of ancient woodland, known as Ryhope Wood. The story involves the internally estranged members of the Huxley family, particularly Stephen Huxley, and his experiences with the enigmatic forest and its magical inhabitants.
The conception began as a short story written for the 1979 Milford Writer's Workshop; a novella of the same name appeared in the September 1981 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
The novels and novellas in the cycle all take place around and within Ryhope Wood, with the exception of Merlin's Wood, which takes place in the similarly magical "sister wood" of Brocéliande in Brittany.
Ryhope Wood is an ancient woodland that has been undisturbed since the last ice age and appears no more than three square miles in area from the outside. Ryhope Wood is an example of a parallel universe that overlaps a section of the real world. The wood is much, much bigger on the inside than on the outside. Once penetrated, it grows larger, older and more unbearable as one approaches the heart of the wood. Lavondyss is the name of the remote ice-age heart of Ryhope wood.
The forest is referred to by John Clute as an "abyssal chthonic resonator" because it creates and is home to myth-images, or mythagos, who are creatures (including animals, monsters and humans) generated from the ancient memories and myths within the subconscious of nearby human minds. The book itself defines a mythago as a "myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature". Mythagos are dangerously real, but if any of them stray too far from the wood they slowly deteriorate and die. As they are formed from human myths, they vary in appearance and character depending on the human memories from which they formed. For example, there may be, over a period, many different forms of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter and others, all looking and acting differently, yet all with the same basic functions and all acting by the rules set by their defining myths. The area around Ryhope Wood being sparsely populated, there are few mythagos in the woodland, but because of his interest in the wood and his deliberate experiments in the 1930s, George Huxley created more mythagos than would normally be present in the wood at any one time, causing a greater than usual diversity within the wood. It is revealed in The Hollowing, a sequel, that mythagos can be created by conscious thought and are drawn to their creators.
Besides creating mythagos of living, breathing creatures, the wood can also generate ancient archetypal places, from castles to battlefields to ancient villages. These are referred to in the sequel, Lavondyss, as Geistzones.
The wood contains four tracks that lead to the heart of the wood and travellers who do not follow these tracks have extreme difficulty penetrating the wood. In addition to the four tracks Ryhope Wood contains "Hollowings", described as an "absence of magic" or pathways under the world. Hollowings function as wormholes by transporting mythagos and real human beings through space and time within the forest. Time travel occurs when travellers pass through Hollowings. Ryhope Wood magically repels outsiders by various means, including disorientation and physical defences such as thick, impenetrable scrub, huge lakes and raging rivers. There are also airborne defences to prevent aircraft from getting too close, such as vortices of air or air elementals that throw an aircraft off course.
The wood has a slower rate of time than the outside world. For example, a day may pass in normal time, yet a traveller within the wood may have been there for weeks or longer. In addition, "Time Slows," areas subjected to extraordinarily slow passage of time, are revealed in The Hollowing.
The events of Mythago Wood occur between 1946 and 1948. Stephen Huxley returns from service (after recuperating from his war wounds) to see his elder brother Christian, who now lives alone in their childhood home, Oak Lodge, just on the edge of Ryhope Wood. Their father, George, has died recently (their mother, Jennifer, died some years earlier). Christian is disturbed but intrigued by his encounters with one of the mythagos, while Stephen is confused and disbelieving when Christian explains the enigma of the wood. Both had seen mythagos as children, but their father explained them away as travelling Gypsies. Christian returns to the wood for longer and longer periods, eventually assuming a mythical role himself. In the meantime Stephen reads about his father's and Edward Wynne-Jones's studies of the wood. Part of his research on the wood causes him to contact Wynne-Jones's daughter, Anne Hayden. Stephen also meets a local man named Harry Keeton, a burn-scarred ex-RAF pilot, who encountered a similar wood when he was shot down over France and has since been trying to find a city that he saw there. Stephen and Harry try to survey and photograph Ryhope Wood from the air, but their small plane is buffeted back by inexplicable winds each time they try to fly over the trees. Stephen soon has his own encounters with the woodland mythagos (and an older Christian) and eventually, to save both his brother and a mythago girl named Guiwenneth (also referred to as Gwyneth or Gwyn), he ventures deep into the wood, accompanied by Harry.
