Merlin’s Wood is not precisely part of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood series, as it is set in France, not England. For an author whose other books in the Ryhope Wood cycle are English in motif, this is an odd digression. The rest of the Ryhope Wood cycle takes place in and around Ryhope Wood in the heart of England, but this time the location is an ancient forest of Broceliande in Brittany.
Broceliande, forest of legends, and of dreams, is where Merlin lies dreaming, trapped in the heart of a great oak by the sorceress Vivian. It is also the haunt of Morgaine, luring all men whose belief in justice fails them to eternal damnation. This is a forest where both good and evil abound, but one must know the path to either. It is said that the name was given to the Breton forest because many of the Arthurian legends were set here, but perhaps more important is that the name refers to a magic fountain at the heart of the Wood.
A Black Knight would materialize from the forest when water was poured onto a precious emerald at the brim of the fountain. The Authurian legends claim that Owain became guardian of the fountain after defeating the Black Knight. (The Ryhope Wood series is infused with the intertwining mythologies of the Celtic peoples and the sprawling Arthurian legends.)
Martin, the protagonist, was raised on the edge of the wood and, like all of the local children, encountered sightings that might or might not be ghosts, on the shadowed path that led into the Wood. When he returns to his home after years abroad to attend the funeral of his mother , he is warned by the local people that he should leave before harm comes to him. And no, the locals didn’t tell him what exactly what would befall him should he fail to leave — only that great harm would happen to him and all those he cared for.
Meanwhile Rebecca, the orphan who lived with Martin’s family, also returns for the funeral of Martin’s mother and likewise is instruct to leave forthwith. But there is a depth of love — or perhaps lust — between Rebecca and Richard that could not reach fruition due to their tender ages when they were children. Now, as adults reunited after a long separation, that love can be consummated — and it is. Despite the dire warnings, Martin and Rebecca decide to stay in the ancestral house at the edge of Broceliande, marry and have a child. But their son, Daniel, is born without sight, speech or hearing — a fate that locals blame on their refusal to leave the area.
Thus begins the descent into misfortune that is the heart of Merlin’s Wood — the search for a cure for Daniel must evolve into a quest for the power at the heart of Broceliande’s Wood that is Merlin himself. Daniel’s gradual awakening in his sensory capabilities is matched by a comparable reduction in Rebecca’s own mental abilities, first noticeable when she loses the ability to sing. As Daniel begins to sing the ‘songlines’ of Broceliande, Martin realizes that something very grim is happening to his family. Saving his family will mean that Martin must journey into the very heart of Broceliande where Merlin has spent more than a thousand years dreaming.
Merlin’s Wood is one of the shortest of Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood tales except for The Bone Forest novella which is a prequel to the series, and it is also the most focused. The other tales in this series can best be described as sprawling and oft times complex to a fault. In contrast, Merlin’s Wood can seem too brief at times. This is a tightly told story where the persistence of myth as part of everyday life, and the power of the unconscious mind to make those myths real have physical substance. Holdstock calls them mythagos, and they are bound together by the relationship within Martin and Rebecca’s household.
Unraveling the mystery of Merlin’s Wood will require Daniel and Rebecca to unfold the riddle of their relationship to each other, Daniel, and Broceliande. Tragedy will in time give way, as the subtitle notes, to a Vision of Magic. Merlin’s Wood is an integrated, self-contained good introduction to the mythago concept that underlies the Mythago Wood cycle.