Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Partial front cover of Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Edition Published: 2015, First Published: 1988
Language book read in: English

Nel’s Perspective

Rarely do I feel the need to write down everything going through my mind whilst reading something. This usually happens when I read non-fiction, however, Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss is probably one of the few exceptions. Hence, I’m typing this just after finishing part one.

If you need a bit of a refresher (as I did), Lavondyss is the indirect sequel to another book we reviewed more than a year ago – Mythago Wood. Both novels tell the tales of seemingly ordinary individuals, who feel the magic and the calling of the nearby Ryhope Wood. A dense and enchanting forest, Ryhope Wood is as old as time itself and it’s the “home” of many mythagos, former and present. What were mythagos, again?

They are “the image of the idealized form of a myth creature” or, simply said, archetype images of heroes, beasts, damsels, knights, monsters, born out of fear and hatred; almost always unconsciously called upon in times of crisis and repeating their fate until the story cycle is complete and the next one begins again.

How did Lavondyss fare compared to Mythago Wood?

*Keep in mind, there will be spoilers ahead.

Old Forbidden Place – The Road to Self-Acceptance

I must admit I had to go through my review of Mythago Wood and a few other articles to refresh my memory of the main story because I read it many books ago. As Lavondyss is not a direct sequel, i.e. it doesn’t pick up where Mythago Wood left off, I wondered how the two novels were connected. Eventually, it is revealed that the protagonist in the sequel, Tallis, is the sister of Harry Keeton from the first book.

Lavondyss is divided into two parts – Old Forbidden Place and In the Unknown Region. The story starts with all of the inexplicable happenings surrounding Tallis’ birth and the unusual connection she shared with her grandfather, Owen Keeton. Both are able to see the mythagos within the Shadox area, where the events take place, and both have the magical ability to invoke old and forgotten stories, as well as the characters involved in the tales. Just before his rather abrupt passing, Owen leaves Tallis a quickly scribbled letter on the pages of an old book of myths and legends for when she grows up and needs guidance no one else is able to provide.

I didn’t find the main character being a child strange because it was already explained in Mythago Wood that children are better-equipped at “seeing” mythagos due to their young, imaginative and uncorrupted minds. This also led me to believe the first part of the book is not only focused on how Tallis comes to learn and understand her extraordinary enchanting and invoking powers and their role in saving her step-brother Harry, but also on self-acceptance.

Apart from a few individuals, nobody really believes in Tallis’ stories the way she does. Most of her hobbies – reading volumes of old lore, carving masks and making dolls – are perceived merely as child play, which she will eventually abandon once she grows up. She is left to her own devices and learns to be self-sufficient due to her parents’ grief over the seeming loss of her step-brother. As a result, the narrative is not fast-paced because finding your own mission in life and the courage to follow your beliefs also takes time.

In the Unknown Region

The second part of Lavondyss deals with Tallis’ quest of finding Harry and her unbreakable link to Scathach, a young hunter, who is part-human, part-mythago. Here, the author deliberately skews the narrative, in order to make it seem like too much time has passed and yet no time has passed, at the same time. Sometimes seasons change in a matter of days, other times days seem like eternities.

I definitely recommend reading the second part, if not in one sitting, at least in a few consecutive days. However, make sure you always keep in mind the story of the Old Forbidden Place Tallis tells to Mr Williams as it is the key to unravelling In the Unknown Region. Many of the tale’s iterations, including the original one, will be told again and again, giving the impression that each iteration starts and ends at a different point in time, many of them running parallel to each other occasionally.

Having finished the book now, I wonder if Holdstock started working on Lavondyss by having the Old Forbidden Place tale and the end of the story. Then writing backwards towards Tallis’ childhood, he figured out how to masterfully weave all of the different iterations of his “original vision”.

Some readers have criticised Lavondyss for its anti-climactic ending. Given the nature of the narrative, I can see why, but I also know there is no other way to finish Tallis’ tale. Otherwise, the cycle will be broken.

A Note on the Language, Names and Myths

I’m not well-versed in Celtic myths and legends, except for the more famous tales of Arthur and the knights of the round table. That’s why, I found it useful to jot down the different names, common and private, of the various mythological characters.

They are not always referred to in the story in terms of their own accompanying legends, but if you’re anything like me – you will have visited various websites regarding myths and legends, etymology, and pronunciation of Scottish Gaelic words during your reading sessions to figure out what is meaningful to Lavondyss and what is not.

I think this is what draws me into Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle: words, names, meaning. As someone, who loves to delve in forgotten knowledge, the meaning of words and the stories surrounding names (including naming customs), the Mythago Wood cycle tickles my brain to no end.

Final Thoughts

Lavondyss is not a sequel in the true meaning of the word. It is a slight variation of an old forgotten story, told from the perspective of a child.

