Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Lavondyss UK HB cover by Alan Lee

UK hardback cover by Alan Lee

Whenever I read Mythago Wood, I vow to work my way through the whole of the Ryhope Wood series. Then I read Lavondyss and stall. This isn’t because Lavondyss is a very different kind of tale from the straightforward fantasy-adventure narrative that drives Mythago Wood — I like the fact Holdstock sets out to do something different in the second book of the series. It’s more to do with a contrast within the book itself. Lavondyss in its second half is a very different book from Lavondyss in its first, and it’s the jarring jump between the two halves that has, until now, always succeeded in putting me off. On this most recent read, though, I finally realised how powerful a novel Lavondyss is, and how it’s actually doing everything Mythago Wood does, only deeper, and weirder, and far more unrelenting in its exploration of what myths are for, and the very human forces that lead to their creation.

Lavondyss is the story of Tallis Keeton, the younger half-sister to Harry Keeton, the airman who accompanied Steven Huxley into Ryhope Wood in the first book, seeking a mythical place he believed could be found deep within the wood, where his facial burns would be healed. The book starts with the disappearance of Tallis’s grandfather, who leaves his baby grandaughter a hastily scrawled and (from the point of view of Tallis’s parents, anyway) rather disturbing letter about stories and myths and the strange powers of nearby Ryhope Wood, before walking out into the snow and dying. Tallis’s later childhood is marked by a second loss when her half-brother Harry’s plane is shot down during the Second World War, and he’s at first believed to be dead. Even when he returns, it’s only briefly, before he sets off on a quest into the depths of Ryhope Wood with Steven Huxley. Lost, then recovered, then lost again.

Lavondyss UK PB, cover by Geoff Taylor

UK paperback, cover by Geoff Taylor

Tallis vows to go into the wood and bring Harry back. Before she can do this, though, she must complete her education in the strange wood and its ways, learning its stories and the secret names of the fields, stones, trees and pathways that she’ll have to use to enter it. Guided by a trio of hooded, masked women who emerge like shadows from the trees to whisper fragmentary tales, Tallis — who in this first half of the book resembles the semi-feral young girl from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” — is basically undergoing a shamanic initiation into the ways of working a mythago-rich world. Under the three women’s guidance, Tallis makes masks and dolls, and learns to use them to open ‘Hollowings’ into the mythago-reality that surrounds Ryhope Wood.

When a book starts with the initiation and education of a young woman into the secret magic world surrounding her, and with her learning to master her own burgeoning power to interact with and control that secret magic, you can’t help but expect a coming-of-age narrative, a sort of twiggy, muddy Harry Potter with masks instead of wands and a vast, stinking, bellowing monster stag called Broken Boy instead of Hedwig the Owl. But once Tallis enters the wood (sooner than she’d hoped for, and breaking a promise to her father as she does), the book jumps ten years, and when we next see her, she’s a grown woman, scarred, lost, and carrying the remains of her dead child.

This is no coming-of-age tale. It’s a book about what (it’s suddenly obvious) Mythago Wood was also about, only, with that book, it was easy not to see it because of the wonder of entering the depths of Ryhope Wood for the first time, and the danger and excitement of that brother-versus-brother adventure story. Both are books about loss, and in its second half Lavondyss is relentless in its exploration of loss, broken promises, and failed intentions. And if you think about it you can see that loss is rooted deep in the very idea of the Ryhope Wood books, in the idea of the mythagos themselves, for mythagos are the ghosts of myths: the lingering never-never remnants of the desperate hopes of past ages. In Lavondyss, mythagos are what remain after the loss of loved ones, or the loss of hope. But mythagos offer no comfort. They’re too brutal and strange. (Still, the humans cling to them as a way to undo loss, by remaking, in mythago-form, what was lost — as with Christian Huxley, in Mythago Wood, journeying into Ryhope in search of a new version of his dead mythago wife Guiwenneth, or, in this book, the half-mythago Morthen saying, after she loses her brother and first love: ‘He’s dead… Now I shall return to my father. From his own first forest I shall find my brother once again…’ But it’s always a forlorn and futile hope.)

