Mythago Wood: Dreamy and strange

Robert Holdstock Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, The Hollowing, Merlin's Wood, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, Bone Forest, Avilionfantasy book reviews Robert Holdstock Mythago WoodMythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

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.

~Kat Hooper

fantasy book reviews Robert Holdstock Mythago WoodOur FanLit Fearless Leader, Kat, 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.

~Kelly Lasiter

fantasy book reviews Mythago Wood by Robert HoldstockMythago 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.

~Tim Scheidler

The mystery of Ryhope Wood, Britain’s last fragment of primeval forest, consumed George Huxley’s entire long life. Now, after his death, his sons have taken up his work. But what they discover is numinous and perilous beyond all expectation. For the Wood, larger inside than out, is a labyrinth full of myths come to life, “mythagos” that can change you forever. A labyrinth where love and beauty haunt your dreams… and may drive you insane.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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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.

  5. Robert /

    A new author (at least for me). Sounds good; great review.

  6. We cherish our beautiful puzzles too, though.

  7. Not quite being comfortable with it yet wanting to write a research paper about it — pretty much exactly my reaction too! And then Lavondyss blew me away.

  8. Paul Connelly /

    Lavondyss is even stranger, and just as good if not better. The Bone Forest (novelette) is also very creepy. Three brilliant works. After those three, Holdstock seemed to rein in the weirdness a bit while exploring the ideas and the setting more.

    Mythago Wood was written in the last few years before Freudianism went from being an unshakeable dogma for intellectuals to its current status as a source of a few interesting ideas and a lot more totally crackpot ones. So it’s not unreasonable to suspect some influence on the first book in the series. But many of Holdstock’s novels focus on unhappy families, with the parents deeply in conflict and children alienated, running away or stolen away. The female parent in his books rarely comes off well, and there’s something sad in the consistency of that in his works.

    • Yeah, Mythago Wood is definitely pretty Freudian.

      And yeah, the unhappy family thing comes up in Lavondyss too, of course, with Tallis’s family having been haunted by her brother going missing in the first book, and then Tallis vanishes as well…

  9. I had never heard of this title until Kat nudged me toward it about a year ago. I couldn’t agree more Tim, this is a weird, strange, fantastic book! Thanks again Kat!

    • You’re welcome, Chris!
      Tim says “extremely dry and scholarly” which makes me laugh… I’m not sure why… I guess I’m wondering if I’m extremely dry and scholarly.

      I loved Lavondyss even more. It’s still one of my favorite, if not my very favorite, fantasy novels.

      • ***sheepish look on his face*** I still haven’t read Lavondyss…….but it’s on my list.

  10. Kat –“dry and scholarly?” In which alternate universe?

  11. dwndrgn /

    Admittedly, I tend to avoid the darker reads but I couldn’t even finish Mythago Wood because I just disliked the main character too much and felt that everything was too close to the …and then he woke up…trope that I dislike also. But since I see everyone talk about how wonderful it is I tend to wince every time now. Oh well, to each his own I guess.

  12. Lol, not at all, Kat. I was mostly referring to the sections in which Holdstock has Huxley (possibly emulating his father) waxing verbose on primitive cultures and folklore to contextualize his doings with Guiwenneth. It was all very interesting stuff, but it sent me mentally right back to my university library.

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