Merlin’s Wood by Robert Holdstock

UK paperback. Art by Geoff Taylor.

Merlin’s Wood, a novella first published in 1994 in the collection of the same name, is listed by its publisher Gollancz as being part of Holdstock’s mythago series. Before reading it, I found some people saying it shouldn’t be considered part of the series, but the reason given — that it’s not set near Ryhope Wood (it’s set in Brittany, by the forest of Brocéliande, where the wily Vivien was said to have trapped Merlin once she’d learned enough of his magic) — didn’t seem convincing. I’d be happy for the mythago series to leave Ryhope Wood and explore other areas of mythago generation. But now, having read the novella, I think there are better reasons for excluding it from the series.

It starts with a young Sebastian Laroche urging his brother Martin to join him on the path around Brocéliande because there are ghosts on it. It’s an accepted piece of local lore that children can see these ghosts. Sebastian, though, takes things further, and dances his way into one of them. There, he can hear its thoughts and feel its feelings, and it’s scared, this ghost, and keeps looking behind, back along the path, as if being pursued.

Time passes. Martin, now grown up and a designer in Amsterdam, returns to the farm where he grew up. He’s there to bury his mother. His father died some time ago, his brother Sebastian died as a child, soon after dancing through those path-walking ghosts. There’s one other member of the family, Rebecca, adopted by the Laroches as a thirteen-year-old shortly before Sebastian’s death. As an adult, she moved to Australia, trying to learn more about an almost magical power of song she has. Now she returns, and she and Martin, who had, unbeknownst to their parents, become lovers in their young adulthood, resume their relationship. The farm has been left to them, though under the stipulation they sell it and move away from the forest, which Martin’s mother believed was dangerous for her children. Instead, they marry and settle down to live by Brocéliande.

French edition. Art by Arnaud Crémet.

Soon they have a child. Born deaf and blind, Daniel nevertheless seems able to hear his mother’s singing, and is soon singing himself. Nobody pays attention to the fact that Rebecca’s singing then dries up — until her sight begins to fade while Daniel starts to see.

One of the reasons I feel this novella doesn’t belong in a series with Mythago Wood is what happens when Rebecca’s song, then sight, then hearing start to fade. Martin takes her to a medical specialist at “the National Institute for Parapsychology”. When we later meet the local priest, Father Gualzator, we hear him talking of “the Church and the Hill”, which seem to be two separate but related aspects of the local religion, one Christian, one pagan. Both details point to this not being our world, or the otherwise identical-to-ours world of Mythago Wood. It seems to be a world where something of pagan worship, and perhaps a little of pagan magic, are an accepted, if not common, part of everyday life.

The other reason for excluding Merlin’s Wood from the mythago series is that there are no mythagos in this story. There are ghosts of the past — or, if not ghosts, at least insubstantial things, quite different to the very physical embodiments of myth that emerge from the depths of Ryhope Wood. A lot of Merlin’s Wood feels similar to the sort of woody, earthy, stone-age-to-dark-age magic of the mythago books, but at the same time it’s too different to really fit that series. (It might fit better with the world of Holdstock’s earlier novel, Necromancer.)

Czech cover.

There are artistic connections, though. Like the second mythago book, Lavondyss, this is a narrative with sudden, traumatic breaks. Shortly after the Rebecca/Daniel portion of the novella hits its climax, the narrative is handed over to a completely different character, and we get Merlin telling us the tale of his relationship with Vivien — or Vivyana, Ivanyavok, Evunna, Evye, whose name, in whatever form, means “Vision of Magic”. Vivien wanted to learn magic, and she and Merlin became lovers. It’s a bizarre story, set in a world of ancient sorcery, full of the sort of barbarically weird images so unique to Holdstock’s imagination:

“The lakes were so cold that in each one of them a hundred human bodies floated, half-way down, dead yet still alive, suspended from the process of living by the ice. The magic men of the region, the shamans, swam among them naked, feeding on the faint echoes of memory in the drowned, learning past truths to aid their own journeys to the underworld.”