Lavondyss is also about art. Tallis’s shamanic initiation can be seen as the birth of an artist. What Tallis-as-artist must understand is that the stories she learns aren’t playthings, but sacred truths which have to be treated with reverence. Speaking of her cache of folklore, she says:

‘It all belongs to me, yes. But it has been passed on to me by someone… Someone else owned the stories first. I mustn’t try to tamper with them. They’re only partly mine, and in any case they are only mine for a while…’

The contrast between art that is treated with reverence — with ‘the unknowing knowing that is at the heart of magic’ — and the latterday remnants that litter the culture with hollow relics of once-true tales, is brought out in the folk rituals of Tallis’s home village:

‘There is no magic left in the festive practices of Oxford, or Grimley, or whatever — the Morrismen and Mummers — no magic unless the mind that enacts the festival has a gate opened to the first forest…’

That ‘first forest’ is Lavondyss, ‘the unknown region’, ‘the place where the spirit of man is no longer tied to the seasons’, ‘the way home’, the depths of the human mind. It is:

‘…both the desired realm, or the most feared realm; the beginning place or the final place; the place of life before birth, or life after death; the place of no hardship, or the place where life is tested and transition from one state of being to another is accomplished. Such a realm would appear to exist in the heartwoods…’

For Harry Keeton, it’s a place of healing, but it’s not going to heal him simply by removing his scars. It’s not a place you come away from without being utterly changed. It’s a place where you must be unmade before you can be remade. It’s where myths are born, and myths aren’t created by human beings when they’re happy. They’re created out of situations of desperation, and it’s just such a situation that we see when Tallis finally finds her way there.

After which she says:

‘I feel violated, consumed; yet I feel loved.’

And it’s far easier to feel that ‘violated’ and ‘consumed’ than it is to feel the ‘loved’.

Lavondyss illustration by Alan Lee

illustration by Alan Lee

Lavondyss is a far more challenging book than I had expected the first few times I read it. The signs for the sort of book it is are certainly there in Mythago Wood, but it wasn’t till now, on what must be my third or fourth read, that I’ve finally been able to see them. Now I can see it’s a book that’s more similar to, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, than the sort of fantasy book I was expecting.

And that’s certainly set me up for going ahead with the other books in the series. The question is, having taken his series so quickly to such heights of intensity, where can Holdstock go from here?

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

cover illustration by Jim Kay

Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s been through it before, and both she and he talk as if this were just one more round of treatments, horrible to go through, but necessary to get her better again. Only, the treatments aren’t working and she’s not getting better. Meanwhile, Conor is being bullied at school, something he endures so stoically it’s almost as if he welcomes the punishment, and also has to put up with being looked after by his grandmother, a busy, efficient and scrupulously tidy woman not used to having to deal with a troubled boy.

And Conor is troubled. He’s wilfully isolated at school and hopeless about the future. He knows, deep down, what’s going to happen to his mother, and knows it will mean he’ll either have to live with his grandmother, whom he hates, or his divorced father, who’s far more interested in the new family he’s started in America.

And then, to top it all, Conor is visited by a monster. Woken in the darkest hour from a recurring nightmare, he sees the yew tree from the graveyard at the back of his house form itself into a monster and come to stand outside his bedroom window.

It’s not there to frighten him, though. It’s there to help him. Only, not in an easy or obvious way:

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley… I will come to you again on further nights… And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before… And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.

The stories the monster tells are far from comforting. And after each telling, Conor finds himself landed with some massive inconvenience to have to deal with, like a floor covered in twigs or yew-berries. (It gets much worse later on.)

A Monster Calls coverI found A Monster Calls an utterly compelling read. Patrick Ness (working from an idea from author Siobhan Dowd) follows Conor into some pretty dark, uncomfortable situations, and part of the compulsion in reading is to see how Ness deals with what is, after all, an awful situation. It’s obvious there’s no magic waiting in the wings to cure Conor’s mother. So how can it be turned into a story that ends in anything but despair?

Most of the trouble in the story is caused by the fact that nobody can come out and admit that Conor’s mother is dying — not Conor, not his mother, not any of the largely well-meaning but helpless adults — but then again, who could? It is, then, ultimately a story about having to face a cold, brutal, and unavoidable truth when you’re the only person who can force yourself to face it.

