Edition Published: 2014, First Published: 1984
Language book read in: English
I braced myself for the second round of fantasy stories and it was a bit of a challenge. Robert Holdstock has a very unique way of story-telling, which was a bit difficult to follow at times. This was not because the language was unnecessarily heavy or convoluted, but because I usually read in the evenings after work when I’m rather tired. Nevertheless, I felt like a little child hearing the story of my ancestors for the first time. And just like a little child, I didn’t understand everything, but I didn’t have to, the fairy tale enchanted me.
Mythago Wood definitely gives you something to think about. When I finished reading the book, I felt that I have too many things to say and discuss, and not enough time (in this case – space) to get into every little detail. I’ve written quite a few notes, some of which follow the story page by page. But I’ll try to summarise everything in several neat points.
Set just after the WWII, Mythago Wood tells the story of Steven Huxley, his family and the deep, unexplained connection they have with the bordering Ryhope Wood. According to Steven’s father, George Huxley, Ryhope Wood is a magical entity, which is the home of the mythago (myth imago), “the image of the idealized form of a myth creature”. The mythagos are formed by the collective human unconscious when certain mythological characters, such as Robin Hood, are most needed by people. Be it a natural disaster, invaders, war, famine, the mythagos appear when people “summon” a seemingly external source of power to deal with the big problem of the day. These mythagos remain dormant when not needed, but may reappear again years or even centuries later. Their image would also adapt to the current collective and unconscious understanding of how the world works, who is considered an enemy and who is considered a friend. George’s main theory was that there was once a primal mythago, dating back to pre-Ice Age times, who is the basis of all future “reincarnations” of the mythago. Geroge’s, and subsequently Steven’s, mission was to find this primal mythago and explore the forgotten world that lays behind the invisible protective walls of Ryhope Wood.
Although the premise of the story sounds unreal, most of the problems and dilemmas encountered by Steven and his partner in crime, Harry Keeton, are real and undoubtedly very human.
In the beginning of the book, Holdstock shows us how someone’s obsession, in this case George Huxley’s obsession with finding the primal mythago, can lead to self-isolation, to complete disregard of one’s own safety and to the alienation of one’s own family. It may even lead to an inexplicable fascination with another, more recent mythago, which compromised George’s relationship with his wife, Jennifer.
Obviously, this would affect the life of each of the Huxleys, including the main character, Steve, who, upon returning home from France, feels like a stranger in his home. Steven feels reluctant to come back home, but he does so out of familial duty, rather than nostalgia for his childhood. I can relate to Steven’s reluctance to deal with the very embodiment of his father’s obsession – his study. But I find that this is another mental barrier many people often encounter in their life. There were many times that I’ve had to deal with circumstances out of sense of duty, rather than any personal drive or desire.
And speaking of George Huxley, it was interesting to observe the juxtaposition of the creator with his creation, as well as the influence each had on the other. George’s obsession not only affected his perception of the ”fantasy world”, but also lead him to regard his own wife and children as test subjects in a much larger and elaborate scheme.
Steven later admits that the obsession that drove him, his father, and his brother, Christian, was born out of the need for love and compassion.
Ultimately, the fate of George and Christian shows us to what extent are humans sometimes willing to neglect themselves and run after something that may always be just out of reach. In Christian’s case, we also see how people change when they finally realise the meaninglessness of their life mission and how they deal with this bitter realization.
I do believe that Mythago Wood is the journey through one’s own mind to reach the self. The ability to see mythagos depends on one’s own state of mind and the access to one’s own subconscious thoughts. Holdstock uses the metaphor of the invisible protective layers around and inside Ryhope Wood to explain all of the different layers one has to overcome in order to access one’s subconscious thoughts. The little paths which lead to the inner layers of the woods resemble the scattered thoughts and ideas one may have about the world. That’s why I agree with George Huxley when he states that it would be easier for younger minds to see the mythagos. Younger minds are not burdened by preconceptions and prejudices. They are more open minded and it would be easier for them to accept any reality that they might encounter.
