The Hollowing by Robert Holdstock

UK cover by Geoff Taylor

The Hollowing (first published in 1993) begins a year after the previous Ryhope Wood book, Lavondyss, and has a brief, baton-passing connection with that book’s characters. Early on, James Keeton, the father of Lavondyss’s protagonist Tallis Keeton, emerges from Ryhope Wood, ragged and wild-looking, a year and fifteen days since he disappeared in search of his still-missing daughter. Obviously broken by this loss (and, no doubt, by his time in the mythic depths of Ryhope), Keeton is taken to a sanatorium, where he’s visited by this book’s main character, Richard Bradley, and Richard’s son Alex, who had something of a connection with Tallis. But Keeton came back clutching one of Tallis’s masks, and when Alex picks it up and looks into it, he opens a “Hollowing” to the heart of Ryhope — a sort of wormhole shortcut by which you can leap from one distant location to another, even one world to another. Alex falls unconscious, and when he recovers, he’s not fully there, only capable of mumbling a few strange words, like “chapel” and “giggler”. Some time later, he disappears, and when his somewhat woody-seeming and highly decomposed body is found at the edge of the wood, Richard and his wife Alice can only mourn for his death. A few years later, though, Richard (now separated from Alice) receives a message from a group of scientists camped in Ryhope Wood, saying they’re in contact with his son and need his help to reach the boy. Alex is not dead, just lost deep in Mythago Wood.

Reluctantly but inevitably, Richard enters the wood, acclimatises to its peculiarities, and arrives at the scientists’ station at Old Stone Hollow to meet its bunch of investigators:

When the Station at Old Stone Hollow had been established, three years ago by the time-standard of the world outside of Ryhope Wood, there had been twenty assorted scientists and anthropologists, all gathered in by Alexander Lytton, all with a specialist field, all made privy to the secrets and oddities of the realm of the wildwood. They had been divided into ten teams of two, but only five of these duets remained extant. Three had disappeared more than two years ago and were presumed dead…

The backstory of the first Ryhope Wood book, Mythago Wood, has a pair of scientists, George Huxley and Edward Wynne-Jones, attempting to use early-20th century instruments to understand the wood’s mythogenic powers, but now we get a whole campful of them. These are not, though, quite the same as The Stone Tape’s band of experts trying to crack the secrets of a haunted room; they’re a bunch of jaded, irritable, and emotionally scarred men and women as far from understanding their object of study as ever, except that they’ve come to know, and be wary of, its many dangers. The station is surrounded by an electronic barrier that repels most mythagos, but also by more traditional warding methods: scarecrows, masks, shields and weapons hung from trees, totem poles. Anything that works. The scientists of Old Stone Hollow are prone to wander into the wood on their own private quests, driven as much by personal stories of loss or need (“Everybody’s looking. Everybody’s seeking. Everybody’s dreaming”) as the desire for scientific understanding. Many have had the experience of going “bosky” — entering so deep into the wood and its mythic world, they lose touch with their modern selves and start to behave like the very myths they’re living among. And they accept this as part of the deal.

One of the leaders of the expedition, a scot named Alexander Lytton, has read George Huxley’s journal and has an obsessive need to somehow make contact with the man himself (even though he knows he’s long dead). He believes the wood was woken to its present active state by George Huxley, and is annoyed that Alex’s destabilising presence is overwriting Huxley’s traces. Alex, Lytton believes, was damaged mentally when he was snatched into the wood. The boy was stripped of the many inner aspects of himself, each becoming a separate mythago, many of them created from his enthusiasm for various myths and legends (he had a particular interest in the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, but even his interest in dinosaurs has its effect on the wood). Somewhere, though, there’s what Lytton calls the boy’s “protogenomorph”, the “first form of the dreaming mind of the boy”, “the part of him that has waited for you, the part that has been fighting the battle”. Richard, then, has to find his son in the depths of Ryhope Wood and somehow bring him back to wholeness.

One of the new things Holdstock does in The Hollowing is show us the mythically-entangled stories of characters from other parts of the world. There’s Arnauld Lacan, whose entanglement with mythagos began in Brittany where, like the first book’s Stephen Huxley, he fell in love with, and lost, a woman who seems to have been a mythago. More interesting, though, is Helen Silverlock, a Lakota Sioux (Richard is reminded of “Cher from the pop duo Sonny and Cher” — one of the book’s few references to the pop music of its time, it mostly being set in 1967). Her family has been “regularly attacked, abused and destroyed by Coyote”, and she has come to Ryhope in the hope of meeting this particular form of trickster and sorting things out.