There’s something a little Pan’s Labyrinth about A Monster Calls. In both, we have a young protagonist — thirteen years old in the case of Conor O’Malley, about eleven in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia — visited by a monster on three significant occasions, each time with a challenge (or, in Conor’s case, a story, which are all pretty challenging). Both Conor and Ofelia are in similar situations, each having only one proper parent — and a sick one, at that — whose sickness puts their child in the care of a less-than-satisfactory replacement (Conor’s grandmother, Ofelia’s stepfather). In both, there’s a feeling that not only is the child protagonist on the verge of adolescence, but are also about to be abruptly exposed, with no parental protection, to a grim and uncaring world.

In mixing very fairy-tale like fantasy with brutal reality, both Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls seem to be asking what use the happily-ever-after promises of fairy tales can be in such an un-fairy-tale-like world that contains things like fascism and cancer. In both cases, though, stories are seen as vital ways of learning to adjust to that reality, never as a means of escape or retreat from it.

Early on in A Monster Calls, the monster says:

Stories are the wildest things of all… Stories chase and bite and hunt.

And I found myself thinking, at first, this was just the sort of thing writers like to write about their art, but was it merely self-congratulatory rhetoric and hand-waving sorcery, or was it true?

A Monster Calls, US coverCertainly, a story like this — a story nobody forced me to read, and which I happily and hungrily devoured on my own — can take you into some pretty uncomfortable situations, ones you wouldn’t leap into cold. So, reading A Monster Calls really did feel, at times, like riding a wild rapid, being jolted and knocked at every bend, with the very real-seeming threat of being completely thrown.

What kept me reading was, I suppose, the promise the monster made — ‘And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.’ — and my wanting to know what the fourth story, that truth, would or even could be. It was the very uncompromising nature of the book, and how it dealt with the situation of a young teen faced with his mother’s terminal illness, that compelled me to read. Had Patrick Ness at any point shied from being as unflinching as he was, I might easily have lost faith in the book. As it was, I think the result was spot on.

One thing I was glad to note was how the monster introduced himself:

I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!

Good to see the Deer-antlered One is still plying his weird, wild trade with Britain’s youth!

Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Sphinx by David Lindsay (cover)I was doing some research into David Lindsay’s third novel, Sphinx (published in 1923) — whose title refers to a fictional piece of piano music composed by a fictional composer, Lore Jensen, that’s played early on in the book — when I found that there actually was a piano piece of that name, published in 1908, fifteen years before Lindsay’s novel, and so quite possibly still in circulation at the time the book was written. I’m certainly not going to make the case that Lindsay must have known about it, or that it might have played some part in inspiring his novel (in which the fictional piano piece is mostly there to spark off a conversation about the book’s themes), but it’s fun to explore the possibility, largely because of one further coincidence I’ll come to in a moment.

The real-life 1908 “Sphinx” was composed by Cyril Scott (1879–1970), who was considered by some to be ‘in the forefront of modern British composers’ in ‘the first quarter of the last century’ (the quote is from this 2005 article), though after the Second World War he seems to have drifted from favour. One speculation is that Scott, being continentally-educated and more modernistically-inclined, didn’t fit in with the emerging idea that English music should be about English-educated composers reworking native folk themes.

Cover to score for Cyril Scott's SphinxAnother possibility is Scott’s interest (like many artists and writers of the early 20th Century, such as Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle) in the occult and supernatural. Some of his works, such as his 1917 opera The Alchemist, and his 1932 ballet based on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, reveal this interest, and he also wrote books on these (and other) subjects. This is something that fell out of fashion in post-WWII culture, and may have had a distancing effect on the critical elite.

Scott’s interest in metaphysics was sparked by the pianist Evelyn Suart, who was a Christian Scientist, and who championed his work, premiering many of his pieces, and who introduced him to his publisher. (Scott published a lot of miniature pieces for piano, of the sort that people at the time bought as, later in the century, they’d buy singles. His producing what might have been seen as populist, commercial work is cited as another potential reason for his disfavour in the post-WWII years.)

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Suart. (Thanks to Séan Martin for pointing out my previous error in calling her Evelyn Stuart.)