In Robert Holdstock’s own words:

So Lavondyss is not a sequel to Mythago Wood, but rather a new visit, crammed with echoes of past visits, but seeking new answers to old mysteries.

Thus, he provides another layer of understanding of the mythago universe and, consequently, gives his own answer to the question of whether the “original vision” is ultimately the best version of a story. A book well worth the read!

Front cover of Robert Holdstock's Lavondyss

Vel’s Perspective

Lavondyss is the second published novel by Robert Holdstock set in the proximity of Ryhope Woods, though not the second in terms of events. I read Mythago Woods, the first book, a fair few years ago, and it is firmly one of my all time favourites. So before starting on Lavondyss I had some high expectations – more creatures of myth and legend, more encounters with one’s inner desires, and a journey – into the world of Ryhope Wood, but also of the psyche.

In short, I got everything I wanted, and more. The down side for me was that I read the book too quickly, which I now think was a big disservice to it and to Holdstock’s talent. Because of the speed at which I read, I didn’t give myself time to analyse and think through the concepts introduced, how they tie in together to bring a deeper meaning to the main character’s journey.

Family, Grief and the Power of Storytelling

Our main character is Tallis Keeton, a brave, young girl, who loves exploring the nearby fields, brooks and copses, searching for their real name, reaching further and further out to the woodlands nearby. She builds stories – about figures from the past, some heroic and others monstros. These are the personifications of what Karl Jung calls the archetypes, which form the psyche of every person through the collective unconscious, which Holdstock calls “mythagos”. The way in which Tallis seems to build these stories is as if she is remembering them, or rather, someone is whispering them to her, as the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, observes when a chance meeting between him and Tallis occurs.

It seems Tallis has it all – the wide countryside on her doorstep, the freedom to wander it, myriads of stories and adventure. An idyllic childhood of open fresh air and endless summers. But there is a lot of sorrow and loneliness in that world too. Tallis is from her father’s second marriage, and her half brother, Harry Keeton, is an ex-RAF pilot who also appears in Mythago Woods, where he makes trips into Ryhope Woods himself.

There are many arguments over Harry between Tallis’ father and her mother to which the girl is a witness, either the rows themselves or their aftermath. For a large part of her upbringing, Harry isn’t there, even after he returns from the war, he comes and goes. The story is set into motion when Harry appears only to disappear again – with a final farewell to Tallis, and no one else. There is much uncertainty as to the whereabouts of Harry, and at the end of the book they still remain unknown, and it is for thirteen year old lonely Tallis to deal with the grief and uncertainty – is Harry dead? Or simply gone? And if gone, then where?

Tallis shuts herself off into her (seemingly) imaginary world, and begins to construct a set of Masks, from tree bark, leaves, paint, stone and others, which would help her see the world through other eyes and in this way to reach deeper into Ryhope Woods – and further into her own unconsciousness. She tells more elaborate stories, and sees clearer with her mind’s eye. Tallis, in the world of Mythago Woods, is a shaman.

The Journey

Tallis’ family struggle to help her with accepting Harry’s departure, as they are unable to deal with their own grief. There are more arguments and tears, especially notable to me was a row Tallis had with her mother – the young in opposition to the old, one way of thinking against another, and in the words of psychology we see a girl growing up, throwing off her mother’s rule so she can become an adult and a woman in her own right.

There comes a night, when all the masks are ready, and Tallis runs off into the night – at the height of her confused emotions, her shamanic powers drawing her into the forest, with her father at her heels. I felt truly sorrowful for James Keeton as he watched his daughter go, as his son had gone not too long ago, calling out to her into the night.

As Tallis enters Ryhope Wood, the story becomes a bit of a blur to me – this is where I wish I had dedicated more time to follow through with the different personas which come forth, to ponder their meaning, and their relation to both Harry and Tallis. The world of the mythagos is a swirl, leading back on itself just as the paths in a forest are, or like the thoughts of a person. I will restrain myself from giving out any further details, partly because I don’t want my own confusions to influence you if you pick the book up, and partly because once started, I’d be at it all day – Holdstock packs a lot of imagination and meaning in just a few hundred pages.

Conclusion

I will definitely be returning to the pages of Lavondyss, perhaps once Nelly has read the book and returned it to me, or perhaps in a couple years. I feel that I will enjoy going through Tallis’ adventures once more, just like I have enjoyed reading through Mythago Wood again and again. Tallis herself has become one of my favourite characters – bold, driven, a storyteller and a shaman. Whilst the events of Lavondyss are triggered by some events in Mythago Wood, you can read it in isolation without sacrificing any understanding of the plot or any joy from encountering the mythagos which abound its pages. If you are looking for a deeper read, and a story of growing up without the sugar coating of a ‘young fiction’ book – Lavondyss is just for you!

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