Within the fantasy genre Mythago Wood has drawn critical attention for a variety of reasons over a span of years. Orson Scott Card described it as "for readers who are willing to take the time and effort to let a writer evoke a whole and believable world, peopled with living characters". Richard Mathews, a literary scholar, states that the Ryhope Wood series is considered to be "one of the landmark fantasy series of the late twentieth century". Another scholar asserts that Holdstock's work stands apart from “genre fantasy” and that “The sequence as a whole is a central contribution to late-20th-century fantasy”. In one study of Tolkien's work Holdstock is placed in a quartet of noteworthy fantasy authors, alongside Ursula K. Le Guin, John Crowley and Marion Zimmer Bradley, for writing fantasy books that almost have Tolkien's breadth and depth of imagination, and "in some respects surpass Tolkien". Another Tolkien scholar, Michael D. C. Drout, also asserts that Holdstock's fantasy is significant in the fantasy literature genre because in the Mythago Wood cycle Holdstock has created literary works containing the power and aesthetic standards of Tolkien's fantasy without being either a "close imitation of" or a "reaction against" Tolkien.
A second type of critical praise and analysis focuses on the quality of the writing. Richard Mathews expresses the opinion that Holdstock's writing is an impressive mixture of poetic style and sensitivity. John Howe, a modern fantasy illustrator, wrote that "Mythago Wood is a wonderful book written with great style, insight and individuality". A decade after Mythago Wood was published Brian Aldiss stated that Holdstock's books were full of ancient power, unrivalled throughout the 1980s. Mythago Wood is also noted for its pairing of sexuality and violence, and has been called “an earthy, tactile, deeply mythological tale set in an English wood.” In Horror: The 100 Best Books Michael Moorcock asserts that "Holdstock avoids sentimentality ... by offering us tougher questions, moral dilemmas, an imagined world far more complex than anything found in the wood's precursors".
The philosophical and psychological elements of the Mythago Wood cycle have also attracted commentary. The mechanism of mythagos being created from the subconscious ties in with Carl Jung’s understanding of the psyche. The mythagos embody Jungian archetypes since they are dependent on the subconscious, not on distinct memory. Kim Newman notes that the series offers “mind-stretching meditation on the nature of collective imagination". Nicholas Riddick states that "Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood can be read as a journey into the heartland of the psyche." The story is also considered an "inward spiral" in which the protagonists undergo cruel and devastating metamorphoses in a difficult setting. Brian Aldiss has written that "Ryhope Wood [is] that terrifying metaphor for our mental labyrinths" in which "phylogeny presides over ontogeny" with regard to an individual's history and destiny.
The interior of Ryhope wood is a pre-Christian British setting in which pagan and shamanistic rituals are common, and one scholar notes that death and mortal remains are prominent and disturbing part of these works. Along the same lines, it is noted that Mythago Wood might convey a more disturbing side of shamanism than other fantasy.
One critical study examines the pagan spiritual aspect of Mythago Wood, in particular how "elements of the series' thesis resonate with pagan worldviews". This is not because Mythago Wood is specifically written for pagans, but because the mechanisms of Ryhope Wood defy science and allow for events that are readily recognizable to pagans.
The setting of a myth-rich magical Celtic wood itself, along with its existence side by side with the modern everyday world, are characteristics of particular interest to critics. For example, in a recent study of the fantasy genre Mythago Wood and Lavondyss have been described as works of pure fantasy that take place in an innovative and startlingly ordinary realm. According to one modern Tolkien scholar, Mythago Wood and Lavondyss have an internally consistent framework of principles, and deal with the traditions of the British Isles with originality and deftness by incorporating its unwritten culture. These elements of culture include Morris dances, the Green Man, shamanism, Neolithic tribespeople and pre-Roman Celtic traditions. Michael Moorcock finds Mythago Wood notable for focusing on the subject of unity, including both the unity of the landscape and its inhabitants as well as the unity of dreams and the environment. Moorcock notes Mythago Wood is influenced by The Golden Bough, modern anthropology and the writer Arthur Machen. Moorcock also observes common elements in Mythago Wood, Ursula K. Le Guin's "low fantasy" novel The Beginning Place and George Meredith's poem The Woods of Westermain.
The order in which the Mythago cycle works were written and published does not correspond to the order of events within the realm of the cycle. For example, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn and the novella The Bone Forest are prequels to Mythago Wood, but were published at a later date. The novel Merlin's Wood (1994) and short stories in The Bone Forest and Merlin's Wood have little bearing on events in Ryhope Wood. See the table below for a chronology of events within Ryhope Wood.