Author: Robert Holdstock
Title: Mythago Wood (Ryhope Wood #1)
Edition: Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, Paperback
Robert Paul Holdstock was a British s/f and fantasy writer best known for his Ryhope Woods sequence. Novels that draw inspiration from Celtic mythology and the classic tropes of fantasy to create something original and mysterious, but decidedly not hear-warming. Readers beware, magic comes at high cost here and every bit of happiness is accompanied by pain and loss.
Beautifully written, well thought-through, this is bona fide fantasy at its best, and not a cheap Tolkien rip-off of a kind that plagued fantasy sections of bookshops in the 70-ties and 80-ties. Literary, full of mystery and mythological references, it differs from the modern epics, but readers of, say, Gaiman or Clarke will be satisfied.
Sitting down to write this post I’ve suddenly remembered I vowed to start using my collection of reference books again. Two came to my help:
Manuscript Discovered in a Dragon’s Cave is a Polish-only non-fiction by Witcher’s Andrzej Sapkowski, a bold journey through genre’s history and tropes, full of info on authors never published in Poland – and it’s quite impressive, for a guy born in 1948 in a country largely cut-off from international scene. Sapkowski himself takes different, lighter, more post-modern approach to myths and legends, but he strongly approves of Holdstock who is mentioned six times in a 240-page book. Ryhope is listed as one of the examples of fantasy encroaching into real world and, of course, favourably mentioned in a chapter about magical woods. In Sapkowski’s canon Holdstock’s series holds a very good place, no 45, between Witches of Eastwick and Black Company. I disagree with Sapkowski a lot, but he gave me a lot to think about, and heavily influenced my reading choices in the pre-blogging era! It also allowed me to better appreciate Witcher, giving a bit of a look inside the head of its author.
The wonderful Encyclopedia of Fantasy is a one of the treasures of my reference shelf. Bought in 2016, when most of my research was already done on the Internet, and available online anyway, it’s not used as often as it deserves to be – but it doesn’t show, as I acquired a pre-owned and heavily used copy. Thank you, my anonymous predecessor! There is a 1.5 page entry on Holdstock and a shorter one about mythago as a concept. It’s longer and more insightful than Wikipedia, packed with facts and written in a traditional encyclopedic style I realize I miss. I pledge to use it more often!
So, what are the mythago that gave name to the story? Archetypical characters from the deepest past of humanity, from the collective subconscious inherited from our long gone ancestors. Not their pop-culture versions we (or post-II world war protagonist of the novel) might be acquainted with and not even the versions that were written down by medieval monks and bards. In the deepest parts of the forest linger the mythical creations of the earliest human bands, proto-Arthur, proto-Robin Hood, harsh, brutal beings that have little in common with their cuddly modern versions. It is a primeval world very enticing to the protagonists of our novel, its exploration a way to discover not only the truth about the history of our species, but also truth hidden deep inside their very selves.
How do we encounter these mythagos? George Huxley, war veteran coming back to England after long recuperation in France, is drawn into the research of these mysterious forest that claimed his father and now drives his elder brother into madness. The stories of old are truly alive, and before they realise, they are part of them. From a researcher, to someone taking part in the essential stories of humankind! Joseph Campbell wrote about the basic motives of our myths, Holdstock gives us a novel where we witness protagonists from our times re-living them. Something clicks and I can see the connection with people from epochs long gone, in a way that non-fiction never makes me. A treasure of a book!
It’s not a fast-paced epic. It’s myths, archetypes, Campbell and Jung… I highly recommend it! I’m definitely going to revisit Ryhope Wood 🙂