The myth-infested landscape of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood would seem to be fertile ground, not only for walking legends and “mythagos”, but also for literary criticism. After all, in the sequence Holdstock tackles not the structures of mythic fiction – dark lords, questing heroes, magical macguffins and so forth – but rather the concept of myth itself, and how the same core stories have echoed down through the millennia, amplified and distorted and reflected by centuries of human experience. The books start in a critical space, with scientist-protagonists attempting to unravel the nature of the wood and all it contains and it only dives deeper from there, familiarizing characters and readers alike with the tropes and concepts of discussion of myth.
All of which is a long way of saying, of course, that there’s a lot of grist for the critical mill in Holdstock’s work, and that he’s already done the easy part for the critics. What that means, then, is that the contributors to a volume such as this have to dig deeper in order to say more than Holdstock himself has already said, a formidable task that not every seeker succeeds at.
The book is broken up into three main sections: an introduction, complete with foreword by Brian Aldiss, a series of essays examining Holdstock’s approaches to the material, and then a longer series of in-depth looks at the novels. Again, this is not casual or light reading, but rather full-blown literary criticism, and the reader who wanders in looking for broad generalization or jargon-free analysis is going to trip over a few fifty-word-long sentences before fleeing for the exits. Furthermore, there’s no consensus reached here, no “right answer” as to what Holdstock’s fiction “means”. Nestled together are an essay extolling the female power of Tallis Keeton, protagonist of Lavondyss, and another one that ends on the unsettling note that Tallis’ entire narrative of initiation, birth, death, and escape may be no more than an embedded narrative in her brother’s story.
The first critical essay in the book, by W.A. Senior, explores the contextual landscape of Ryhope Wood, with the implication that the characters who populate the novels – fictions to us, the reader – become in a sense fictions within the psychoactive space of Ryhope as well. Each in turn projects their psyche onto the wood, becomes entangled in it, and becomes to a certain extent of it, rendering them curiously equal to the entities summoned from their own subconscious minds. Kalman Matocsy digs deeper into this vein, positing Ryhope as a purely psychic landscape and extending the possibility of being each and every myth within it to the reader. Ekman’s “Exploring the Habitats of Myth” is an attempt to map the landscape of the wood across the Ryhope series, and to explore how the mutable landscape is a function of the mythic space as much as it is mere geography, its hold on the characters directly related to their personal mythic journeys.
The fourth essay, and the first in the final section, is a look at Holdstock’s trio of semi-successful science fiction novels, largely for the purpose of unearthing early expressions of the themes that would be more fully manifest in Ryhope. Marek Oziewicz’s exploration of the sublime in the Ryhope books is a bit more focused but draws no conclusions beyond the obvious. In contrast, Donald E. Morse makes a compelling argument about the story-cycle of star-crossed Christian Huxley as child and man, in his examination of Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn. Ildiko Limpar’s assessment of Ryhope’s mythic landscape as being composed of temporal fragments as well as terrestrial ones makes it a fine companion piece to Matocsy’s essay, and the two complement each other well. The last two essays abandon Ryhope for the Merlin Codex series of novels; while interesting reads, the material they’re working with is less compelling than Ryhope, and thus they’re at something of a disadvantage.
The book closes with a catalog of Holdstock’s fiction, including the pseudonymous work, and it’s quite the extensive list. While completists and collectors will value the information, the real benefit to the book is in the serious, in-depth assessment of Holdstock’s work. Few modern fantasy authors have provided such rich material for critique, and to see such a broad range of well-thought-out approaches to it bodes well for further explorations of Ryhope Wood.