The most interesting section of the book, for me, was a longish chapter where Richard, living alone for a while in Old Stone Hollow, encounters a whole ship-load of mythagos, a grizzled crew of cynical Ancient-world warriors with a hold full of plundered wonders and treasures — some of which are living, including a pair of centaurs, a cyclops blacksmith, and the still-singing severed head of Orpheus. This is a gritty, aged version of Jason and his Argonauts, a Jason interested in nothing but gaining and owning treasures, pillaging them wherever his ship lands, and caring nothing for their value except as trophies. In a way, he could be the embodiment of the worst direction the scientists of Old Stone Hollow could go, if they thought of the wood simply as a thing to classify, dissect, and extract exploitable knowledge from. Jason, in this purely possessive aspect, can be seen as the worst possible attitude to take towards the “treasures” of the mythic and imaginative inner worlds. (In many ways, he and his band recall the dark, plundering “Outsider” Christian from the first book.)

US edition, cover by John Jude Palencar, from ISFDB.

In contrast to Jason is Sarin, a woman Jason keeps as one of his items of living plunder in the hold of his ship. She comes from a time when everyone could speak a single language, known as the “Tall Grass language”, as well as each having their own private language (“which they spoke alone, to the moon, or to hidden forces, or to God”). In her time, a great tower was built, stretching high into the sky, before being struck down by the gods as a warning against overreaching arrogance, after which people forgot the Tall Grass language, and could only speak a confusion of their own, secret tongues. Sarin, however, emerged from the fall of the Tower of Babel with her memory of the original language intact, and using it, she can understand and speak all languages, given a little time to work them out. She, in a way, provides a different way of seeing the inner worlds of myth and imagination: as ways to access the one “language” of myth and symbol we all, at some deep level, share, before it’s distorted by individuality and isolation. As Lytton later says of the many mythago-selves Alex was stripped of when he was brought into the wood:

“This is an encyclopaedia of what we have all inherited!”

It’s been a while since I reviewed Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, though I intended to read through the entire series at the time. Lavondyss was just too rich and harrowing an experience to leap straight into another book in the same vein. I’d say The Hollowing is no way near as powerful or focused as Lavondyss, though it’s hard to imagine any author producing another book as powerful as that one. In fact, I found it hard to imagine how Holdstock could ever follow that book, so having his next novel in the Ryhope Wood sequence feel somewhat half-powered is forgivable, even if I would have preferred a more focused story, to make the reading flow a bit better. (I was never drawn back to this book to see what happened next, only to get a bit more reading done.)

The Hollowing’s mythagos are much more fantastic, its world much more plastic, bending and warping far more than Mythago Wood’s did, and so it lacks the first book’s ability to make you feel you were being confronted by living, breathing, often stinking, emanations from a real historical past. It also feels much less connected than Lavondyss did to its main character’s personal darkness, much less singularly focused. Rather, The Hollowing feels like a slice of life in Ryhope Wood — eventful, certainly, but rather scattered and fragmentary. It’s not really clear what Richard Bradley has to do to bring his son back from being lost in the heart of the wood, so for most of the book it feels we’re just sitting around waiting for things to happen. And yes, things happen, but it all feels somewhat disconnected, until, finally, Richard too goes “bosky”, and has his period of living wild in the wood, casting off the shell of his daily self and accessing something more primal. And perhaps this was the necessary step he had to take in order to reach his son, but it still felt that it was something that just happened, rather than something he had any active part in initiating. Still, The Hollowing left me feeling Holdstock has more to say, so I’ll hopefully be reading the next book in the Ryhope Wood sequence soon.

Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Lavondyss UK HB cover by Alan Lee

UK hardback cover by Alan Lee

Whenever I read Mythago Wood, I vow to work my way through the whole of the Ryhope Wood series. Then I read Lavondyss and stall. This isn’t because Lavondyss is a very different kind of tale from the straightforward fantasy-adventure narrative that drives Mythago Wood — I like the fact Holdstock sets out to do something different in the second book of the series. It’s more to do with a contrast within the book itself. Lavondyss in its second half is a very different book from Lavondyss in its first, and it’s the jarring jump between the two halves that has, until now, always succeeded in putting me off. On this most recent read, though, I finally realised how powerful a novel Lavondyss is, and how it’s actually doing everything Mythago Wood does, only deeper, and weirder, and far more unrelenting in its exploration of what myths are for, and the very human forces that lead to their creation.

Lavondyss is the story of Tallis Keeton, the younger half-sister to Harry Keeton, the airman who accompanied Steven Huxley into Ryhope Wood in the first book, seeking a mythical place he believed could be found deep within the wood, where his facial burns would be healed. The book starts with the disappearance of Tallis’s grandfather, who leaves his baby grandaughter a hastily scrawled and (from the point of view of Tallis’s parents, anyway) rather disturbing letter about stories and myths and the strange powers of nearby Ryhope Wood, before walking out into the snow and dying. Tallis’s later childhood is marked by a second loss when her half-brother Harry’s plane is shot down during the Second World War, and he’s at first believed to be dead. Even when he returns, it’s only briefly, before he sets off on a quest into the depths of Ryhope Wood with Steven Huxley. Lost, then recovered, then lost again.

Lavondyss UK PB, cover by Geoff Taylor

UK paperback, cover by Geoff Taylor

Tallis vows to go into the wood and bring Harry back. Before she can do this, though, she must complete her education in the strange wood and its ways, learning its stories and the secret names of the fields, stones, trees and pathways that she’ll have to use to enter it. Guided by a trio of hooded, masked women who emerge like shadows from the trees to whisper fragmentary tales, Tallis — who in this first half of the book resembles the semi-feral young girl from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” — is basically undergoing a shamanic initiation into the ways of working a mythago-rich world. Under the three women’s guidance, Tallis makes masks and dolls, and learns to use them to open ‘Hollowings’ into the mythago-reality that surrounds Ryhope Wood.

When a book starts with the initiation and education of a young woman into the secret magic world surrounding her, and with her learning to master her own burgeoning power to interact with and control that secret magic, you can’t help but expect a coming-of-age narrative, a sort of twiggy, muddy Harry Potter with masks instead of wands and a vast, stinking, bellowing monster stag called Broken Boy instead of Hedwig the Owl. But once Tallis enters the wood (sooner than she’d hoped for, and breaking a promise to her father as she does), the book jumps ten years, and when we next see her, she’s a grown woman, scarred, lost, and carrying the remains of her dead child.

This is no coming-of-age tale. It’s a book about what (it’s suddenly obvious) Mythago Wood was also about, only, with that book, it was easy not to see it because of the wonder of entering the depths of Ryhope Wood for the first time, and the danger and excitement of that brother-versus-brother adventure story. Both are books about loss, and in its second half Lavondyss is relentless in its exploration of loss, broken promises, and failed intentions. And if you think about it you can see that loss is rooted deep in the very idea of the Ryhope Wood books, in the idea of the mythagos themselves, for mythagos are the ghosts of myths: the lingering never-never remnants of the desperate hopes of past ages. In Lavondyss, mythagos are what remain after the loss of loved ones, or the loss of hope. But mythagos offer no comfort. They’re too brutal and strange. (Still, the humans cling to them as a way to undo loss, by remaking, in mythago-form, what was lost — as with Christian Huxley, in Mythago Wood, journeying into Ryhope in search of a new version of his dead mythago wife Guiwenneth, or, in this book, the half-mythago Morthen saying, after she loses her brother and first love: ‘He’s dead… Now I shall return to my father. From his own first forest I shall find my brother once again…’ But it’s always a forlorn and futile hope.)

