As we are inclined to do from time to time, we’re devoting our opening notes to the appreciation of a specific work. This time we’ve chosen Avilion, the latest in Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood series — now twenty-five years in the making since the appearance of the first novel, Mythago Wood.
So why Avilion now as my reading material? As you well know, late November is a cold, rainy, and often simply nasty time as regards the weather ‘ere in the place where the Green Man offices are located. This being the case I decided to read the Green Man Library copy of Avilion, the latest novel in the Ryhope Wood series. These tales seem born of the colder time of year even when the story is set in warmer months, and fiction with a strong seasonal feel to it — such as Emma Bull’s midsummer-set War for The Oaks — is something I always enjoy. This series handles seasonal changes in its corner of Albion very well indeed.
But this is not a review of Avilion, as another staffer is doing that task for us. This is more of an appreciation of a series that started twenty-five years ago. Keep in mind that the Ryhope Wood series is not easy reading. The language Holdstock uses in this series is decidedly challenging, as you can read in this brief excerpt from the fourth chapter of Mythago Wood, the first novel of the series . . .
Wynne-Jones arrived after dawn. Walked together along the south track, checking the flux-drains for signs of mythago activity. Back to the house quite shortly after-no-one about, which suited my mood. A crisp, dry autumn day. Like last year, images of the Urscumug are strongest as the season changes . . . Perhaps he senses autumn, the dying of the green. He comes forward, and the oakwoods whisper to him. He must be close to genesis. Wynne-Jones thinks a further time of isolation needed, and it — can’t speak to her. Must do what is needed.
If you read these novels carefully, you’ll be amazed how everything fits together quite seamlessly. Be warned — the language herein is decidedly not what you find in most fantasy works! It is truly mythopoeic in nature, with a dense self-referentiality that requires its readers to pay attention not just to the narrative here as it unfolds, but to how that narrative relates to everything else in the Ryhope Wood series. The stories here are anything but linear in nature, as time, space, even the characters themselves change over and over again, so that what appears a certain way at one point will likely not appear the same way elsewhere in the metanarritve!
Now Holdstock says that Avilion is the sequel to Mythago Wood, so while you need not read the intervening works to grasp the full meaning of Avilion, you must read Mythago Wood first or it will make no sense at all. Oh, Lavondyss, The Hollowing, and Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn — not to mention a related Brittany set novel called Merlin’s Wood — are well worth reading after you’ve read these two. Indeed, the entire series could well keep you going for months this coming winter!
Before picking up Avilion, do heed the words of Richard Dansky who reviewed the series for us — ‘It’s not that they’re not good. On the contrary, they represent some of the finest work done in fantasy over the past two decades, and possibly longer. No, the difficulty lies in the content and structure of the series. Most fantasy slots neatly into the ‘heroic’ category with its attempt at epic, trundling merrily along the Campbellian path of the hero’s journey. Plots are linear, armies march, kingdoms struggle against evil, and in the end it all comes right in book three or five or seven or nine. Not so in Ryhope.’
And heed also the comments of noted writer Christopher Golden who said in the Green Man Pub when I asked him what he thought of the series as he sat reading his copy of Avilion — ‘Mythago Wood had a huge impact on me. I read it early on and loved it, the inward journey into human myth and belief most of all. I’ve enjoyed all of the others as well, but my favorite work of Holdstock’s is his extraordinary and lamentably out of print short story collection The Bone Forest.’
(Our Librarian assures me that The Bone Forest novella is now back in print in the UK as part of the recently re-published Merlin’s Wood which includes also two short stories ‘Earth and Stone’ which about a man witnessing the creation of Newgrange in Ireland, and ‘The Silvering’ a tale of Selkies. You can order it here.)
I envy you for having the pleasure of reading this series for the very first time!