Mythago Wood and Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock
“A fire is burning in Bird Spirit Land.
My bones smoulder.
I must journey there.”
Forests are naturally places of mystery and wonder. Full of life and growth, they are generative, symbolic of growth and fertility. Yet they also represent nature untamed, a landscape ungoverned by human husbandry, a labyrinth into the darker aspect of our own subconscious desires and intents, the animal buried by centuries of civilisation. From Mirkwood and Lothlorien in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, to the ancient, spirit-haunted forest in Hayao Myazaki’s Princess Mononoke, to the forests walked by Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, the resonance of forests in our stories as places both sublime and infernal crosses cultural and temporal boundaries. Is our fascination and fear of the forest linked to something truly primal, a remnant from humanity’s earliest days, when we lived closer to nature, and were more vulnerable to it? Does its prominence and permanence in our mythology tell us something about where these stories come from in the first place?
Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood explores our complicated relationship to the forest, as an alluring, nurturing place of quest and adventure, but also as a terrifying place of madness and death. It is also a book about stories, interested in the universal elements of our mythology and where they come from. While it is a very human story about human issues, one could almost argue that its most indelible character is Ryhope Wood itself, a stretch of prime British heartwood on the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire which gets bigger the further in you go, distorts time, exudes a powerful, obsessive grip over all the characters, and interacts with their subconscious minds to generate mythic archetypes – ‘mythagos’ – which are both manifestations of and the source of humanity’s myths and legends, borne out of conflict between people and the land.
Mythago Wood tells the story of Stephen Huxley, who returns to Oak Lodge and his family’s Ryhope estate after fighting in World War II. Stephen lost his father George to his obsession with the ancestral forest, and he returns to find his brother Christian being consumed by the same obsession. Christian has been immersing himself in his father’s research, trying to find ways to get deeper and deeper into the ancient wood, and untangling the origins of humanity’s oldest myths and legends from the mythagos.
After Christian suddenly disappears into the forest, Stephen finds himself drawn increasingly into the encroaching world of the wood, especially after he meets and falls in love with Guiwenneth, a beautiful female mythago from the Bronze Age who, in differing forms, has fallen in love with both George and Christian. When an older, bitter and angrier Christian returns from the forest to kidnap Guiwenneth, Stephen, along with Harry Keeton, a pilot who was scarred after his plane crashed in a similarly magical forest in France during the war, must venture deep into Ryhope Wood to get her back again before his brother reaches Lavondyss, the most ancient heart of the forest where time itself stops.
Mythago Wood succeeds as an engaging quest story with a fascinating central mystery. Holdstock masterfully racks up the tension, as we first receive hints and implications of the forest’s magical aspects through excerpts from George Huxley’s journals and research notes, hallucinogenic and mythological experiences presented in a dry, academic, rational manner, before Stephen viscerally and frighteningly experiences them for himself. The book is full of haunting encounters and powerful imagery, from visions of tendrils of forest reaching out and enveloping Oak Lodge and Keeton’s plane, through to the swirling storm of spirits and apparitions that herald the appearance of Sorthalen the shaman. However Holdstock always manages to make the events of the book feel unsettlingly real, from the calm, scientific rationalisations in George’s notebooks through to the intense physicality the mythagos possess, Holdstock never missing a chance to remind us how they smell and feel.
But Mythago Wood is more than just a convincingly told and strikingly vivid adventure story. Without resorting to any post-modern meta-techniques, it is a meditation on the nature and origins of stories and mythologies, as a way of understanding our place in the world and a necessary part of what makes us human. As Stephen and Harry travel deeper into Ryhope Wood, they encounter the mythagos of all the different people who have ever inhabited Britain, from the Anglo-Saxons to the Britons to the Romans and the Celts and further back still to the end of the ice age and the dawn of humanity, all drawn from their own, and George and Christian’s, subconscious. As they speak and interact with the different people, they uncover more and more forgotten legends and stories about Guiwweneth. There are elements of Guinevere and King Arthur in her story, and the Mabinogion, and other Celtic and Irish mythologies, but there are hints of a forgotten ur-story, an original legend behind all the other legends, lost in the mists of time but containing such profound truths about the human condition that it still echoes down the ages in our subconscious. As their journey continues, it becomes clear that Stephen and Christian, one outsider brutally destructive, the other destined to bring peace to the realm by defeating him, are becoming part of their own mythic tale, and that the time will come when they will have to perform their appropriate roles in the story, whether they want to or not. The ending is brutal and utterly heart-breaking.
