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.

Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)

The Visitor by Josephine Poole

Jacket by Gabriel Lisowski

The mysterious Mr Bogle arrives in Cormundy Village to perform some ‘light tutoring’ duties for fifteen-year-old Harry Longshaw, who (as with other protagonists of children’s fiction, like Marianne in Marianne Dreams and Henry in The Night-Watchmen) is out of school recovering from a fever that (like Mark in Marianne Dreams and Colin in The Secret Garden) has left him with difficulties walking. Harry and his older sister Margaret live alone (their parents being dead) at a large house called Fury Wood, which they’re about to sell, as Margaret is marrying Rupert Musgrave, a young man newly moved into the village, who has plans to revive its farms and mills with new machinery and modern methods. Harry takes an instant dislike to Mr Bogle, with his goat’s foot inkstand and coat of tabby-cat fur, and who claims to have a scholarly interest in witches. Bogle says Fury Wood is built on land where, long ago:

‘The trees were cut down and burnt, and the spring filled in; that was the usual procedure when they were mopping up witchcraft.’

When not tutoring Harry, Mr Bogle is not exactly to be found doing local research. Instead, he’s seen dancing the ancient Horn Dance in the local square, a ludicrous-looking performance (to Harry’s eyes, anyway) that for some reason fascinates the village adults, the men especially. Later, Bogle urges the village’s out-of-work men into flights of resentful nostalgia with a (surely magical) film show evoking their lost past:

‘And that old school… remember the horseshoes and hopscotch, and a week off from lessons at haymaking time? Are your own kiddies any better for their posh education? It’ll take them away from you in the end, away from the village… But that’s progress, I suppose.’

Inscribed above the fireplace in Harry’s room is a line from Virgil — ‘Arise, thou avenger to come, out of my ashes’ — which Mr Bogle says refers to the execution of the local witches. And it soon becomes obvious he not only believes the ‘avenger to come’ is himself, but that he is not merely the gentleman-scholar he seems:

‘Mr. Bogle frowned and drew the curtain behind him. He disliked the habit of swearing. People were too apt to take his own name in vain.’

I came across mention of this book while looking for reviews and information on William Rayner’s Stag Boy, and found a post at the Whistles in the Wind blog, which mentions The Visitor (released in the UK as Billy Buck, which is what some of the villagers call Mr Bogle), alongside Stag Boy and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (which I reviewed here), all of which were published at the start of the 1970s, and which share a lot of common characteristics. All three, for instance, feature teen protagonists caught in a struggle between the old ways and the new in otherwise quiet English villages. In The Visitor, Rupert says of Cormundy:

‘The village is dead all right, with people out of work, and buildings standing useless and empty. But one rich man could start the ball rolling again…’

Rupert is that rich man, and it’s significant that the final action of the novel takes place before a church where, the next day, Harry’s sister Margaret (representing old village stock) is to marry the forward-thinking Rupert. (Margaret is also linked, through her flower-spotted wedding dress, to the May Queen, thus representing new life and hope in contrast to the village’s wintry despondency.) Mr Bogle, on the other hand, is set to wear the costume of antler-headed Cernunnos in his own secret revival of the Horn Dance pageant, making him yet another character in early 1970s YA fiction to assume stag’s horns, and to revive an ancient festival. Bogle plans to use that pageant, though, as a means of exacting his long-overdue revenge for the burned witches. (Which makes you wonder why he waited so long.)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Stag Boy, where the battle between the old and new is tied up intimately with the teen protagonists’ inner struggles between childhood and adolescence, Harry of The Visitor doesn’t really have an inner struggle going on, and the story isn’t as focused on him as the Lively and Rayner books are on their central characters. In addition, the forces of paganism which, in Hagworthy and Stag Boy, are dangerous and alluring, but which also point towards valuable but little-acknowledged truths about the wider world, are here reduced to nothing more than wrongheaded forces of backwards-thinking superstition. There isn’t the same ambiguity, so The Visitor, for me, doesn’t pack the same inner tussle, the same sense of brushing against wider, weirder, darker truths. Paganism, in The Visitor (aside from the identification of Margaret with the Queen of the May), is simply deviltry by another name, and Mr Bogle, in the end, is a rather pallid Devil.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

However much I’m blown away by the sheer storytelling power of The Lord of the Rings (I think, once The Fellowship of the Ring gets into its stride, that first volume in particular is up there with the greats of pure adventure fiction, like The Lost World, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), when the Ring’s darker, more subtle effects start to make themselves known (particularly in the second part of The Two Towers, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum journeying together) things, for me, step up a notch.

In ‘On Fairy Tales’, Tolkien calls Faerie ‘the Perilous Realm’, and his own most characteristic imaginative creations often have this quality of the ‘perilous’, in being alluring and fascinating, but also subtly dangerous. There are, though, different kinds of ‘perilous’ in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlórien is beautiful-perilous: paradisiacal and peaceful, but hazardous to those who are not pure in heart (‘only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them’ — and who doesn’t bring at least some evil with them?), for they’ll have the darkest recesses of their heart laid bare by the Lady Galadriel. But while Lothlórien’s peril lies in the escape it offers from the world’s cares, Sauron’s Ring (not beautiful-perilous but powerful-perilous) offers a vastly different way of dealing with worldly troubles, the power to control or destroy them, and so is that much readier to draw out the evil from its bearers.

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

It also gives the One Ring not just a magical power in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a literary power in ours: the power to make two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Possessing the Ring, or being tempted to possess it, draws out a character’s flaws and strengths. The simultaneous and contradictory desires to use the Ring’s powers and be free of its burden split characters in two. (At the Grey Havens, Gandalf talks of those hobbits who haven’t borne the Ring as being ‘one and whole’, in contrast to the inner division of those who have.)