My final thought may include some spoilers, so be warned!
Since Mythago Wood is the first book in the series and one of the main mythagos in the story is the mythago of Guiwenneth or Guinevere, I do believe that Mythago Wood is a way to retell the beginning of the legend of King Arthur. And I believe that in some way, Steven would either assume the role of King Arthur or become the prototype for Merlin. I may be wrong. But I am certain that I will find the rest of the books in order to find how the story unravels. Stay tuned!
P.S. I do live near a wooded area and sometimes there is an inexplicable rustle among the bushes. Am I hearing/seeing mythagos? 😮
When I was a child there were three large bookcases in the bedroom, which were full with all sorts of items, but most importantly with short black books titled Library Galaxy. For too many years I paid no attention to them, they merely provided the background to my daily life, but when I went into my teens and started choosing to read for my self, rather than for assignments or exams in school, I noticed them. They were of varied thickness and had abstract colourful front pages. I picked from them at random and devoured their contents, fueling my love for science fiction.
An amount of time passed and four-five years ago I found myself organising, or attempting to, the books I owned at the time. It was a selection of random width, height and colour, and I found myself missing greatly the stylised and uniform look of the series Library Galaxy, their elegance and matching artwork. I also wanted to try out new British authors, but wanted to shorten the (sometimes tediously) long selection process I undergo every time I decide to trust a new author. Naturally, the next time I found myself in the bookstore I looked in my favourite fantasy and sci-fi section, and there it was – the Fantasy Masterwork series, with its sister S.F. Masterworks on the next table.
The first title I picked up from the Fantasy Masterworks series was Mythago Wood, and this is the title I chose to challenge Nelly with for a number of reasons, one of which is that she lives near a wood.
Initially, what made an impression on me was the upfront and honest emotional maturity of the main character. He reminisces about the dread of going to war, the pain of his wounding, but mostly about the neglect his father showed him and his brother, the decline of his mother’s health, and the lack of both emotional and physical care his parents showed. After his wounding, the main character, Steven, reluctantly returns to his family home where his brother is continuing their father’s work on studying the primal and strange woods located on their estate.
This work quickly consumes his brother, who disappears into the woods for increasingly longer spells, but a plethora of other inhabitants begin to emerge, as if fueled by the brothers’ imaginations. The woods slowly take over Steven’s thoughts, home and life.
These personas were what made me devour the book the first and then the second time I read it. Robert Holdstock incorporates many of Karl Jung’s theories on the collective unconscious, archetypes and ways to encounter those archetypes. In this line of thought, the ventures into the woods can be taken as a search into one’s own soul – where our fears, hopes and passions await discovery.
For Steven to discover and gain what he wants most, a deep and meaningful connection with a woman he loves, he must overcome many of his own fears – quite literally in the novel; the anguish and sorrow from his father’s estrangement, the increasing mental and emotional gulf between him and his brother to name a few. Despite such hardships, or perhaps because of them, the novel left me fulfilled and hopeful, as given sufficient effort and time to heal, Steven finds what he is looking for.
Robert Holdstock gives a wonderful historical spin on Jung’s archetypes – we encounter Robin Hood, the Shaman, the Knight, whilst other personas exist in the cultures not limited to the British Isles or West Europe – the Warrior Princess, the Hunter with the barely tame Dog, the Riders of the Hunt. Particularly interesting to me was the image of the giant with broken tree branches in his hair, which reminded me of the East European Leshy.
The world created by Robert Holdstock is compelling and immersive, just short of existing for real. I am eager to pick up other books which revisit Mythago Wood, and Lavondyss has been published in the same Fantasy Masterworks series. I am expecting another exciting journey into the Mythago Woods, but also into man’s nature.
Does a primal woodland get your imagination going? Are you already a fan of the Mythago woods, or perhaps ready to dip your toes into the world of fantasy? Let us know in the comments!