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.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

After the full-on fantasy of his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (a trilogy to be completed later this year), Alan Garner’s subsequent two novels saw a reining in of fantastical elements, as well as a much sparser approach to writing, with description so cut back, at times we’re left with nothing but unattributed dialogue. Elidor (1965) still features a trip to another world, enchanted artefacts, and a unicorn, but in The Owl Service (1967), the fantastical is more about a force shaping earthly events into an age-old mythical pattern than explicit magic (though there are few poltergeist-like phenomena to let us know just what sort of a power we’re dealing with).

You might be forgiven for thinking, from its title, The Owl Service perhaps influenced a certain aspect of the Harry Potter novels. I certainly imagined, before I read it, that it would feature scenes of owls swooping into rooms delivering important messages about magical things to breathless teens — but the “service” of the title in fact refers to a dinner service, a set of plates patterned with a design which at first glance appears to be flowers, but which can also be seen as owls. (This is an actual dinner service Garner’s mother-in-law discovered, and which is reproduced in the book.)

A set of plates? It might sound a disappointing basis for a fantasy novel, but Garner’s book is all about the meeting of the mundane and the mystical/mythical, the way an ancient story can overwrite everyday reality, forcing it towards potentially tragic ends.

The Owl Service, cover by Alan Lee

The link between owls and flowers is the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman created out of flowers at the behest of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Although created for him, Blodeuwedd turns out to have a mind (and heart) of her own, and falls in love with Gronw Pebr instead. Gronw kills Lleu; Lleu is resurrected and kills Gronw; then Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl for her part in her husband’s murder. This is the pattern of events that, building up in a static-like charge around one particular house in an isolated Welsh valley, seeks to impose its tragedy on a trio of youngsters once every generation. The “Owl Service” of the title, the plates with the flowers/owls design, was one particular generation’s attempt to trap or divert the energy of the myth away from an actual murder. It failed, and the events of the novel are heavy with the never-to-be-spoken-of tragedy of the previous generation. And of course the very keeping of that secret only serves to make it more likely to play out again, as, in The Owl Service, we get to see how a contemporary (mid-1960s) trio of teens, two English and middle-class comfortably-off, one Welsh and poor, deal with it.

The writing style, with its cut-back descriptions and dialogue free of any sort of adjectival prompting, means you, as the reader, have a little bit more work to do than in the average novel. This quickly proves to The Owl Service‘s advantage, though, as that little bit extra work creates a great deal more emotional investment. (I could hear the voices of the characters far better than in most novels.) Garner trusts his readers to be as sensitive and intelligent as he is about the micro-politics and emotional tussles of a small household held back by a little bit too much English reserve and oppressive class-consciousness. It also means that, when something strange happens, you often end up doing a double-take — did what I think happened really just happen? — which is of course what the characters are thinking, too.

Although it’s quite a short novel, it builds its power gradually, leaving it right to the end to resolve — something I loved in Elidor, and which worked only a little bit less effectively here. The sense of the tragedies of the past — both the ancient, mythical past, and that of the previous generation — weighing in on the innocents of the present, at the very moment they lose their innocence, and the horror of their inability to see just how they’re being twisted into playing parts in an ancient tragedy, creates a tight drama using only a few characters that nevertheless feels as though it’s reaching epic depths.

Garner is, along with Robert Holdstock, one of the few writers I know to really capture the dark, barbarous, wild side of the mythical imagination, to write about the way myths and stories really can affect us to the core, modern-minded though we are. Both writers also have a strong sense of the landscape they’re writing in, how it surrounds, traps, inspires, enchants, and shapes the characters within it. Despite the sparse descriptions, something in The Owl Service made me feel that this was very much a landscape I knew, which is something that’s always made me connect with a book (or film — it’s partly why I love 70s Brit horror and Doctor Who) that much more.

Of Garner’s later work, I’ve only read Thursbitch, an adult novel which is even more cut-back in its descriptions, and even more intense in its tying together events past and present, people and the landscape they move through. I can’t work out why I haven’t read more of his work. I certainly intend to.