Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Mythago Cycle by Robert Holdstock

I’m in two minds as to how I feel about these two books, Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. On one hand I think that they are a brave and inspired attempt to write imaginatively about the ways in which myths and legends continue to have impact on modern life, while on the other hand I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed them. Every now and one reads a book that gets everything right, and there is an almost physical reaction to that rightness, a response I think of as visceral. Probably the first time I ever felt it was reading Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen; a little later I certainly felt the same way about Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a book which has never been more than a few feet from my bedside since I read it in my teens.

Holdstock has certainly aimed for that reaction, and occasionally he gets close, but for me, he's not quite there. Part of the problem may be that he decided he was free to make up his own mythologies, very much as his characters do in his books; and although his invented stories are logically consistent with what we know of the origins of the British, they are not the ones I would have told. Actually, I think Holdstock knows his sources considerably better than I, and that it is me who is at fault in a purely academic sense, but these are works of fiction, so cavilling is permitted.

Both books are set in the period not long after WW2, in Herefordshire, on the edge of the ancient Ryhope Wood. This woodland is a remnant of primeval forest, and its apparent extent (about 6 miles) belies its true nature as a limitless forest where time is distorted and people may disappear. From these woodlands, too, mythagos appear, manifestations of archetypal heroes called into being by the interactions of the imagination and the earth energies concentrated there. This theory is lent weight by reference to Arthur Watkins’ book The Old Straight Track - a book which does supply some of that visceral response I talked about - a wonderful, scholarly piece of nonsense about ley lines that feels "true" (to the extent that there are still lots of people out there who spend their weekends happily hunting leys). Mythago Wood, the first in this Cycle, introduces the Huxley brothers, whose father had written up his observations and theories about the forest, coining the word mythago (from myth-imago) and has died, weakened by his attempt to call into being the most primeval mythago, the Urscumug. Oak Lodge, where the brothers live on the edge of the wood, is visited by a number of mythagos, among them Guiwenneth, with whom, in separate manifestations, each of the brothers falls in love. Both brothers are drawn to the wood, and after the disappearance of one, the other goes in after him, in the company of Harry Keeton, a pilot, who has encountered a similar woodland in France.

The second book, Lavondyss, tells the story of Keeton's younger sister, Tallis, who has grown up on the outskirts of this forest, and who is particularly sensitive to the presence of the mythagos. While still a small girl she begins to make masks which allow her to see in different ways, and she creates / re-discovers the nature of the countryside where she lives, giving the landscape its true names. She, too, is drawn into the wood, journeying in search of her brother in the company of mythagos. As she travels she learns more of the nature of the interactions between humans and mythagos, and the dangers inherent in changing stories.

You may have gathered by now that I am deeply interested in the ideas behind these books, but less impressed by the stories themselves. There are further works in the Cycle - not sequels, Holdstock says, but re-visitations - which should prove interesting to look at, but I found Lavondyss a bit rambling, perhaps because the adult Tallis never entirely caught my sympathy, although the first part of the novel, in which child Tallis traverses the landscape in the company of Ralph Vaughan Williams, is very well done, perhaps the best writing of the cycle so far. What worked here was the constraint placed by the domestic setting: the need to imbue the landscape with mystery while maintaining the sense of the familiar; when Holdstock ranges into purely imaginary landscapes the lack of such constraint shows in the length of some of his sustained passages, to their detriment. I hope that the later works may be a little more disciplined, but fear they may not, since for many years a measure of 'good' fantasy literature equates with a volume’s ability to act as a reliable doorstop in a high wind. (This was the second 600-page book I'd read this month - my hands hurt from holding them!)

I'm going to end yet another R.I.P.IV review by saying that this a book is for those interested in the workings of fantasy, and only secondarily for its merits as storytelling. Holdstock uses some of the same ideas and themes in the unconnected Merlin Codex, where I feel they work rather better, but I do like the fact that he attempted to impose an imaginative, yet believable, structure on our continued fascination with mythology, and I consider that in itself to be a good reason to read these books. I predict that they will last long beyond their less difficult and more popular doorstop cousins.


  1. I read Mythago Wood a few years ago, and strangely enough, I had the same reaction you did! I thought the idea was fabulous - myths at the edge of our world, needing the vision or ability to see them - but the execution left something not quite right. It wasn't a very warm book, was it? I thought it was written for men, and certainy men - male reviwers - have loved it. I don't mean to sound sexist, it's just your review, and realizing my reaction to it, and who I've heard other things from, that this is a book written really from a male perspective, with male tones. I can't explain it better, so I hope you understand me! So I haven't read the second book yet, at least I don't recall reading it yet.

  2. Susan, that's very interesting and perceptive, and it could explain why I didn't really care about the female character in Lavondyss - at the beginning she's a child, and there were some scenes which really worked, and then as she got older she got less and less convincing. Which is not to say that men can't write woman characters, but I don't think Holdstock can. And yes, it extends to both books - no warmth.