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.

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