One day Merlin realises that, however well they’re getting on now, Vivien will not be satisfied till she’s taken his magic for herself. So he takes steps, separating his magic from himself and setting it wandering the paths around Brocéliande in the form of human-like shadows — the ghosts that modern-day children will later see. Then the fight is on, and Vivien buries him in a shaft in the earth, capped by a stone cairn. From that moment, the two become a corruption at the heart of the wood:

“Yes, something lay rotting at the heart of the forest, a death that had been known for generations. It was a decaying place, shedding ghosts like autumn leaves.”

The battle for Merlin’s magic continues to influence the human life around it throughout the generations. The pair fight through others, blighting countless ordinary lives by forcing them to enact the tug-of-power between these ancient enchanters.

Another French cover.

Perhaps the best comment I’ve found on this novella is by Dave Langford, who writes of the narrative being “distorted by its weight of undeserved loss and inaccessible healing”. Lavondyss, too, dealt with an almost immeasurable sense of loss, and an almost inhuman path back to redemption. Here, in this much shorter narrative, the sense of breakage when the human world is invaded by the mythic is almost offhand, and the promised resolution is too remote. (At the end, Merlin seems to be offering to set things right, but is too casual when he says how long it will take: “Six months, six years, six thousand years”, it makes little difference to this almost inhuman being.)

There are undoubted moments of imaginative brilliance in this novella, such as this, from early on in Merlin’s tale:

“You may not be aware of it, but there is a bone in every human body which, when broken, begins the passage of time. For most of you, this bone is broken in the womb and soon dissolved. Rarely, it remains unbroken for centuries without end.”

2009 edition.

But at the same time, it’s hard to work out what to make of this story on a more human level. I feel inclined to reach for the same solution as I did with The Bone Forest: this is a tale about its own creative process. Like the image of the children dancing through ghosts at the start of it, and “the idea that to dance inside the ghostly figures from Brocéliande was to become possessed by some shadow of the past”, here, perhaps, Holdstock is allowing himself to become possessed by an imaginative figure, his version of Merlin, and to write Merlin’s tale as Merlin would tell it, so immersed in magic he doesn’t see things as humans do.

One of the things I liked so much about Mythago Wood was the slow revelation of what was going on inside the wood, Steven’s gradual understanding of what these bizarre beings from the past who stepped from the wood really were. Increasingly, throughout the series (and here, outside the series), Holdstock’s imagination has become wilder and more brutal, less inclined to that sort of measured build-up, and given to jarring narrative breaks that damage his human characters perhaps too much. I’m determined to finish the mythago books, but I’m wondering if they haven’t already gone too far from what I most liked about the early two, and whether the rest will be as fulfilling.

Comments (2)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Sounds bonkers – but also kind of interesting? I’m especially intrigued by the section told from Merlin’s pov!

    I can see some corollaries with the plot of Mythago Wood (ie, two brothers, one of whom disappears from the other’s life, a mysterious, supernatural wood) but some of the plot lines in the book itself also seem to mimic one another – e.g. the Rebecca/Daniel storyline and the Merlin/Vivien storyline both seem to revolve around a zero sum game in which, for one person to benefit, the other must lose. Or maybe the whole point of the Rebecca/Daniel storyline is to foreshadow how Vivian’s gain is Merlin’s loss, when there’s no reason why this should be the case?

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    One of the things that made this novella hard to like was just how despairing the Rebecca/Daniel storyline was. It felt very much “when there’s no reason why this should be the case”. Why did it have to happen? Which reminds me, that’s what Holdstock says myths are for (in one of the earlier books): to deal with such unanswerable questions, to face up to such despairing situations. But it’s a very hard thing to read and not feel you’ve just had this lump of raw pain thrown at you. Lavondyss managed it, but I think this one didn’t.

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