Avilion by Robert Holdstock

Published in 2009, Avilion is the last in Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series, coming out twenty five years after the book that started it all. Yet it’s the most direct sequel to Mythago Wood so far, with a return to the story of that novel’s protagonists Steven and Guiwenneth. Its focus, though, is on the couple’s children, Jack and Yssobel.

At the end of Mythago Wood, Steven settled in a valley near the heart of the forest, awaiting Guiwenneth’s return. Now we find him still there, living in the somewhat-repaired ruins of a Roman villa with Guiwenneth, their two children, and a few others who have wandered by and ended up staying. Steven, of course, is human, while Guiwenneth is a mythago. Their children, then, are half-human, half-mythago — half of the strange, magical wood, half not. Both children are intensely aware of this. Yss calls them her “red” and “green” sides; Jack comes to think of them as the human and the “Haunter”. The “green side”, as Yss calls it, is “the side that calls the strongest; and when it calls, you have no resistance to it.” Both feel an obsessive draw, just as a mythago does to the story-pattern of its originating myth. Yss feels it for the centre of the wood, for the region of Lavondyss, which she has named Avilion; Jack, on the other hand, is drawn to the edge, to the world of humans, to Oak Lodge where his father grew up. Both also catch glimpses of family mythagos: Jack sees his grandfather George Huxley, whose scientific mind means he cannot help being aware that he is a mythago; Yss glimpses what she calls the “resurrected man”, whom she and Gwin come increasingly to realise is Steven’s brother Christian. Yss is intrigued by this figure, but Gwin is horrified. Christian is “The man who stole me! The man who raped me! The man who sent his guard to kill me!” When a small portion of the travelling mega-army Legion passes by, Gwin tags along, knowing this is how she’ll find Christian and get her revenge for what was done to her. Yss then leaves to find her mother, knowing she’ll do so in Avilion. Jack, who has ventured out to Oak Lodge, turns back to the woods, intent on bringing back his sister.

Geoff Taylor cover

Holdstock, I think, also has his “red” and “green” sides. Mythago Wood was narrated by the “red” side, viewing Ryhope Wood’s strangeness from from the perspective of Steven, who was having to learn how it all worked. Its plot was a quest plot, driven by love and revenge, and the narrative felt straightforward, following a relatively conventional story logic. Some of the later books, though, like The Hollowing or the novella The Bone Forest, seem more written by the “green” side, full of a constant stream of weird events, coming almost too fast to process them or find a stable narrative, so that it’s the onrush of strangeness and savagery that impresses, rather than narrative coherence. I think that, in Avilion, he’s found a more easily readable balance between these two sides. There’s still the strangeness, the wood-myth-logic of this unstable world, where the land can shift and a forest rise up from a lake, or an army emerge from the ground, but the narrative feels a bit more follow-able. There’s something a little calmer, less intensely “bosky” (to use the term for the wood-madness humans can suffer in The Hollowing) about the story, making it more digestible.

There’s still the same striking moments of invention. Here, for instance, we have a race of non-humans called the Amurngoth, a form of Iaelven (elf), though of a distinctly Holdstockian, woody type: these are “tall, lank-haired, cat-eyed creatures” who speak with a “whistling and clicking”, clad in leaves and furs. These are one of the many pillaging/collecting types in the Mythago books — something that has been present, to various degrees, from the start, from George Huxley’s collecting of arrowheads and other knickknacks recovered from the wood, to The Hollowing’s Jason, plundering the many mythic realms of all their treasures. The Amurngoth venture from the wood to abduct human children, leaving in their place “changes”, shaped pieces of wood that come to life in the manner of mythagos. The Amurngoth, however, believe that they created humans in the first place — whose name, in their tongue, means “violent children”, though the Amurngoth aren’t exactly peaceful themselves — but as another character points out, “There is no such thing as truth here. Whatever this monster believes is true, is its own truth, insofar as it’s true to itself.” The Amurngoth have their own myths. The practice of stealing human children, though, is part of their belief that “loss is necessary for understanding”, and loss is one of the themes, I think, of the Mythago Wood books.

2012 French edition, art by Guillaume Sorel

Another theme, even in those that don’t feature the Huxleys, is family. In Mythago Wood we were presented with a quietly dysfunctional family: the obsessive, distant father George sacrificing all for his study of the wood, the isolated and eventually suicidal mother Jennifer. The tensions in this set-up played out in exaggerated form thanks to the mythogenic wood’s bringing out into reality the deepest parts of the unconscious, and so there we had the frightening Urscumug as an image of the darkest aspect of the domineering father, and Christian’s transformation from brother to grizzled, rapacious Outsider. In Avilion, the next Huxley generation is far more functional and loving of one another, but it is still dealing with the effects of the past. Gwin, certainly, is most affected, with her need for vengeance on Christian. Jack and Yss’s obsessions can be read as being down to their part-mythago nature, but also because they’re the children of traumatised parents, and a result of that invisible handing down of unresolved conflicts from one generation to the next. Certainly, Yss’s justifications for her need to enter the heart of the wood are vague, and speak to an incompleteness she oughtn’t to feel, with her loving, supportive upbringing:

“I want to go to the centre of the earth because I think I will find there who I am… Because I will find my way home there. I will find someone I care for.”

She and Jack are both (literally) haunted by family ghosts.

2015 French edition, art by Alain Brion

Avilion is the last of the Mythago Wood books. Sadly, Robert Holdstock died some months after its release. He’d already been working on other series, but to me it seems likely he might have returned to Ryhope Wood again, even if it was ten or twenty years down the line. But Avilion, as we have it, is a fine conclusion, feeling as though it resolves the story of George, Christian and Steven Huxley — and, though to a lesser extent, Guiwenneth — from that first book. (It’s only Jennifer, the mother, present mostly throughout the series by her absence, that never had her story properly told.) The unspoken, mostly suppressed, tensions in that initial family, made physically explicit by the mythogenic powers of Ryhope Wood, have played out, finding some resolution — as far as such things can resolve — in the next generation, a generation who are half of the human world, half of the wood.

I don’t think every book in the series is an essential read — it could even be reduced to Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, Avilion — but I can’t help feeling that, for Holdstock, every book was nevertheless an essential write, as he explored, and played with, this very strange, fruitful, and constantly-live idea of the forest that brings the archetypes of the collective and personal unconscious into a living reality. It’s been some years since I started reviewing the series on this blog (intending to read them through in one go — but they were just too intense for that), but now I’m tempted to return to that first book, and read it again, seeing how it feels now I know the whole saga…

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