In Lindsay’s novel, the short piano piece is described as follows:

‘It was what used to be called a “tone-poem,” a work built round a single central idea. Evelyn evidently found its freshness attractive, for she played it with far greater sympathy and feeling than either of the Chopin pieces. Despite her protestation, she made no obvious blunders. It was quite short, in length a mere trifle, but after the first minute Nicholas grew interested and impressed. The opening was calm, measured and drowsy. One could almost see the burning sand of the desert and feel the enervating sunshine. By degrees the theme became more troubled and passionate, quietly in the beginning, but with a gradually rising storm—not physical, but of emotion—until everything was like an unsteady sea of menace and terror. Towards the end, crashing dissonances appeared, but just when he was expecting the conventional climax to come, all the theme-threads united in a sudden quietening, which almost at once took shape as an indubitable question. It could then be seen that all that had gone before had been leading the way to this question, and that what had appeared simple and understandable had been really nothing of the sort, but, on the contrary, something very mysterious and profound. . . . Half a dozen tranquil and beautiful bars brought the little piece to a conclusion. . . .’

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Cyril Scott’s “Sphinx” (Opus 63) is similar in many ways. It’s reasonably short, as classical music goes (4 minutes, 27 seconds in Michael Schäfer’s recording, available digitally from Amazon UK and US), it opens quietly — in a way that immediately reminded me of the opening of one of my favourite pieces of creepy film music, Christopher Young’s spine-tingling end theme to Hellraiser — gradually rises in both intensity and dissonance (‘Mysteriously, and sustained’, the score says), then lapses back to its initial quietude.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Lindsay was thinking of Scott’s real piece when he was writing about Lore Jensen’s fictional one — his description, after all, is a pretty obvious structure for any piece of short, mysterious music — but reading Lindsay’s prose, and listening to Scott’s composition, it’s easy to imagine it leaving you with the sense of “an indubitable question”, even if the question is only, “Did David Lindsay know this music?”

The novels Lindsay published during his lifetime have been in the public domain since 2016. After thinking someone, surely, would bring the more obscure ones out as ebooks, I gave up waiting and this week published Sphinx on Kindle and other ebook formats. Hopefully this will help make the rest of Lindsay’s work, other than just his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus, accessible to a wider readership.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Gollancz hardback, illustration by Eddi Gornall

Mythago Wood feels like a grown-up version of those ‘folk fantasy’ YA books from the late 60s/early 70s, like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Stag Boy and The Owl Service, with their rural settings, and their interaction between modern protagonists and figures from British folklore. Like the best of these, Mythago Wood is an exploration of the wild, transformative power still to be found in ancient myths. It’s a book that also seems perfectly designed to do away with any debate as to whether the fantastical elements in its story are real or a projection of the main character’s psychology. In Mythago Wood, the fantastical elements are real because they emerge from the deepest areas of the main characters’ psyches.

The book begins with Steven Huxley returning to his childhood home after convalescing for over a year in France, having been wounded while serving in the Second World War. Oak Lodge was where he grew up with his older brother Christian, his mother (until her early death), and his father, George Huxley, a distant, driven man who seemed to regard his family as nothing but ‘an intrusion in his work’. That work centred on studying and exploring nearby Ryhope Wood, a patch of ancient forest that, though barely six miles in circumference, Huxley could nevertheless lose himself inside for weeks at time. But now George Huxley is dead, and Christian writes to Steven, asking him to come back home, and adding that he has recently married. Steven returns to Oak Lodge expecting to meet his brother’s new wife, but instead is told she has ‘gone’ (Christian refuses to explain further), and that Christian himself has become deeply involved in continuing their father’s work.

Mythago Wood first appeared as a novella in F&SF. Cover by Barbara Berger.

As his brother spends more and more time delving into Ryhope Wood, Steven reads their father’s journal and learns, finally, what the old man’s obsession was all about. Ryhope Wood breeds what George Huxley called ‘mythagos’, a portmanteau of ‘myth’ and ‘imago’ (the final, adult stage an insect attains after its early-life transformations). Mythagos are, in effect, physical embodiments of ancient myth-forms — walking, talking beings from the real and often ancient past, evoked from an interaction between a modern human being and the ‘ley matrix’ of the ancient wood. And mythagos are not only people: buildings, rivers, boats, entire tribes and villages can be created/recreated through the mythago process. In fact, whole landscapes can be evoked within the confines of Ryhope Wood, which is why George Huxley, and now Christian, can disappear inside it for weeks, even months, at a time.