Lavondyss is also about art. Tallis’s shamanic initiation can be seen as the birth of an artist. What Tallis-as-artist must understand is that the stories she learns aren’t playthings, but sacred truths which have to be treated with reverence. Speaking of her cache of folklore, she says:

‘It all belongs to me, yes. But it has been passed on to me by someone… Someone else owned the stories first. I mustn’t try to tamper with them. They’re only partly mine, and in any case they are only mine for a while…’

The contrast between art that is treated with reverence — with ‘the unknowing knowing that is at the heart of magic’ — and the latterday remnants that litter the culture with hollow relics of once-true tales, is brought out in the folk rituals of Tallis’s home village:

‘There is no magic left in the festive practices of Oxford, or Grimley, or whatever — the Morrismen and Mummers — no magic unless the mind that enacts the festival has a gate opened to the first forest…’

That ‘first forest’ is Lavondyss, ‘the unknown region’, ‘the place where the spirit of man is no longer tied to the seasons’, ‘the way home’, the depths of the human mind. It is:

‘…both the desired realm, or the most feared realm; the beginning place or the final place; the place of life before birth, or life after death; the place of no hardship, or the place where life is tested and transition from one state of being to another is accomplished. Such a realm would appear to exist in the heartwoods…’

For Harry Keeton, it’s a place of healing, but it’s not going to heal him simply by removing his scars. It’s not a place you come away from without being utterly changed. It’s a place where you must be unmade before you can be remade. It’s where myths are born, and myths aren’t created by human beings when they’re happy. They’re created out of situations of desperation, and it’s just such a situation that we see when Tallis finally finds her way there.

After which she says:

‘I feel violated, consumed; yet I feel loved.’

And it’s far easier to feel that ‘violated’ and ‘consumed’ than it is to feel the ‘loved’.

Lavondyss illustration by Alan Lee

illustration by Alan Lee

Lavondyss is a far more challenging book than I had expected the first few times I read it. The signs for the sort of book it is are certainly there in Mythago Wood, but it wasn’t till now, on what must be my third or fourth read, that I’ve finally been able to see them. Now I can see it’s a book that’s more similar to, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, than the sort of fantasy book I was expecting.

And that’s certainly set me up for going ahead with the other books in the series. The question is, having taken his series so quickly to such heights of intensity, where can Holdstock go from here?

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Gollancz hardback, illustration by Eddi Gornall

Mythago Wood feels like a grown-up version of those ‘folk fantasy’ YA books from the late 60s/early 70s, like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Stag Boy and The Owl Service, with their rural settings, and their interaction between modern protagonists and figures from British folklore. Like the best of these, Mythago Wood is an exploration of the wild, transformative power still to be found in ancient myths. It’s a book that also seems perfectly designed to do away with any debate as to whether the fantastical elements in its story are real or a projection of the main character’s psychology. In Mythago Wood, the fantastical elements are real because they emerge from the deepest areas of the main characters’ psyches.

The book begins with Steven Huxley returning to his childhood home after convalescing for over a year in France, having been wounded while serving in the Second World War. Oak Lodge was where he grew up with his older brother Christian, his mother (until her early death), and his father, George Huxley, a distant, driven man who seemed to regard his family as nothing but ‘an intrusion in his work’. That work centred on studying and exploring nearby Ryhope Wood, a patch of ancient forest that, though barely six miles in circumference, Huxley could nevertheless lose himself inside for weeks at a time. But now George Huxley is dead, and Christian writes to Steven, asking him to come back home, and adding that he has recently married. Steven returns to Oak Lodge expecting to meet his brother’s new wife, but instead is told she has ‘gone’ (Christian refuses to explain further), and that Christian himself has become deeply involved in continuing their father’s work.

Mythago Wood first appeared as a novella in F&SF. Cover by Barbara Berger.

As his brother spends more and more time delving into Ryhope Wood, Steven reads their father’s journal and learns, finally, what the old man’s obsession was all about. Ryhope Wood breeds what George Huxley called ‘mythagos’, a portmanteau of ‘myth’ and ‘imago’ (the final, adult stage an insect attains after its early-life transformations). Mythagos are, in effect, physical embodiments of ancient myth-forms — walking, talking beings from the real and often ancient past, evoked from an interaction between a modern human being and the ‘ley matrix’ of the ancient wood. And mythagos are not only people: buildings, rivers, boats, entire tribes and villages can be created/recreated through the mythago process. In fact, whole landscapes can be evoked within the confines of Ryhope Wood, which is why George Huxley, and now Christian, can disappear inside it for weeks, even months, at a time.

