Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Deep within the wildwood lies a place of myth and mystery, from which few return, and none remain unchanged. Ryhope Wood may look like a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Herefordshire on the outside, but inside, it is a primeval, intricate labyrinth of trees, impossibly huge, unforgettable and stronger than time itself.
Stephen Huxley has already lost his father to the mysteries of Ryhope Wood. On his return from the Second World War, he finds his brother, Christopher, is also in thrall to the mysterious wood, wherein lies a realm where mythic archetypes grow flesh and blood, where love and beauty haunt your dreams, and in promises of freedom lies the sanctuary of insanity.
Some times the Book Gods smile on me, and the opportunity to revisit a favourite novel from my dim and distant past arises. The release of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock as an ebook was the perfect opportunity to reconnect with a novel I read a long time ago.
The thing that still manages to impress is how the novel effortlessly captures the mood of post-war Britain, in the form of Stephen Huxley, but in the same moment also conveys a timeless quality. The relationship between the two brothers, Christian and Stephen, forms the core of the tale. From early childhood memories, to a series of turbulent meetings that leaves them estranged, you get genuine insight into their often-rocky relationship. As the plot develops and they both spend time travelling amongst the mythagos, the strange beings that inhabit the woods, this leaves them fundamentally changed.
The setting of Rhyope Wood is marvelously evocative, a primeval woodland that has existed since the dawn of time. The way that Holdstock’s almost poetic writing blends together the myths and legends of the British Isles is masterful. Robin Hood, Jack in the Green and Cernunnos all feature in one form or another.
I noticed when revisiting Mythago Wood with adult eyes that the story seems to have a much darker tone than I remember. There is a more obvious sense of sadness in some of the characters that I don’t think I appreciated it when I read it as an adolescent. This is most evident in a character of Guiwenneth. Steven and Christian are drawn to her and she finds herself caught between them both.
It feels as though there is a very deliberate sense of ambiguity surrounding the novel, and the mythagos in particular. Are they ghosts, the living embodiment of legends, or beings out of time? I like to think that Holdstock wanted any reader to come to his or her own conclusion. I’m sure if you asked multiple readers their opinions on the novel there would be some widely differing responses.
I have to admit to being a bit of an unabashed sentimentalist and the narrative of this novel plays right into that. Mythago Wood struck a chord with me the first time I picked it up and decades later many of the same thoughts and feelings resurfaced. I may have taken a slightly different interpretation of events, but the underlying sense of magic and wonder is still very much there. The real success of Mythago Wood is that it works on so many levels. This is a compelling, fantastical adventure that unfolds with the most delicate of touches. I foresee a re-read of Lavondyss, the next book in the cycle, in my very near future.
As I mentioned before, Mythago Wood has recently been released as an ebook and is still widely available in paperback. If you’ve never read it before I suggest that you do yourself a favour and seek out. Mythago Wood remains a modern classic that is truly worthy of your time. Writing rarely gets much better than this.