Mythago Wood: Feels like a men’s story

Robert Holdstock Mythago Woodfantasy book reviews Robert Holdstock Mythago WoodMythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Our FanLit Fearless Leader, Kat Hooper, has been urging me for aeons to read Mythago Wood. It took some squeezing to get it into my reading schedule, but I finally did, and I’m glad that I read it. I must admit, though, that I didn’t like it quite as much as Kat did.

As I read, the thought that nagged at my mind was that Mythago Wood reminded me of something. I was sure it was another novel, so I racked my brain to figure out what it was. It was at about the 200-page mark that the light bulb came on. It didn’t remind me of another novel, it reminded me of Jean Markale’s Women of the Celts.

Jean Markale’s Women of the CeltsIf you haven’t happened across Women of the Celts, it’s a fascinating and sometimes infuriating treatise on women’s roles in ancient Celtic society, in myth and literature, and in the modern world. The first and final sections discuss women’s rights, but the middle chapters, ah, for me those were the interesting parts (and the sometimes infuriating parts). Despite the title of the book, these sections are really more about men and about the concepts men project onto women. Markale uses psychological theories, such as those of Freud and Jung, to examine ancient Celtic myths and medieval romances concerning women, and to draw conclusions about their meaning. In order to do that, he summarizes the stories for the reader in a rushed, dry style. It’s interesting stuff, but at times far too focused on Oedipal-type ideas. One grows weary of countless myths being distilled down to a man’s conflict with his father, and/or and his simultaneous attraction and revulsion toward the mother figure and women in general.

So, Mythago Wood. In this novel, Robert Holdstock tells the story of Steven Huxley, a soldier who returns from WWII to take up residence with his brother, Christian, at the family home. The house lies on the border of Ryhope Wood, the “mythago wood” of the title, where archetypal figures from the collective unconscious can come to life. Fascination with this wood, and with a woman from the wood, led Steven and Christian’s late father to neglect his family for many years. Now Christian is himself obsessed with the wood and the woman, Guiwenneth, and in due time Steven falls under the spell too.

Holdstock’s world-building is great, and his prose is well-crafted. I had trouble, however, when it came to connecting with the story on an emotional level. The parts that would have interested me most (such as the recounting of the myths that piece together Guiwenneth’s story) are treated briefly, drily, almost hurriedly. Instead, the narrative lingers over the beauty (and the B.O.) of the fair Guiwenneth. She has little in the way of personality, and seems to exist primarily as a symbol or a prize in the conflict among the three Huxley men. (She’s also very nearly the only woman in the book. Don’t get your hopes up at the mention of Freya. Holdstock’s Freya is a man.)

I think Holdstock knew exactly what he was doing, but Steven doesn’t have the self-awareness I kept wanting him to have. It never seems to occur to him, “wait, maybe I love this woman in part because, through her, I can one-up Dad and Big Bro.” The novel feels like a journey not through Ryhope Wood, but through Steven’s subconscious mind.

All great fantasies, of course, tap into something in our psyches, or else we wouldn’t be reading them! In this case, though, the psychology is just a little too naked. I found myself slipping out of “enjoying the story” mode and into “analyzing the archetypes” mode throughout much of the book. So, I can’t say precisely that I enjoyed Mythago Wood, but I can say that I enjoyed thinking about Mythago Wood, and that some college-throwback part of me feels the urge to write a term paper about it. I was surprised, then, that the ending really did move me. It’s beautifully written and has just the right touch of ambiguity to it.

I plan to read the next book, Lavondyss, and one of the reasons I’m looking forward to it is that its protagonist is a woman. Let me explain. It’s not that I won’t read books with male protagonists, it’s that having a female protagonist almost certainly forced Holdstock to flesh out that character more than he did Guiwenneth. Mythago Wood is a creative, intelligent book that has clearly had a great deal of influence on fantasy literature. I can see some of its echoes in one of my all-time favorites, Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day. I prefer McDonald’s book, though, and one of the major reasons is that McDonald’s women are full characters. Mythago Wood feels to me like a men’s story, in which women have no place except as symbols.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  1. Yeah, Guiwenneth is no great catch. The romance didn’t work for me, either. It was the world-building that I loved so much in that book. And, of course, it’s necessary in order to understand Lavondyss which may be the best fantasy novel ever written.

  2. Yup, the world-building is terrific–and yeah, even if I’d loathed Mythago Wood rather than just being “meh” about it, it would be worth it because it provides the necessary background for Lavondyss.

  3. Wow Kat, that’s high praise from you! I’ll have to add this to the list of “books I plan to read if I ever dig my way out of this mountain of ARC’s”.

  4. Indeed, high praise! And the Gene Wolfe books I’m reading now are way high up there, too, but Lavondyss I think is at the top.

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