When first encountered in The Hobbit, the Ring is simply a magic ring that turns its wearer invisible. But this is just the first stage in an ever more complex relationship between the Ring and its bearer, a tempting invitation to enter its world of power and fulfilment. Preying on the quite natural desire to hide, at times, from others, even in minor ways (Bilbo’s wanting to avoid annoying relatives, Gollum wanting to gather gossip and engage in petty theft), it soon becomes a guilty secret, poisonously entwined with its bearer’s very identity. In the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, ownership of the Ring is all about keeping secrets and not being seen. It isn’t to be named or spoken of, even to one’s closest friends, and the enemy who seeks it is embodied as the most obvious symbol of the opposite of being hidden:

‘The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.’

Gollum, who, like Renfield in Dracula, is the human (or hobbit) summation of the Ring’s powers of degradation, is so sensitive to being seen that he flees the sun and the moon — ‘the Yellow Face’ and ‘the White Face’ as he calls them — because they are, to him, seeing things. It’s as if, despite owning a ring that makes him invisible, he needs to invest the world with watching, knowing eyes as an excuse to escape even further. He hides in the deepest, darkest caves beneath the Misty Mountains because ‘The Sun could not watch me there.’

Similarly, when Frodo is asked to produce the Ring at the Council of Elrond:

‘He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.’

That shame is the result of being seen — and feeling, in the gaze of those who look at you, how far you’ve already been seduced by the Ring’s promises of power.

But what power does the Ring promise? We know destroying it will not only lay waste to all that Sauron has built up, but Lothlórien too, as though the One Ring has power over all that is ‘perilous’, both the beautiful and the powerful, but what actual abilities does it confer on its wielder? As far as I recall, we only get one concrete, though not obvious, example of its use in The Lord of the Rings, immediately after Gollum attacks Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gripping the Ring, Frodo says:

‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

And the next time Gollum touches Frodo, that’s exactly what happens. After biting off Frodo’s finger, Gollum falls into the volcano’s fire pit. Did he trip, or was he obeying Frodo’s final command as Ring-bearer?

But, whatever the details, we know what the Ring’s power ultimately is. The Ring allows you to impose your will on others, and on the world. The Ring allows you to have your own way.

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Gollum is certainly the most interesting character in The Lord of the Rings, if only because he’s the most duplicitous. Thanks to the Ring’s starkly polarising effect, he’s both Gollum and Sméagol (or Slinker and Stinker as Sam has it), always debating with himself, self-divided, and so that much more isolated from the undivided normal people. And while one side of Gollum is drawn to the possibility of trust and fellowship (with Frodo at least, being a fellow victim of the Ring), the other wants to get the Ring back, preferably served with a generous dollop of gleeful revenge.

Fritz Leiber has criticised Tolkien for being ‘not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…’ But it would be fairer to say this is the sort of villainy Tolkien is most interested in — a far more human-level (or hobbit-level) villainy than the vast and abstract evil of Sauron. Sauron, I don’t think, is that interesting, at least in terms of character. (Evil is a diminution of humanity, not a deepening of it.) We get only one direct glimpse of Sauron as an actual person, when Pippin looks into the Orthanc Palantír, and when he speaks he sounds disappointingly formal and suave, like a Dennis Wheatley Satanist:

‘Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’

It is, rather, the effects of evil on lesser, more human, creatures that Tolkien wants to explore:

‘Work of the Enemy!’ said Gandalf. ‘Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.’

And Gollum, being self-divided and at war with himself, is the ultimate vision of what Tolkien is warning against: not an absolute, pure and abstract evil, but a corruption of the soul.

The forces of ‘good’ in The Lord of the Rings are equally human in scale (whether hobbit, elf, dwarf or man). Tolkien’s ‘good’ is about striving towards what is right, with a free and often uncertain will, about doing one’s best and accepting that you may make mistakes. (Frodo at one point says ‘All my choices have proved ill.’ Aragorn says something similar, and both Gandalf and Sam express grave doubts about what they should be doing at key moments.) The true evil of Sauron’s Ring comes from the way it allows its bearer to deny their own humanity, their essential weakness, thanks to its overwhelming power. The Ring is abstract power, and is defeated in the end by the most ‘human’ (fallible, weak, self-doubting, powerless) characters, the hobbits.

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Lord of the Rings is, then, a book in praise of human weakness, and — particularly in the third book, The Return of the King — a sort of paean to endurance in the face of unrelenting despair. A moral, though not a moralistic, book, it’s about the ultimate triumph of ‘Pity, and Mercy’, of ‘understanding, making, and healing’ (which are the aims of the three Elven Rings) as opposed to ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order’ (Saruman’s ‘high and ultimate purpose’), or Sauron’s ‘One Ring to bind them’ totalitarianism. It’s a book that has long outlasted the immediate allegorical interpretations of the age in which it was written (Sauron as Hitler, the Ring as the Atom Bomb) to remain relevant in a world where abstract power has become an end in itself (say anything so long as they vote for you, then do whatever you want once you’re in), and where a whole political class of doubt-inducing Wormtongues and sweet-talking Sarumans seem to have taken over. What we need right now is an Ent or two to tear down a few ivory towers! Or, better still, a Gandalf to offer some withering comments and a little magical, perilous-but-revealing light. If nothing else, at least The Lord of the Rings tells us that we small folk, we hobbits of the human world, can make a difference even in such doubtful times, against such vast odds, in the face of such peril.