After his post-WWII convalescence in France, Steven Huxley is returning to his family’s home on the edge of Ryhope Wood, a patch of ancient forest, in Britain. For as long as Steven remembers, his father, who recently died, had been so obsessed with the forest that it destroyed their family.
Upon returning home, Steven finds that his brother Christian is quickly following in their father’s footsteps — both figuratively and literally — for he has also discovered that this is no ordinary forest! It resists intrusion from Outsiders, time and distance are skewed there (so it is much larger inside than the 6 miles it covers in modern Britain should allow, and time seems to expand), and strange energy fields interact with human minds to create mythagos — the idealized forms of ancient mythical and legendary creatures, heroes, and villains formed from collective subconscious hopes and fears. So, for example, if you strolled through Mythago Wood (if you could get in) you might encounter Robin Hood, King Arthur, Talos, Freya, or perhaps some more generic version of a popular legendary ideal. You might walk down a Roman road or stay in a medieval castle or a Germanic tribe’s hut. And when you come out, you may have been gone only half the time you spent inside Mythago Wood.
The destruction of the Huxley family has been caused by the creation, out of father Huxley’s mind, of Guiwenneth, the mythago of an idealized red-haired Celtic warrior princess who occasionally comes out of the woods. Mr. Huxley was obsessed with her (and this is what eventually led to both Mrs. and Mr. Huxley’s deaths) and, when Steven arrives, Christian, who has become similarly obsessed, has been making forays into the forest in search of Guiwenneth. Before long, Steven gets pulled into the drama and the strange goings on in Mythago Wood.
I was entranced by Mythago Wood from the first page. The writing is clear, lovely, and unpretentious. The story is told from Steven’s viewpoint (first person, with diary entries and letters from a couple of other characters), so the reader feels emotionally involved. The pace is quick. The forest setting is beautiful.
The first two thirds of the novel flew by. During this time, Steven is figuring out what’s going on in the woods and he meets and falls in love with Guiwenneth (yes, the same girl that his father and brother loved). All of this was fascinating and highly emotional. I loved the premise of the story — the wood that forbade entry to modern humans and was bigger in time and space inside than could be explained by it’s physical dimensions. The existence in the wood of archetypal heroes and villains from across the ages, all living together at the same time, each in his own clothes and weapons. Cool stuff. I also thought the recollections of Steven and Christian about their father’s work and coldness toward their family was poignant.
But, somehow, when Steven and his companion Harry Keeton actually managed to get beyond the defenses of the forest and were traveling through Mythago Wood, it was not as exciting as when Steven was only learning about the forest from his father’s notes and his experiences with the mythagos who came out of the woods. Suddenly, it turned into a quest and struggle for survival that was not quite as fascinating as the learning process was, though there were definitely some fun parts.
I did not understand how mythagos, if they are not real, can kill, be killed, or fall in love. Steven and Harry come up with some revelations (about mythagos) that seemed to come out of nowhere. I am also not sure why these men are falling for Guiwenneth. The explanation is that she’s the mythago of the Celtic warrior princess, and thus men can’t help but fall in love with her. Steven mentions that she may be his mythago, but his father and brother fall in love with the same woman. She doesn’t do much but giggle. Is that ideal? She has red hair, fair skin, she’s slender and uses a knife. Maybe that’s it?
I never fully understood Harry Keeton’s situation, which was wrapped up much too quickly, but I’m thinking that this will be addressed in the sequel, Lavondyss. There were a few elements that seemed thrown in without purpose — myths that didn’t seem to fit, characters who Steven was told had to be “left behind” when he didn’t even know they were with him. Perhaps we’ll see them again.
So, while I was quickly pulled in and I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book, I experienced moments of confusion in the last section. I’m sure I’d benefit from another reading of Mythago Wood — it’s that kind of book. Perhaps some of these things would be cleared up. Or, perhaps not. I believe that the novel was composed of three separate novellas, and that may explain some of the disjointedness.
I’m going to read Lavondyss, the sequel to Mythago Wood. I loved this setting and the characters, and I’m hoping further reading will clear up my confusion.