Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Illustration: John Howe

First published in 1984, this is something of a classic, the kind of fantasy novel that has transcended its genre and garnered academic attention. It’s the kind of fantasy novel that you think people who don’t read genre fiction should probably read.

Needless to say, I’d never heard of it.

But it popped up as a 99p deal, so into the Kindle it went, and here we are. As older readers will know, I have read a lot of fantasy over the years, but I have mixed feelings about it. I prefer science fiction, but recent trends in SF have left me cold and casting about.

Mythago Wood was not what I was expecting. Completely unexpected, but once you start reading, somehow obvious. I don’t mean obvious as in predictable, but in the sense of, why didn’t anybody think of this before?

A mythago is a myth-image, an entity created out of the human psyche, the collective unconscious of memory and myth. Jungian archetypes, dream creatures, race memory. Mythagos can appear human, or can be animal, vegetable or mineral. They can be buildings, landscapes, characters.

The setting is Ryhope Wood, a small area of primeval woodland in Herefordshire. I remember years ago being told that Highgate Wood in North London is an area of ancient woodland that has somehow survived since the days of the Domesday Book. The idea that something so ancient could still exist in the modern metropolis is amazing to me. The Woodland Trust’s web page about ancient woodland has the following pre-amble:

Home to myth and legend, where folk tales began. It fuelled our ancestors and still houses thousands of species. Ancient woodland has grown and adapted with native wildlife, yet what remains only covers 2.5% of the UK.

The fictional Ryhope Wood is just such a place. It’s in a fairly isolated spot, and can be walked around in less than a day; walking into it is another matter, however. It resists incursion. Follow a path and you find yourself walking in circles, ending up at your starting point. A child’s model boat, floated in on the small stream that meanders through the wood, emerges from it six weeks later.

People disappear.

The protagonist here is war veteran Stephen Huxley, who returns reluctantly from France a year or so after after the 1939–1945 war, in order to help his older brother Christian, who is living alone in Oak Lodge, the family home, with a woman called Guiwenneth. The brothers’ father has died, leaving behind a study full of papers concerning his obsession with the nearby woodland and the people – and animals – who live there. Now it seems that Christian is similarly obsessed with the woods: and Guiwenneth is nowhere to be seen – gone.

The two brothers had themselves encountered mythagos from the woods when they were children, incidents their father had explained away: gypsies, he said. But now the two men have access to his private papers and Christian is convinced something else is going on. The people in the woods are characters from myth and legend: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Guinevere, and others from deeper, older myths.

When Christian disappears into the wood, Stephen begins his own investigation.

All of which is fascinating in itself, but what really sets this book apart is Holdstock’s prose style. He writes with a clarity and elegance that make this a deceptively easy read. Deceptive because the ideas are complex and sophisticated, while the prose is beautiful and clear. And then there are breathtaking passages like this:

‘I am the fish that struggles in the water, swimming towards the great grey rock that marks the deep pool. I am the daughter of the fisher who spears the fish. I am the shadow of the tall white stone where my father lies, the shadow that moves with the day towards the river where the fish swims, towards the forests where the glade of the woodcocks is blue with flowers. I am the rain that makes the hare run, sends the doe to the thicket, stops the fire in the middle of the round house. My enemies are thunder and the beasts of the earth who crawl by night, but I am not afraid. I am the heart of my father, and his father. Bright as iron, swift as arrow, strong as oak. I am the land.’

Such a good book, one that puts you in touch with the ancients, and makes you consider woodland walks in a new light.

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