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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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.

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