Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn by Robert Holdstock

2002 Earthlight edition, art by Larry Rostant

First published in the US in 1997 (and in the UK in 1998 as Gate of Ivory), this is the first full-length novel in the Ryhope Wood sequence since 1993’s The Hollowing — and one that, along with Mythago Wood itself and the 1991 novella The Bone Forest, forms a series-within-a-series focusing on the Huxley family. The youngest, Steven, was the protagonist of Mythago Wood; father George was the protagonist of The Bone Forest; here, the main character is Christian, Steven’s elder brother, who in the first novel enters Ryhope in search of the Celtic princess Guiwenneth — or his mythago-version of her, anyway — then returns as an aged and grizzled warrior, leader of a piratical band, and proceeds to hang his younger brother. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn was originally meant to be the story of how Christian became that dark, would-be-fratricidal monster, but, as Holdstock says in his afterword to the Gateways Essentials edition: “In the end, I didn’t take the story as far as originally intended. A deeper and more exotic tale of love and frustration took over” — that tale being the story of Issabeau and the man known throughout most of the novel as Someone Son of Somebody. (A slightly annoying name, as I’d quite often have to go back over a sentence beginning the likes of “Someone touched his right hand to his breast” when I realised the someone referred to wasn’t just someone, but this specific Someone.)

1997 HB from ROC, art by Ron Walotsky

The novel starts out dark enough, with the boy Christian witnessing — and being unable to prevent — his mother’s suicide. Later, once his father disappears into the wood and his younger brother is overseas recovering from the Second World War, Christian encounters the mythago Guiwenneth — at first his father’s version of her, then his own — and, falling in love with her as all the Huxley males seem doomed to, follows her deep into the forest’s mythogenic depths. There, he becomes part, alongside her, of a band of adventurers known as the Forlorn Hope (among whom are the French sorceress and shape-changer Issabeau and the Celtic warrior Someone Son of Somebody). He learns that the Forlorn Hope (whose name made me realise for the first time that Ryhope Wood could be read as “Wry Hope”) is part of a much larger band — or rather, army — known as Legion. Legion is a 4,000-strong gathering of mythagos from the entire mythic spectrum, united by a leader, Kylhuk, as part of his attempt to fulfil a quest he took on as a young man. Cursed by his stepmother to be unable to wed any woman till he has first won the hand of the giant’s daughter Olwen, Kylhuk was given three tasks by Olwen’s father, one of which involved seeking a simple answer from one person, whose whereabouts were only known to one other person, whose whereabouts, in turn, were only known to one other person — on and on, until this quest had come to encompass “a total of thirty-six individual deeds”. Legion, the army Kylhuk has gathered along the way, has expanded into a sort of business, which carries out a constant stream of side-quests to gain favours, achieve sub-aims, or simply to get enough fodder to keep this army of mythagos going — an army that warps the very fabric of reality when it moves.

1998 edition from Voyager, art by John Howe

It’s when the Forlorn Hope rejoin Legion, and Christian gets to meet Kylhuk (whom he met, and was marked by in a mysterious way, as a boy), that the novel has a change in tone unprecedented in any of the Ryhope Wood books: it becomes playful, even funny. But the style of humour fits, because it’s a folkloristic style of humour. The way, for instance, that Kylhuk’s quest to find so-and-so, by way of so-and-so, by way of so-and-so, expands person by person into a virtually lifelong task, is told in the way it would be in a folk tale, as a series of repeated formulas that become humorous through repetition. Or, there’s the way that, when Christian finds himself having to fight a friend and fellow member of the Forlorn Hope after some imagined (and humorous) slight, he argues that yes, the fight should go ahead, but it’s most fitting that it be fought entirely with the feet. Or, a joke on the tangled folklore around King Arthur, when it’s revealed that Uther in fact had three sons, and named them all Arthur, and “because they were identical, their exploits far and wide became known as the exploits of one man only, and Arthur’s name became associated with magical appearances and the ability to ride the length and breadth of Albion in a single night.”

Kylhuk himself is a semi-comic figure. A commanding presence, feared and respected by the mythagos he has gathered around him, he becomes somewhat ridiculous when it’s unintentionally pointed out he’s gained a bit of weight around the middle, and goes into a sulk, claiming to have been insulted, only coming out of it when he finds some fittingly heroic way of going on a diet — which he breaks as often as he can, given the most spurious (but superficially honourable) excuse.

