Raven

First broadcast in six parts from 19th September to 24th October 1976, Raven was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the duo who also brought us Children of the Stones. And Trevor Ray has another connection to 70s kids’ telefantasy, in that he acted in an episode of Sky, playing the sinisterly avian Rex. Perhaps that gave him the seed of the idea of creating a series called Raven.

The series is named after its main character, Raven (played by Phil Daniels, best known now for Quadrophenia two years later, and Blur’s “Parklife” 17 years later), a 15 or 16 year-old orphan (found as a baby in an earthworks maze, watched over by a raven) on trial release from a borstal. He is to spend time with archeologist Professor James Young (played by Michael Aldridge, later Professor Diggory in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and his ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands, of Carry On fame). The Professor is currently investigating a subterranean cave system he believes to have been an ancient sacred site associated with King Arthur. (It also has a circle of standing stones above it, which he claims to be the origin of the idea of the Round Table.)

The Professor, professing

The Professor, though, only has a month to finish his work, because the government is putting plans in motion to turn the caves into a containment site for nuclear waste, and to build a reprocessing plant above it. Raven, on first hearing this from the project’s manager, Bill Telford, is all for it: “No good living in the past. Got to look after the future, right?” But the Professor is horrified. “Why are you talking like the establishment?” he demands (knowing how best to win over this rebellious young man), and gives him a pile of reading about the site, saying he should be better informed.

Raven has already had some visionary moments in which he’s seen the old professor as a bird — a merlin, in fact. Now he goes down into the caves and has a vision of himself as King Arthur, who presses his thumb to Raven’s forehead, leaving him with the astrological mark of Pluto between his eyes. From that point on, Raven is committed to saving the caves.

Phil Daniels as Raven

He falls in with local cub reporter Naomi Grant, who as well as junior reporting jobs (where she always has to follow the editorial line, however much she’s personally against it, and at the moment the paper is for the nuclear waste dump), does the paper’s horoscopes. When the professor gets her to recognise the symbols carved outside each cave as ancient versions of our modern astrological symbols (Gemini once being a giant, and Cancer a ship, apparently), she realises Bill Telford’s men are trying to tunnel between two caves whose astrological energies are in direct opposition. She’s convinced it will lead to disaster. Bill doesn’t listen — who would? — and so gets trapped in a cave when the new tunnel’s roof collapses. Naomi and Raven pick a more astrologically-harmonious route into the now-sealed cave, and though the surveyor doesn’t think it will work, it does. The rescued Bill emerges with the sign of Pluto on his forehead, converted to the anti-nuclear-waste point of view…

There’s a way of looking at Raven as a sort of reverse folk-horror. The cave site is sacred, and must be protected, and to ensure people protect it they’re forcibly initiated into its cult, usually by being trapped in the caves, leading to a vision of King Arthur pressing the mark of Pluto onto their foreheads. After this, they change their minds about the nuclear waste site. Professor Young is the head of this coven, and it seems even more folk-horror-coven-like when we learn the local vicar is one of his main allies. There’s even a night-time gathering of all the main players at the sacred stones, and a hint of ancient ritual sacrifice when a skull (of a young male of Raven’s height and age) is found in one of the inner caves.

Key to the Professor’s efforts is convincing young Raven he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur — or, at least, the latest incarnation, as “Some people believe that Arthur was the name of the office, rather than the man himself.” Raven is, at first, resistant:

[Professor Young]: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

[Raven]: “Yeah, and some thrust it right back again.”

But he comes round, not because he believes he’s King Arthur, but because he believes in the cause, and finds that other people are listening to him: “First time in my life I’ve ever felt useful.” This is the only one of these 70s’ kids’ telefantasy shows I can think of to so heavily feature the media as a necessary part of its story. Raven not only has to recruit the local newspaper to get his message across, but, through TV man Clive Castle, the general public:

[Raven]: “They’re destroying the countryside to make way for a lot of industrial garbage. They’re starting a dangerous game with no idea how it’s going to finish. And they’re dumping a lot of poisonous waste which might top us all one day…”

[Clive Castle]: “So you see yourself as the guardian of the future, as the representative of a younger generation who’s battling against the shortsightedness of your elders?”

[Raven]: “Listen, mate. We’re responsible for the kids who ain’t even born yet.”