Mythago Wood is a complete and satisfying tale in and of itself, and ends so perfectly that it’s difficult to imagine a necessary sequel. However, Lavondyss returns to Ryhope Wood, but wisely with a very different story to tell that doesn’t involve the Huxleys at all. This lets the two novels stand alone as complementary but individual stories that share a compelling setting, and if anything, Lavondyss is the more powerful and original work.
Lavondyss is set some ten years after the end of Mythago Wood, when Tallis Keeton, Harry’s younger sister, now thirteen years old, hears Harry’s voice calling to her from a lost realm inside the forest. The book follows Tallis’ attempt to rescue Harry from the clutches of Ryhope Wood. Rather than rehashing the adventure quest story from the previous book, Lavondyss delves deeper into Holdstock’s fascination with forgotten myths and ur-stories. The themes and fascinations of Lavondyss are laid out in the ten masks that Tallis makes in order to reach Lavondyss, the timeless realm at the heart of the forest. These masks represent ancient aspects – the shadow of the forest, the flight of birds, the spirit that walks – that might have been important to our ancient ice-age ancestors, and by accessing these aspects, allow Tallis to manipulate time and space to her will. Tallis, because she is much more a part of the magical forest than George, Stephen and Christian ever were, is able to intuit and control aspects of the forest that they could only dream of, but because she is still just a child, she often doesn’t understand what she is doing.
Lavondyss sees Holdstock immersing himself ever more deeply in dream imagery, trying to recall and conjure up the very things that all the resonant images in our psyche are based on, from the ancient rituals behind Morris dancing to larger than life spirit animals and tree spirits. As a result, the book has a dreamlike tone, sometimes darkening into nightmare in its most intense moments. Even more than Mythago Wood, Lavondyss is suffused with a powerful, overwhelming longing to return home to a place you’ve never been. Holdstock explores how intense this obsessive desire is, and how disastrous the results of having your wishes granted may be.
The book is deeply fascinated with storytelling as an art, and again sees Holdstock trying to tap into the original story that has inspired all others. This is echoed in how the main character arc of Lavondyssbasically inverts that of Mythago Wood; here instead of two siblings who are driven apart and must destroy the other or be destroyed, the two siblings willingly sacrifice themselves to save each other, yet unwittingly wind up being the lure that draws the other into the trap in the first place. Once she reaches Lavondyss, Tallis is able to see how the death of a sibling in the ice-age, which allows the family to keep living, has evolved into the stories she has told about Scatach and his brothers’ inheritance and also her own story. It also makes explicit the connection between Lavondyss and the underworld, and links Tallis’ story to the Greek legend of Persephone, queen of the underworld, and to Christ and the resurrection, as Tallis must herself pass through death and be born again to return from Lavondyss.
All of the above might suggest that Lavondyss is a much drier, academic and more difficult book than Mythago Wood. While its plot is certainly more complicated – the book’s resolution hinges on multiple separate time loops, and it only becomes clear how they all fit together at the end – it is by no means a hollow intellectual exercise. The book is full of luscious dream imagery, especially in its epic, millennia-spanning final scenes, and has just as many indelible images that will haunt the reader for long afterwards. Its ending is just as heart-wrenching as its predecessor’s. Ryhope Wood’s mysterious allure still holds sway, and Holdstock himself would return for the further sequels The Bone Forest (1991), The Hollowing (1993), Merlin’s Wood (1994), Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997) and Avilion (2009), but the power, beauty and intensity of the first two novels remains unmatched.