The Hollowing, art by Geoff Taylor

Kylhuk is a kind of figure that’s appeared in the Ryhope Wood sequence before: he reminded me, with his legion of mythagos picked from the entire spectrum of myth, of Jason in The Hollowing, who’d progressed from capturing the Golden Fleece to leading his Argonauts on an endless pillage of all the treasures the many worlds of myth had to offer. Kylhuk isn’t pillaging treasures, but he’s gathering a band around him in a similar way, and has that same singleminded air. He’s nowhere near as dark a figure as The Hollowing’s Jason, though, so to make up for that lack of darkness, Kylhuk gets a rival, Eletherion, another leader of another band, this time a band that is dedicated to plundering — who wants to use the ultimate object of Kylhuk’s quest (locating a man called Mabon, who’s imprisoned near the gates of the Underworld) to enter the Underworld and plunder that most fantastic of realms of its many treasures.

(And I can’t help drawing a sort of parallel between these myth-plundering figures and Holdstock himself. What else is he doing in writing the Ryhope Wood sequence, but making free of the many imaginative riches of myth and folklore, and forming his own bands of plundered heroes from their many worlds, to enact his own singleminded quest — not for treasure, but to write novels.)

Geoff Taylor’s cover for a 2016 Czech edition of Gate of Ivory

The singlemindedness of these figures’ quests, and the way they can darken or dehumanise a character, makes me think that one theme of the Ryhope Wood stories — and in particular those that involve the Huxley family — is masculinity in its darker aspects. George Huxley, the patriarch of the family, is the essence of a domineering masculinity, whose family become not just sidelined by his obsession with Ryhope, but victims of it, as typified most of all by his wife’s suicide, which in the first novel at least seems to be down to Huxley’s emotionally abusive neglect. Each male member of the Huxley family then becomes obsessed with his own version of Guiwenneth — who is, as a mythago, a personally-tailored fantasy, unconsciously designed by each man to encapsulate all the missing femininity he longs for… But who, it’s subtly pointed out, may just be an echo of that initial loss of the wife/mother, Jennifer. (When Christian mentions his mother’s name to the boatman-of-the-dead Elidyr, the man mishears it at first as “Guinevere”, which is just a half step towards “Guiwenneth”.) If the Ryhope Wood sequence is about masculinity, it’s about that part that’s defined by the loss of all that’s centred around the feminine. If the grizzled warrior that Christian becomes in Mythago Wood is grizzled by anything, it’s that loss of, obsessive quest for, and masculine need to control/own, the feminine as represented by Guiwenneth/Jennifer.

But in this novel, Holdstock was perhaps in too good a mood to take Christian all the way down the dark path we know he follows. Unable to give Christian a happy ending, though, he displaces this book’s resolution onto another figure: Someone Son of Somebody, who gained his lack-of-name when his father was killed on the battlefield before being able to name him. Taken away from his mother and left in a sacred grove to fend for himself, he echoes Christian’s lack of a relationship with his distant father, and the loss of his mother. But Someone gets his name in the end, and also gains his love — Issabeau — while Christian, burdened by the role he must play in Mythago Wood, does not.

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is a much less striking novel than the first two. Mythago Wood remains essential for introducing the idea of mythagos, and Lavondyss — the only novel in the series to focus on a female character — remains the most powerful in its exploration of loss, and the stark lengths required to achieve redemption. Holdstock’s imagination now moves with too much momentum to recapture the subtlety of the first novel, and perhaps no-one could be expected to write something as harrowing and redemptive as that second novel twice in a lifetime. Now, I think, the Ryhope Wood books are to be read as grab-bags of ideas, events, images, as opportunities to dwell in this strange realm of the mythic imagination, and experience its many facets, moods, and ways of working. It doesn’t have the same sense, as those first two books did, of raw contact with the sheer unforgiving, starkly inhuman dream-illogic to be found at the deepest roots of myth — but perhaps that can’t be sustained by anyone. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn at least feels like it’s trying out new things (humour), throwing out new images, even if it doesn’t feel like an essential read in the Ryhope Wood sequence.

