A Walk in the Woods

15 Sep

This is a strange one.

There aren’t many works of fiction like Mythago Wood, and that’s a shame because there have been very few times that I’ve been so utterly immersed in a book that I’ve read it in virtually one sitting, which is what happened to me the first time I picked up this novel by Robert Holdstock. Mythago Wood is set in and around a primeval tract of woodland known as Ryhope Wood, which to outward appearances is simply a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Hertfordshire. Needless to say, however, there is much more to Ryhope Wood than this, and in the course of the novel the impossible secret that it is hiding is slowly revealed – it is a place lost to time where familiar mythic archetypes such as  King Arthur, Robin Hood and Herne the Hunter come alive in twisted and terrifying ways. The story involves the estranged members of the Huxley family and their experiences with the forest and its enigmatic inhabitants, the ‘myth imagos’ (images of myth) or mythagos for short.

I’m not going to talk about the plot in too much detail (read it yourself – it’s worth it!) because for me the story is less important than the effect of Robert Holdstock’s writing, which is powerful and evocative, especially in its description of Ryhope Wood. You really feel the forest come to life around you as you read, almost as if you were walking in the woods with the characters in the book. As for the mythology, it’s clear that Holdstock is a writer who really knows his stuff – all of the mythagos have an authentic ‘feel’ in the way they are described and in their actions, which are often irrational and violent. Be warned that there is nothing particularly ‘cosy’ about this novel – many of the characters, human as well as mythago, are at times nasty and vengeful as often as they are heroic and benevolent, while things rarely turn out the way you want them to or expect. Robert Holdstock does not tend to do happy endings!

Although you’ll find Mythago Wood in the fantasy section of most bookshops it really doesn’t fit in with much of the rest of the genre because of the maturity of Holdstock’s writing. You can tell that the author’s inspiration is myth rather than fantasy (an important distinction I feel) and in this sense he continues the tradition of British writers such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and T H White, albeit for a more adult readership. Sadly Robert Holdstock is no longer with us (he died in 2009) but he left behind a number of books that share the setting of Ryhope Wood. If you like Mythago Wood I would hugely recommend reading its two immediate sequels, Lavondyss and The Hollowing, which are in my view equally as good (if not better in the case of Lavondyss). The later books in the Mythago sequence are, sad to say, just not up to the same high standard – the strange power that made Holdstock’s earlier writing so compelling faded away by that stage.

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