Mythago Wood is a weird little book. In many ways, I can see why it flies under the radar. Robert Holdstock has good prose and introduces some fascinating ideas, but what he creates is definitely not mass-market fare. It’s still recognizably fantasy, but the darker side of fantasy. This is Tir na nOg by night, when the Technicolor dragons, irreverent pixies, and maniacal dark lords have all retired for the evening, leaving a brooding, uncomfortable stillness in their wake. “Uncomfortable” is actually a word I want to dwell on a bit in relation to this novel. Mythago Wood is a very well-written, very intensely imagined story, but there’s always something about it that feels just a little off. Holdstock gives his novel an ambiance that is very difficult to grow comfortable with, and whatever position I contorted my mind into, I never quite managed it.
The story follows a young Englishman named Stephen Huxley as he returns from the Second World War to the house in the woods where he grew up, and where his brother Christian still resides. Huxley seems in the opening portions of the novel reluctant to return home, and much of what occurs after he does so makes it apparent to the reader why he might have wanted to stay in France. The house and especially the Wood that surround it are haunted both emotionally and literally for Huxley, and the setting casts a gloomy pall over his experiences there that never really lifts, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the Wood and the men involved with it.
This is the sort of novel that almost begs for someone to use it as the basis for a research paper, and that kind of novel is usually ambiguous enough that multiple interpretations are possible. Others have had very different opinions than I have about what the significance is of the magic of Ryhope Wood and the figures of myth (mythagos, in Holdstock-speak) which it apparently brings to life. For my own part, I tended to view the text as a discussion on myth and story. A large portion of it is taken up by Huxley’s apparent romance with Guiwenneth, a mythago that was at one point the amorous focus of his father and brother. So yes, call Doctor Freud. Let’s get all the Oedipus jokes out of the way right now. What’s more interesting than Huxley’s infatuation with Guiwenneth is the fact that he fairly explicitly lampshades at points that part of the myth of Guiwenneth is that she’s irresistible. So it is that before he can even speak with her, Huxley has thoroughly fallen for what is, in essence, a myth, a story made flesh. Guiwenneth is not a fully characterized woman, and her romance with Huxley feels (to the reader) hollow and perhaps a little creepy. In other words, we’re talking once again about love for the idea, a love that draws Huxley deeper and deeper into the world of Ryhope Wood and into becoming a myth himself.
Seen in this light, the novel is not so much about Stephen Huxley’s search for his beloved but about his seduction into legend. In his obsession with a creature who is created in many respects out of his own consciousness, Huxley allows himself to drift further and further away from what he once was, until — eerily — by the climax he appears to have only one desire in the world, a desire which corresponds exactly with the mythic role placed upon him by the Wood. The further the novel goes, the more difficult Huxley becomes to relate to (as, just perhaps, the less human he is?). The obvious question then becomes: how much did Ryhope alter itself for Huxley, and how much was Huxley in fact altered to suit his position in Ryhope? Which ultimately won out, the man or the myth? Has Huxley, like a writer, triumphed in giving himself a story in which he has a chance of finding his lost love; or has all that has happened only served to lose him forever amongst figments and phantoms of the human mind?
To be honest, I’m still not sure. The book is dense, clever, and filled with philosophical thought. If it has a flaw, in fact, it’s that Holdstock’s style often feels a little too intellectual. At times, I felt as though I was reading some sort of self-conscious allegory rather than an actual novel, and the tone, at points, can become extremely dry and scholarly. It’s a fascinating book, but not always an enjoyable one.
That said, on its intellectual merits alone Mythago Wood deserves a cherished place in fantasy amidst the books that prove the genre’s “literary” merits. As I said above in the first line, it’s a weird, weird book. It’s also quite good. It will for most readers probably end up more as a beautiful puzzle than as a cherished favorite, but dryness and discomfort aside, it’s definitely worth a read, if only to remind us when we need it that fantasy isn’t all Technicolor dragons.