It certainly doesn’t, to me, feel it’s adding to the characterisation of Christian Huxley, who comes across as pretty much indistinguishable from every other male protagonist of a Ryhope Wood novel — and so doesn’t really fit in with the image of him as presented in Mythago Wood. But perhaps it’s the wrong approach to expect this series, of all series, to be adding up to one single story — rather, each subsequent book is a mythago sprung from the original, and mythagos are individually different, fitting the needs of the person who calls them out of the wood (the needs, in this case, of Holdstock himself as he progresses through his creative career). The Christian of Gate of Ivory, then, is not the Christian of Mythago Wood, but another Christian who grew from the same mythic mulch — and he, unlike that initial Christian, might go on to have a happy ending, or he might not. He might go on to hang his brother, or he might not. All we can know is he was used to tell this story, this time.

There’s one more novel in Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood sequence, Avilion, which I believe revisits Steven from the first novel. I intended, when I reviewed Mythago Wood back in 2017, to work my way through the series as swiftly as I did Le Guin’s Earthsea, or, more recently, the Harry Potter novels. (And it’s odd to think Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn came out in the same year as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.) But I don’t think these books can be read so quickly — at least, not by me. I’ll read Avilion, hopefully soon, but certainly — when the time is right.


Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

1935 HB from Methuen

Stapledon’s third novel, Odd John, began life as an appendix to his second, Last Men in London (1932), a short piece that was called “John’s Story”, which was never published. (In a neat chain effect, Stapledon’s next novel, Star Maker, which he began working on before Odd John was finished, can be linked to this one, as one thing the titular John leaves behind at the end is “an amazing document… purporting to give an account of the whole story of the Cosmos” — a pretty accurate description of Star Maker.)

Odd John (published in 1935) tells the story of the (short) life of John Wainwright. Born to a British GP and his Scandinavian wife after an eleven month gestation (Stapledon makes no mention of how difficult the birth must have been, particularly considering the baby’s outsized head), John proves to be mentally quick but physically slow to develop, in part because his increased brain-power means he has much greater control over his bodily processes. So, we’re told, he “actually had to learn to breathe”, while his walking, when it finally begins, “was probably seriously delayed by [his discovery of] mathematics”. Nicknamed Odd John, he’s obviously physically different, with particularly large eyes and a large head (the cover for the first edition is closely based on Stapledon’s own painting of his protagonist, so, however cartoony it seems, it gives a good idea of how odd Odd John is supposed to look). He is, in fact, an example of Homo Superior, the next stage in human evolution.

1965 Berkley PB, art by Richard Powers

The novel recounts, first of all, John’s self-education and his attempts to understand those peculiar things called human beings he finds himself living among; then, when he realises the differences are too great — when he announces “I’m through with your bloody awful species” — his contacting the few other examples of his own kind, and their attempt to set up a colony on a remote island where they can study, develop, and seek to fulfil their potential away from the judgements, incomprehension, and inevitable conflict with the “sapients” — the rest of humanity.

It’s a very Wyndhamesque novel, though with a colder, more satirical tone. With its tale of strange (bleach-blond, in both cases) children whose evolutionary advancement (or, with Wyndham, alien origin) puts them at odds with the rest of humanity, leading to isolation and eventual conflict, there’s an obvious parallel with The Midwich Cuckoos. But there’s also a touch of The Chrysalids in John’s telepathic reaching out to others of his kind, and with Chocky, too, in the way John’s parents, like Matthew’s in the latter novel, decide not to bring their prodigy of a child to the attention of the authorities, for fear he’ll be taken away and experimented on (and there was me thinking suspicion of governments was a Cold War thing).

E P Dutton HB, 1936

But Odd John is very much a between-the-wars novel. For one thing, there’s its attitude, prevalent among the intellectual circles of the 1930s, that it was nationalism that was to blame for the coming conflict (here, John says: “A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners…”). Its protagonist is also a distinctly pre-Nazi superman, in that Stapledon presents him quite coolly making ethical choices that, a decade later, it would be unthinkable to present without explicit condemnation. In fact, it’s John’s ethics that, to me, stand out as the most evident point Stapledon is making about his “next step” in human evolution. Stapledon’s narrator — in his own words “a rather half-hearted free-lance journalist” and “a very incompetent biographer” — has a tendency to downplay, if not entirely excuse, what are in fact acts of cold-blooded murder, incest, the rape and vivisection of women, and even genocide by either John or his small community of “supernormals”, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way.

