Book review: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

I had not been aware of the English fantasy writer Robert Holdstock until he died and I read his obituary. I thought from what that said, his work sounded just my sort of thing, but I didn’t get round to reading it for some time until I happened to be killing time near a large library while waiting for my car to be ready. He had also been featured shortly before in Ashsilverlock’s blog. I’m glad I took the opportunity.


“Mythago Wood” is the first book in a series. It is very different from the sort of fantasy you find in Tolkien or Peake, where you are immediately in a strange but compelling world and you either accept it or you don’t. This starts with our world, the English county of Herefordshire and a time just after the end of the Second World War. The narrator is a young man returning from war wounds to the house where his remote and strange father had died not long before, and which is now occupied by his elder brother, also returned from the war.


The house is lonely and on the edge of a mysterious wood. Anyone trying to walk into it finds himself blocked, diverted and coming out again. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, but the central idea is that in this wood, archetypes or mythical figures we’ve long forgotten can take on flesh and mind and a real existence. These are called mythagos. If a present-day human spends enough time in and penetrates deep enough into the wood, creatures are created in the image of his own unknown dreams. Once created, they seem to have short lives but are entirely corporeal, needing to eat and capable of killing.


But is this just the reality of the outer parts of the wood?


Because of the realistic start, it took me a while to feel taken up by the story, in contrast to Tolkien or Peake. It’s well-written but I’m not quite drawn in as completely as by some other first-class fantasy. It is very, very well done, though. The touches of myth are credible in their own traditions and Holdstock is very good at taking some real event and turning it into mythic expression. There are a few points about the this-word elements which aren’t quite credible: for example, a character, a serving air force officer, gets a spear in his shoulder from a mythago and is “patched up” at his base. But didn’t his comrades, in late nineteen-forties ordered England, insist on knowing what had happened and call the police?


The image of the wood invading the house is very powerful, as is the stream that goes into the wood and grows inside it to a river, but is a stream again when it exits.


I’m fascinated to find things in this book I didn’t know about but which correspond closely to what I’ve written. For example, my long poem “Six Strands” contains a section “Forest” which sounds in part very like Holdstock’s wood.


The next volume is “Lavondyss”. Like the narrator, I will go there…

The Forest

I was saying a bit about various environments or scenes that helped me think up poetry and which appeared in my poems. I’ve had my say about the sea, the shore, estuaries, rivers, skies and hills. There isn’t an endless list of such things, but I felt there was one more worth mentioning – forests or woods.


Living in lowland England, I walk in woods far more often than on the hills. In Britain the higher hills are generally covered in grass or heather and not trees, though many such areas were once forested. The open hills, like the sea and the sky, convey a sense of great, perhaps limitless, space. This makes some people scared, but for me it signals liberation and “the oceanic feeling” of linking with something bigger.


Among the trees, though, vistas are rare. You feel encompassed in the forest as you might feel underwater. In reality, after a while you’ll find a view of fields or moors or even houses, but it’s quite easy to forget this and imagine an endless or inescapable forest (I mean one that, once you enter it, allows no exit). Forests are full of life, both plant and animal, but they are dark (small woods are often less dark both because of light entering at the margins and because they’re often managed to provide spaces). We know that much of our land was forest, that once forest stretched from the English Channel to the southern Highlands of Scotland without break. In England there is no primeval forest left, and in Scotland only small, straggly fragments of the great Caledonian pine forest, but we remember and imagine the primeval forest and perhaps imagine the ghosts of those who inhabited it as elves and the rest.  Real primeval forest, for example the Bielowieza Forest in Poland, is immensely powerful, living, rotting, foetid, pulsing with birdsong, peopled with wolf, beaver, lynx and bison and, in imagination, with extinct animals such as the aurochs and our own Neanderthal Man.


Forest appears in my poems less than the sea or the open hills, but it appears as a place of strange life and suprises, of whispers and shadows. This is the forest of fairy story where children may get lost and find strange things.