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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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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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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