Ed Emshwiller cover to Galaxy Publishing edition, 1951

So, what’s going on here, in a book Stapledon subtitled “A Story between Jest and Earnest”? Are we supposed to take John’s occasional and self-justified acts of inhumanity — or, as he sees it, of his true humanity applied to a race (us) that cannot be called fully human — as part of a rollicking adventure, a light jest about a big-brained superman who in earlier chapters dismisses all our science, religion, psychiatry and poetry as the products of a race that’s “not really grown up”? I think, if anything, Stapledon’s calling his novel a “Jest” is defensive — a brush-off in case we really are offended. But what he wants to do is shock us. Stapledon wants us to realise how alien, how inhuman (in our terms), the next stage in evolution might be, and the best way to do that is to present it treating us as though we’re so much less than it, less than its own definition of human.

(Another take is that the narrator — whom Odd John nicknames “Fido” as though to underline how we’re all below his degree of human — may in fact be under some sort of psychic-hypnotic influence. We learn, later in the novel, that John and his fellow supernormals can bamboozle normal humans with the power of their minds, and John wants “Fido” to write his biography — not so we norms can better understand him, but so the next wave of supernormals knows a little more what to expect — so it’s in his interest to downplay the more negative aspects of John’s career. At the same time, John is presented as engaged, curious, open, personable, and even kind, so it’s sometimes hard to equate the persona with the occasional atrocities.)

1978 NEL PB, art by Joe Petagno

What is this next stage of human evolution anyway? Right from the start, John has an ambivalence about not only the life and sufferings of we human beings, but his own, too. He laughs at his own pains and misfortunes, seeing them from a cosmic perspective, even while in the throes of suffering them. This is an attitude found in the more advanced beings in the other two Stapledon novels I’ve covered, Last and First Men and Star Maker, in both of which our more evolved descendants learn to see their tragedies, even their own coming extinction, as necessary events that “deepened and quickened the universe” itself.

Living among the community of supernormals, the narrator is given a glimpse of what Homo Superior (and, presumably, Stapledon) regards as the true measure of an evolved outlook:

“The true purpose of the awakened spirit… is twofold, namely to help in the practical task of world-building, and to employ itself to the best of its capacity in intelligent worship.”

(“Intelligent worship” meaning something like a combination of scientific understanding, philosophical enquiry, and aesthetic wonder.)

Some scenes depicted are not necessarily in the novel… art by Robert Stanley

Meanwhile we humans, who think ourselves so advanced, are seen, by these supermen, as “about as clever along [our] own line as the earliest birds were at flight. [We’re] a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.”

(Elsewhere, Odd John announces that “Homo sapiens is at the end of its tether”, which resonates with H G Wells’s final, despairing end-of-life outburst against a world that had just been through a second World War, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945).)

Odd John received a fair amount of mainstream attention when it was published. (Stapledon seems to have found a position as a sort of public intellectual, perhaps after the model of Wells.) Not all of the reviews were positive, but nevertheless, Odd John was a book everyone felt the need to remark on, even if only to say how odd it was. The Evening Standard made it their book of the month in October 1935, declaring Stapledon “a writer who has one of the deepest and strangest imaginations of our times: perhaps the deepest, perhaps the strangest.”

It perhaps seems less strange today, now we have supermen of all kinds flooding our culture, but the ethical shocks Stapledon delivers through his seemingly so personable and child-like version of the Übermensch are perhaps the thing that gives this novel a lasting place, not just in science fiction, but the culture as a whole.


Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Had Convenience Store Woman (2016 in Japan, English translation 2018) been written eighty years ago, would it have been hailed as a classic of Existentialist literature? It’s narrated by Keiko, a single thirty-six year-old who has been working as a part-time employee at the same convenience store since she was eighteen. Keiko is neuroatypical (a term unavailable to those Existentialist heroes such as Camus’ Mersault) to the extent that most people’s ways don’t make sense to her, so to avoid being singled out and treated as a “foreign object” she has learned to simply adopt others’ behaviours, including their ways of speaking and mode of dress, so as to pass unnoticed, as much as she can.

To this end, working at a convenience store — the highly-regimented Japanese version of one, anyway — is the perfect solution, as the company that runs it supplies employees with a manual that covers everything from personal grooming to what phrases to use when talking to customers. Keiko, then, is in her element there, as it’s a place where it’s completely unambiguous how she should act in every situation. It’s outside the store things are occasionally tricky, but she has managed to fob off her few social contacts when they ask why she’s still single and working in a part-time job — why she’s a “freeter”, to use a term I hadn’t encountered before — with the excuse that she has some vague health problem that makes her too “weak” for a regular job. But then an acquaintance’s husband, meeting Keiko for the first time and hearing this excuse, points out the obvious: if she’s unwell and “weak”, a convenience store is the worst place to work, as she’s on her feet all day.