This echoing of ancient mythic patterns in the modern world recalls The Owl Service, but in this case in mostly a benevolent way (Raven does get its replaying of the Guinevere story, though). I did find people seemed all too eager to see Raven as a new King Arthur, but for me it was the astrological stuff that was the least convincing. Perhaps if a little more effort had been made to tie modern astrology with ancient Earth-mysteries and ley line energies it might have seemed a little less ridiculous that knowing the incompatibility of two birth signs could lead to predicting a rock fall and saving someone trapped by it. Perhaps that’s just because I find one sort of nonsense (ley lines) a little less nonsensical than another (astrology), but to me it seemed Raven took the Earth-mysteries-type mysticism of Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes just a little bit too far into the ridiculous — not because it is unbelievable, but because it was too convenient, story-wise.

It’s the acting that makes Raven work. Phil Daniels is properly both annoying and charismatic as a spiky, street-wise rebel, a ne’er-do-well with his head on straight, and you never doubt he might actually become the sort of public leader he does become. It can almost make you ignore the fact that the story culminates not in the sort of exciting confrontation with dark mystical forces you find in Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes, but in a public hearing in a local government hall — and that the tactics our heroes use basically involve the sort of mind-control most often associated with the villains in this kind of story.

Was Raven starting to show the limits of this brief cycle of Earth-mystery-inspired kids’ telefantasy? I think The Moon Stallion, which came two years later, showed there was more to be mined from this particular subterranean strata, though perhaps that show’s being set in the past helped. Still, Raven’s an interesting entry in this little sub-genre.

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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.

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The Bone Forest by Robert Holdstock

UK cover, art by Geoff Taylor

First published in Interzone in March 1991, then in a collection of the same name in the same year, The Bone Forest is a prequel to Mythago Wood. (And, as it came before 1993’s The Hollowing, it means I’ve got out of sequence in my read-through of the mythago books. But time gets jumbled in these mythogenetic thickets…) Holdstock wrote this novella at the request of a screenwriter working on an adaptation of Mythago Wood (and how I’d love to see that), who asked for more background. I can’t help wondering, though, whether what Holdstock presented them with would have helped.

The Bone Forest is set in 1935, when Steven Huxley, the protagonist of Mythago Wood, is eight years old. But he — and even more so his older brother Christian — is a secondary character here. The focus is on the boys’ father, George Huxley. In his forties but feeling “stooped, sagging, [and] a fatigue that he had expected to encounter in his sixties, not for many many years”, Huxley is becoming increasingly aware that age is a factor in the ability to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood. His boys (unwittingly) seem much more capable of seeing them without even trying. One frozen winter night, for instance, they see a “Snow Woman” in the garden, which Huxley knows instantly to be a mythago. On his next expedition into the wood with his colleague Wynne-Jones, he meets this shamanic figure again, and in an attempt to open communications shows her some amulets he removed from the Horse Shrine (an early landmark in his — and, later, Steven’s — exploration of the wood’s depths). Her expression as he shows her these purloined sacred objects passes from horror to pity. She gives Huxley an amulet of her own, made from carefully-selected fragments of wood and bark. Soon after, he encounters a primal mythago-scene: four men driving massive wild horses ahead of them into the woods. A moment later, the men reappear, now clinging to the backs of the horses, but it’s evident Huxley is witnessing a particularly brutal sacrifice, as one of the horses has spears hanging from its flesh and is clearly being ridden to its death, while another’s rider is encased so tightly in straw his arms are forced into a cross-shape, and the straw is on fire. It’s just the sort of shocking image that shows Holdstock’s imagination at its strongest — a possible glimpse of our nearly incomprehensible savage past, or perhaps something from the deepest and most primal of dreams.

Illustration from Interzone. Art by SMS.

One of the horse-and-rider pairs collides with Huxley. Dazed, he recovers and returns home, but comes to realise a split occurred in that collision, when he seemed for a moment to be both himself and the doomed rider. Now there seems to be another Huxley in the world, one his son Steven describes as “grey-green” and whose movements are oddly sped-up. Huxley finds it writing, in his handwriting, in his hidden private journal, as well as sleeping with his wife, Jennifer — who glows with the attention she thinks she’s suddenly receiving from a previously neglectful husband. It’s as if, Huxley thinks, “a more primordial aspect of my behaviour had been let out, dusted off, and set loose…” And his fellow explorer of the woods, Wynne-Jones, hasn’t returned from their last expedition. Things have gone wrong, but can Huxley set them right?