I love Holdstock’s idea of the mythago, the way it mixes ancient myth and modern science, bringing in very 20th century concepts like relativity (the random-access time stream of the mythagos is no objective, linear progression, but an entirely subjective interweaving of past and present), and quantum uncertainty (in the way that an observer can’t help but impact on what he or she observes — the exact form of a mythago is swayed by the hopes and fears of the individual who makes it appear, meaning no mythago is a pure embodiment of its originating myth, but is corrupted by what George Huxley calls ‘ego’s mythological ideal’). But mythago-creation is a two-way process. Interaction with myth entangles you in that myth. You can’t help but play a part in it. And, just as in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, a myth can all too often be brutal and unforgiving of its players.

Suppressed family tensions are bubbling up through the Huxleys’ mythago-formation processes. The father was obsessed with finding what he thought of as the ‘primal’ myth-form, the originating mythago behind all the others. He never succeeded, but after his death, Ryhope Wood is haunted by a giant human-animal hybrid, the Urscumug, which becomes, to the Huxley brothers, the ghost of the father’s dominating, forbidding, and darkly possessive presence. Meanwhile, Christian, who’s fallen a little too much under the father’s shadow, reveals that the new wife he wrote to Steven about was in fact the mythago of a Bronze-age warrior princess, Guiwenneth, evoked from the wood’s ‘ley matrix’ by their father. Both father George and son Christian fell in love with her, and Christian’s main reason for taking up his father’s studies is to find her once again, or to evoke her, in a new mythago form, for himself. To this end, he enters the woods for what turns out to be, in the skewed faerie-style timestream of the heartwoods, years for him, though only months pass in the outside world. He returns from his unsuccessful quest a much older man, grizzled with bitterness and disappointment, transformed, now, into one of the wood’s own myth-forms: the Outlander, the outsider who comes marauding, reaving, terrorising. Christian has become a dark figure, leading a band of violent men in an endless cycle of rapine and plunder, always seeking his lost Guiwenneth, but ever more divorced from any feelings of love he might once have had for her; now, he’s ruled simply by the need to possess.

Steven, meanwhile, gets his own Guiwenneth, his own mythago wife, once he begins to evoke presences from the wood. But when Christian returns, and takes her from him, back into the wood, Steven must follow, must become entangled in this mess of myth and reality, and take on his own role in the myth of the Outlander.

I have to say that Steven, though he’s the protagonist, is the one element of the book I find disappointing. His responses are all a little too young-male-hero conventional, particularly in a book which evokes such subtleties of psychology in its other characters. Assuring Guiwenneth that nothing can ever part them may be forgivable, if a little tiresome, but when she’s taken from him and he goes after her with nothing but a hotheaded belief that his being morally right will somehow assure him victory — even though he’s just been thoroughly trounced by his brother, has no ability as a warrior, and will be totally outnumbered — it simply seems like stupidity on his part.

But despite this, Mythago Wood works. And it works for two main reasons. The first is the strength and originality of the main idea of the mythagos, one that seems — like those rare few other books (Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, William Mayne’s A Game of Dark) which don’t merely rewrite the same old fantasy clichés but address the very nature of imagination, myth and reality — to be a genuine maturation of the genre, and to be saying something vital and true about what it means to be human. The other is Holdstock’s ability to bring snapshots of the ancient past alive in so many tiny, inconsequential but telling details — an expressive hand gesture from Guiwenneth, or the fact that she dismisses anything remotely technological as ‘Roman’, the peculiar details of a tribe’s burial ritual or its shaman’s body decorations, the smell of an iron-age warrior — it’s obviously something he has a real feel for. In Holdstock’s hands, myth, and the past, are brutal, muscular, smelly, and full of wild irrationalities that are never explained, but which only make them seem that much more real.

Of those 70s YA ‘folk fantasy’ books I compared it to, perhaps Mythago Wood is closest to The Owl Service, though that book is far more intense in its exploration of how a single location, and a single myth, can take its grip on three emotionally charged adolescents. And Mythago Wood is not about a specific myth, but myth in general, how myths are created to express the hopes and fears of people in desperate times, and how even ancient myths can become commanding, living presences, with personal meanings, and how human individuals can be subsumed by, and their stories swayed by, myths, just as myths, in each telling, are skewed and swayed by their teller.

Mythago Wood remains one of my favourite novels. So it’s odd that, other than its sequel, Lavondyss, I never worked my way through the whole series, though that’s something I’m planning on doing this year.