Keiko realises she’s going to need a new excuse. The solution comes in the form of a character who, in some ways, points to how Keiko’s life could have been had she not chosen to so assiduously fit in. Shiraha starts work at the convenience store but is utterly unsuited to it, and has no intention of adapting to any of its ways. A tall, thin, unkempt man, he makes no bones about finding working in such a place beneath him — while evidently being unable to find anything better — and resents it every time the manager tells him to do something. Shiraha mutters constantly, and quite audibly, how crummy the shop and its workers are, and how wrong it is he should be expected to work there. He constantly harps on about the archetypal “Stone Age”, when men went out to hunt and women stayed at home — sometimes using it as proof that, as a man, he ought to be above working in a convenience store, at other times using it as an explanation for why he is such an outsider, as his life doesn’t fit into the dictates of the mythical Stone Age “village”, and so he’s rejected by society. It’s no surprise, then, when he’s fired from the store — not for slacking, amazingly enough, but for harassing female customers and employees, as he admits to Keiko he only got the job to find a wife, one who could support him in his vague aim of starting an online business.

But where everyone else sees in Shiraha an utter failure, Keiko sees the solution to her problem. If she had a husband, her friends would no longer be asking why she’s working at a part-time job, as it’s a socially acceptable thing for housewives to do. And Shiraha, pretty much homeless and hopeless, is unlikely to get a better offer. He does accept — though in such a grudging way as to make it clear he’s doing her a favour. (Keiko, on the other hand, uses the language of keeping a pet with regard to Shiraha — she talks about his “feed”, when giving him a meal, for instance — her way of adapting to a situation she’s never been in before.) But when she lets drop at the store that she’s now living with Shiraha, things start to change in a way she doesn’t like: her fellow workers suddenly become interested in her as a human being instead of merely a fellow employee, and far from solving her problem, it looks like her carefully balanced mode of life is set to topple completely.

Camus’s Mersault from The Outsider — much more a Shiraha than a Keiko — would never work in a convenience store, and Keiko feels none of the sort of Sartrean “nausea” for normal life that your average Existentialist hero does. She finds it incomprehensible, yes, but sees that incomprehensibility as a practical problem, not a philosophical one. She also seems to have no other priorities. Fitting in has become her entire life, and even her hours outside work are all about preparing for the next day — eating enough, sleeping enough, keeping herself acceptably groomed. When Shiraha appeared in the narrative, I thought he was, basically, her Jungian shadow, openly embodying everything about herself she must be repressing. He’s the embodiment of a stubborn resentment at being expected to fit in, to the extent that he doesn’t even wash frequently. It makes such perfect psychological sense when they move in together, for I can’t help feeling that, deep down in Keiko, there must be some sort of deeply repressed Shiraha of her own.

But Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have that tragic Existentialist-novel ending. Keiko doesn’t share the fate of Camus’ Mersault (executed for displaying such emotional indifference to the death of his mother that everyone assumes he must also be guilty of the murder he’s accused of) but instead might fit into Camus’s interpretation of Sisyphus, whom Camus says we must assume to be happy eternally pushing a rock up a steep incline only to have it roll back down again. In a complex and challenging world, Keiko has found a way of fitting in, despite her inability to understand why her fellow human beings act the way they do. But is her situation one of Existentialist horror — never being truly free — or one of practical choice — even, ultimately, a sort of fulfilment? Her willingness to fit in evolves into a super-sensitive awareness of how her little convenience store world works, until she can respond to its needs instinctively.

Perhaps she can even be read as a sort of Everywoman. Used to consciously adopting others’ behaviours, she’s aware how much everyone else does this, too, though they do it unconsciously. They take on the manner of their social group, they copy one another’s fashion choices, they submit to the way things are without question. At least she’s conscious of these things, even if it’s a consciousness that leaves her puzzled.

In doing the same things — perhaps to greater lengths, but ultimately to the same ends — is Keiko not exercising her Existential freedom? And, doing it consciously, doesn’t that make her that much more an Existential hero?

I don’t know what Sartre or Camus would have made of it, but unlike Camus’ The Outsider, this is no great work of despair about the human condition. Keiko comes to a sort of fulfilment, in recognising that she has, indeed, won for herself a genuine relationship in a life otherwise marked by estrangement and incomprehension. Not her relationship with Shiraha, but with that other living being she understands so much better, and which serves her as much as she serves it: the convenience store.