I have to admit to being a bit perturbed, as a reader of the mythago series, by The Bone Forest. Holdstock is fleshing out a situation that was already established in the first book, but, being a writer who wants to push his ideas forward, he can’t help bringing in new elements. It risks compromising the dramatic power of that foundational situation, where George Huxley was the frustrated, closemouthed obsessive who neglects his wife and is ogreish towards his sons, all in an ultimately futile quest to understand the mythagos of Ryhope. Here, in The Bone Forest, Huxley gets to witness plenty of high-grade mythago activity, undermining that later feeling of frustration. He at one point in The Bone Forest pointedly makes Steven promise never to enter Ryhope Wood, something I don’t remember being mentioned in Mythago Wood, but which Steven would surely have recalled in that book. But the worst thing, for me, is the characterisation of Huxley’s wife Jennifer — or, rather, the lack of it. In Mythago Wood we’re aware of how much she was neglected, even erased, by Huxley’s obsessive focus on his researches. Her being shut out from his life was an essential part of that. But here, he at one point explains everything to her. And her lack of any real reaction when she’s told she has been sleeping with some sort of ghost is almost brushed past. The effect is to turn this neglected woman into something of a nonentity. (I actually think the best way Holdstock could have answered the screenwriter’s request for more backstory would have been to tell the story from Jennifer’s point of view, even if it would mean — perhaps because it would mean — minimising the fantastic element. But I don’t think Holdstock was interested in telling that tale.)

That’s the negative view of The Bone Forest. But I think there’s another way to appreciate this novella. George Huxley’s desire to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood feels so like a writer’s desire to bring imaginative treasures from his or her creative depths that it’s easy to read The Bone Forest as a laying bare of Holdstock’s creative process. In the same issue of Interzone as the novella first appeared, there’s an interview with Holdstock by Stan Nichols, in which he says:

“One of the ways I write is very much to set up a task, get an idea, and leave the unconscious — or underconscious — processes to come up with the explanations. My self-consciousness is producing words on the paper, but there’s a whole process going on behind.”

And this feels true to the three mythago novels I’ve looked at so far. They set up Ryhope Wood as a matrix of primal mythic images, then bring realistic, modern characters into the wood and start things simmering. Mythagos flicker at the corners of their vision, then pop up right before them, in all their vivid, rugged, and often pungent reality. And then, suddenly, we’ll have an image that seems to have come straight from the primal depths. With The Hollowing, for instance, I felt things meandered a bit till the re-imagined version of the mythic Jason as a brutal, world-weary plunderer of fantastic treasures appeared. That was the moment Holdstock’s “underconscious” delivered. It was only then the novel really came alive as the previous two had done, but it was necessary for all the preceding action to have been there, the simmering before the imaginative boiling-point was hit.

Czech cover

With The Bone Forest, Holdstock hits his seam of imaginative gold comparatively early, with that image of the blazing, straw-encased man on the back of a giant, madly-galloping horse. As the rider collides with Huxley, so this savage and archaic image collides with Holdstock the writer, and leaves both reeling. What is this thing, this galloping horse with its blazing rider? Both Huxley and Holdstock want — no, need — to know, and spend the rest of the novella trying to understand. (At one point, Huxley spends a few paragraphs just asking all the questions that he, and the reader, and perhaps Holdstock too, have of this mythogenetic mess he’s caught up in.)

And I think that, just as Holdstock recognised the importance of making his conscious mind confine itself to the craft while the unconscious worked on unearthing that primal imaginative material — a sort of self-sacrifice of the ego before the demands of creative work — so that striking image of the riders and horses is one of self-sacrifice to a wilder power. As Huxley muses:

“I am still shocked by the nature of the sacrifices and the awareness that the murdered men seemed willing participants in this early form of acknowledgement of the power of the horse.”

The horse — whose shrine stands at the threshold of the deeper, more magical areas of Ryhope Wood, and so at the threshold of Holdstock’s imagination — is an image of the creative impulse: wild, powerful, driven by a primal energy, yet nevertheless bearing a human burden (its rider, its writer), and capable of being harnessed, ridden, taken on a journey, told into a tale. At the moment it’s first encountered, that rider/writer is clearly being carried along, out of control, part of the sacrifice. Then it collides with George Huxley — and with the conscious Robert Holdstock — leaving him fragmented, reeling, and having to unpack all the mythic and imaginative meaning from that powerful image.

The mythago books are a number of things going on at once. There’s Holdstock exploring how a scientific-feeling approach can be brought to things of the deeper imagination; there’s the fascination of seeing a writer grapple with a powerful fantastic idea, on the page right in front of the reader’s eyes; and there’s also a human story, of the Huxley family, and the others touched by Ryhope Wood’s strange power.

The Bone Forest, I think, works in the first two ways, but doesn’t quite in the third. Its George Huxley doesn’t feel like the George Huxley that was so essential to the first book. But, that aside, this feels like one of the more raw offerings of Holdstock’s Ryhopian imagination, something a little more ragged than Mythago Wood or Lavondyss, but still a valuable part of the creative whole.

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