Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood

The first fully fledged novel in the Robert Holdstock’s epic novel cycle is Mythago Wood. The book, which first saw print in 1984 (though part of it appeared earlier in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) is awash in both the Oedipal struggle and the Jungian subjective unconscious. At its heart, it’s a tale of family struggle. Sons war against each other for the love of a woman, and both struggle against their monstrous, inhuman father. Or so it seems.

In 1946, Steven Huxley returns to his home at Oak Lodge, outside of Ryhope Wood, after a period of recuperation in France. Brought home by a letter from his brother Christian after the death of their father George, Steven steps into a situation far different from the one he remembered. Evidence of his father’s mounting obsession with the wood abounds, and Christian himself is unaccountably edgy. The woman he’d spoken of in his letters to Steven, one Guiwenneth, is missing, and explanations are in short supply. Slowly, the truth comes out, or at least bits of it.

With the aid of George’s journal (what remains of it) and some grudging exposition from Christian, Steven slowly pieces together some of what’s going on: their father’s obsession with and researches in the wood, the true nature of the mythago Guiwenneth (whom father and son quarreled over), and most terrifyingly, George’s attempts to rouse the primal hero form, the Urscumug.

Both brothers begin venturing into the wood, Christian deeper than Steven, until one day Christian vanishes into the forest’s depths. Alone at the Lodge, Steven finally begins to understand his father’s researches in earnest, working both from the journal and through the papers of Huxley’s missing research partner, Edward Wynne-Jones.

Then, abruptly, a Guiwenneth emerges from the wood. Slowly, painstakingly, she and Steven form a bond, even as the wood reaches out for the Lodge. Their time together is both idyllic and romantic, though tinged with melancholy. Guiwenneth sees catastrophe ahead. After all, Christian had loved a Guiwenneth in this way as well, and he is missing.

Sure enough, doom rides out of the wood, wearing Christian’s face. A man is stabbed, and Steven himself is nearly hanged. Finally he decides to enter the wood himself in pursuit of his brother, accompanied by a friend whose reasons are not immediately obvious. The pursuit into Ryhope is a long one. What Steven learns on the trail, however, is that he has literally stepped into legend.

Even as the brothers move through the wood, they dance to its rhythms — and the further in they go, the more they resemble their long-lost, hated father.

The pace quickens, the pursuit narrows, and ultimately Steven accepts that he has become part of the story. Then and only then can he face his brother, though at this point the myth that has taken hold of them both becomes distressingly vague. Neither is fated to be the victor. What is important is the form of the myth, that in the end they meet and all is decided.

Establishing the rough format for the rest of the cycle, Mythago Wood ends with a short fable, one that both brings Steven’s story to a satisfactory close and reminds the reader that personal history seen from a distance may well be indistinguishable from myth. A sharp, concentrated blast of a book, Mythago Wood seizes the reader early on and never lets go. Slow to explain some of its core concepts, it nevertheless offers the tantalizing promise of a full explanation further on, drawing the reader into the book as surely as the Huxleys are drawn into the forest.

(Victor Gollancz, 1984)

About Richard Dansky

The Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, Richard Dansky has worked in video games for 17 years. His credits include over 40 titles, most recently Tom Clancy’s The Division. Richard has also contributed extensively to the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs, and is the developer of the 20th anniversary edition of seminal horror game Wraith: The Oblivion. The author of six novels, including the Wellman Award-nominated Vaporware, he lives in North Carolina.