by Robert Holdstock
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood is an intelligent modern fantasy set in the years immediately following the end of World War II. Brought back to England by the news of his father's death, Steve Huxley discovers his brother has followed in their father's footsteps.
George Huxley had dedicated his life to the exploration of the wildwood which backed up on their home, often to the neglect of his wife and two young sons. Despite keeping meticulous records of his research into Ryhope Wood, he managed to keep most of the strangeness he examined from his family. By the time of his death, his wife had already predeceased him and his sons had come to look upon him with a mixture of loathing and antipathy.
What Huxley had discovered, and his own sons would discover on their own, was the existence of a Jungian playground within the three-square miles of Ryhope Woods. Every folkhero and legend who had ever been known in English history had an analog, or mythago, residing in the woods, whose very existence was tied, not to belief in the legend, but simply to the imagination of the surrounding minds. While some of the mythagos are of popular characters, like Robin Hood or King Arthur, many more of the mythagos encountered by the elder Huxley and his two sons were forgotten except within the confines of Ryhope Wood.
While the woods provide a strong sense of wonder and amazement for both the various Huxleys and the readers, Mythago Wood is also a tale of estrangement. Upon Steve's return to the family home, he is greeted by his brother, Christian. Within days, Christian leaves Steve to continue their father's exploration of the woods. Steve spends much of the novel alone, although he eventually does interact with Harry Keeton at the local air base, Anne Hayden, the daughter of one of his father's friends, and Guiwenneth, the mythago who held a special allure for all the men in the Huxley family. Even when Steve begins a relationship with Guiwenneth and Keeton, he does so in a distinctively distant manner.
Always at the edge of the action, and frequently more centrally located, is Ryhope Wood, itself. Throughout literature, forest has been seen as everything from evil (Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter), to liberating (William Shakespeare's As You Like It). Ryhope Wood takes on various aspects of all these things. A natural part of the Huxley's life, it takes on a sinister aspect when Steve views it from Keeton's airplane. The Wood is a living entity, perhaps moreso than any of the mythagos which reside in it. All three Huxley's must fight their way past the wood's defenses in order to explore its overgrown interior. Aerial photography of the woods result in blurred pictures which hint at the strange occurences within.
Ryhope is not the only mysterious woods in Holdstock's vision. Keeton has experienced a similar wood on the continent after he was shot down during the war. Although it is obvious to the reader that Keeton has his own reasons for wanting to join Steve on his explorations of the wood, Steve's disassociation with everyone around him causes him to ignore Keeton's own purposes.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Mythago Wood is the mythago, Guiwenneth, who manages to capture the hearts of all three Huxley men. Because Guiwenneth is the mythago who is most closely examined in the book, she can be used to help determine something of the nature of mythagos in general. Although Holdstock is careful to point out that mythagos are merely the incarnation of common Jungian subconcious, not limited by actual memory. However, at the same time, mythagos are brought into being by the minds of people who are nearby. Holdstock hints that the Guiwenneth who enticed George Huxley was created by his own mind, while the Guiwenneth who appeared to Christian was created by Christian's mind. The Guiwenneth who Steve falls in love with is definitely different than the one who Christian married and is found, early in the novel, lying in a shallow grave.
Similarly, the question of mythago generation is touched on, although not necessarily in detail as the Huxley's haven't managed to figure out how it is done. When Steve and Keeton eventually enter the woods in search of Christian, they discover that Steve's brother has become a legend among the mythagos. If this gives Christian life as a mythago, does that mean he needs a living mind as normal mythagos, or are mythagos able to create a sort of sub-mythago without intervention?
Holdstock leaves this and other questions unanswered, which also leaves room for several sequels, which he has written. More than almost any other fantasy, Mythago Wood is a novel about an idea. Holdstock manages to reveal just enough of the idea of mythagos to capture the reader's interest and imagination without making them so mundane as to cause them to lose that interest. Similarly, by using so few of the English legends readers are familiar with, Holdstock is preserving a large storehouse of stories from which he can draw. Mythago Wood richly deserves the World Fantasy Award it received and easily ranks among the best and most ambitious fantasy novels of the twentieth century.