I love Holdstock’s idea of the mythago, the way it mixes ancient myth and modern science, bringing in very 20th century concepts like relativity (the random-access time stream of the mythagos is no objective, linear progression, but an entirely subjective interweaving of past and present), and quantum uncertainty (in the way that an observer can’t help but impact on what he or she observes — the exact form of a mythago is swayed by the hopes and fears of the individual who makes it appear, meaning no mythago is a pure embodiment of its originating myth, but is corrupted by what George Huxley calls ‘ego’s mythological ideal’). But mythago-creation is a two-way process. Interaction with myth entangles you in that myth. You can’t help but play a part in it. And, just as in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, a myth can all too often be brutal and unforgiving of its players.

Suppressed family tensions are bubbling up through the Huxleys’ mythago-formation processes. The father was obsessed with finding what he thought of as the ‘primal’ myth-form, the originating mythago behind all the others. He never succeeded, but after his death, Ryhope Wood is haunted by a giant human-animal hybrid, the Urscumug, which becomes, to the Huxley brothers, the ghost of the father’s dominating, forbidding, and darkly possessive presence. Meanwhile, Christian, who’s fallen a little too much under the father’s shadow, reveals that the new wife he wrote to Steven about was in fact the mythago of a Bronze-age warrior princess, Guiwenneth, evoked from the wood’s ‘ley matrix’ by their father. Both father George and son Christian fell in love with her, and Christian’s main reason for taking up his father’s studies is to find her once again, or to evoke her, in a new mythago form, for himself. To this end, he enters the woods for what turns out to be, in the skewed faerie-style timestream of the heartwoods, years for him, though only months pass in the outside world. He returns from his unsuccessful quest a much older man, grizzled with bitterness and disappointment, transformed, now, into one of the wood’s own myth-forms: the Outlander, the outsider who comes marauding, reaving, terrorising. Christian has become a dark figure, leading a band of violent men in an endless cycle of rapine and plunder, always seeking his lost Guiwenneth, but ever more divorced from any feelings of love he might once have had for her; now, he’s ruled simply by the need to possess.

Steven, meanwhile, gets his own Guiwenneth, his own mythago wife, once he begins to evoke presences from the wood. But when Christian returns, and takes her from him, back into the wood, Steven must follow, must become entangled in this mess of myth and reality, and take on his own role in the myth of the Outlander.

I have to say that Steven, though he’s the protagonist, is the one element of the book I find disappointing. His responses are all a little too young-male-hero conventional, particularly in a book which evokes such subtleties of psychology in its other characters. Assuring Guiwenneth that nothing can ever part them may be forgivable, if a little tiresome, but when she’s taken from him and he goes after her with nothing but a hotheaded belief that his being morally right will somehow assure him victory — even though he’s just been thoroughly trounced by his brother, has no ability as a warrior, and will be totally outnumbered — it simply seems like stupidity on his part.

But despite this, Mythago Wood works. And it works for two main reasons. The first is the strength and originality of the main idea of the mythagos, one that seems — like those rare few other books (Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, William Mayne’s A Game of Dark) which don’t merely rewrite the same old fantasy clichés but address the very nature of imagination, myth and reality — to be a genuine maturation of the genre, and to be saying something vital and true about what it means to be human. The other is Holdstock’s ability to bring snapshots of the ancient past alive in so many tiny, inconsequential but telling details — an expressive hand gesture from Guiwenneth, or the fact that she dismisses anything remotely technological as ‘Roman’, the peculiar details of a tribe’s burial ritual or its shaman’s body decorations, the smell of an iron-age warrior — it’s obviously something he has a real feel for. In Holdstock’s hands, myth, and the past, are brutal, muscular, smelly, and full of wild irrationalities that are never explained, but which only make them seem that much more real.

Of those 70s YA ‘folk fantasy’ books I compared it to, perhaps Mythago Wood is closest to The Owl Service, though that book is far more intense in its exploration of how a single location, and a single myth, can take its grip on three emotionally charged adolescents. And Mythago Wood is not about a specific myth, but myth in general, how myths are created to express the hopes and fears of people in desperate times, and how even ancient myths can become commanding, living presences, with personal meanings, and how human individuals can be subsumed by, and their stories swayed by, myths, just as myths, in each telling, are skewed and swayed by their teller.

Mythago Wood remains one of my favourite novels. So it’s odd that, other than its sequel, Lavondyss, I never worked my way through the whole series, though that’s something I’m planning on doing this year.