A Place on the shelf: A new, occasional, series about some of my favourite books. All of them repeat survivors of successive culls and clear-outs and each featuring a particular landscape or setting at the heart of the story. Hence, ‘A place on the shelf’.
‘A hole in a stone. An eye on a bone. A ring made of thorn. The sound of a forge. All of these things…’
I was 15 when I first read Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, a couple of years after it had come out. I bought a copy from a small bookshop on Bristol’s Gloucester Road, not far from our house. On the cover of my Grafton Paperback edition, an Anglo-Saxon warrior-type leant on a sword, next to a thickly wooded stream. Three large stepping stones led across the water, where, in the foreground, a kingfisher waited on an overhanging branch. The intriguing title was spelt out along the top in bold red capitals. How could I resist?
Inside the story itself proved even more enticing. A mysterious letter. A secret journal. An ancient wood, in borderland territory. Deceptive stone and briar-choked paths that appeared to lead deep inside, but somehow worked to steer the curious away and then there were the strange, ghostlike figures, stirring at the edge of the trees. These were some of the tantalising elements that quickly took hold and drew me into Ryhope Wood – the given name of Holdstock’s fictional territory.
Ever since that first encounter, Mythago Wood has been one of the books that has both fuelled and reflected my personal imaginative landscape. Most real woods I’ve been in afterwards, have a hint of Ryhope about them.
However, in that deliciously curious, circular way that memory, art and the imagination tumble together, my view of Holdstock’s fictional world was itself informed by early childhood experiences in and around other actual forests and woods. These include Bristol’s Leigh Woods, Blaise Castle and the woods around Prideaux in Cornwall; where once a thrilling, Native American themed game of Capture the Flag, on a school trip, aged 11, gifted me a viscerally intense memory of running wild – at once scared and thrilled – amongst trees.
Before re-reading Mythago Wood to write this, I noted down the things that had most firmly stuck in my mind. First and most fondly recalled, was the toy boat that the main character Stephen Huxley and his brother Christian sent through the woods via the Sticklebrook, a little stream that ran into Ryhope woods near their home, Oak Lodge. The tiny vessel disappeared, much to the boys’ disappointment, before mysteriously re-emerging, weeks later.
Then there were the mythagos themselves: haunting figures from a mythic past – often appearing in the form of a legendary archetype: a Robin Hood, a King Arthur, a hunter with a huge dog at his side – perhaps Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster. Most significant of all, Guiwenneth – a prehistoric/Brythonic warrior princess. But the one that seemed to have made the biggest impression was the Twigling, a mythago the Huxley brothers glimpse as children, explained away as some kind of tramp by the boys’ obsessive, secretive father, George.
I also remembered a scene involving a biplane flight over the wood, the pilot Harry Keeton with a scar on his face and a monstrous, man-boar creature.
These were the particulars, but my general sense about why I’d enjoyed the book so much was all about the wood itself. Ryhope in my memory was a kind of Narnia for grown-ups – a gateway or portal to another dimension, yet also, crucially, part of this one. Mythago Wood is very much a ‘low fantasy’ in that it exits in Britain, rather than in some other imaginary world and for me this added enormously to its power.
This six-mile tract of primeval forest in Herefordshire had a Tardis-like quality – it was far larger than it appeared from the outside, or on a map – if you could find it on one. The atmosphere of this mysterious place had lingered long. Some aspect of the book’s timeless fairy-tale quality, had struck a chord, perhaps playing on an ingrained childish fear and attraction to the idea of dark enchanted forests. I liked Mythago Wood then and now, because I liked that kind of story. As teenage me read, elements of Narnia, Middle Earth, Alderley Edge, Dracula, MR James, Stig’s Dump, Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Eagle of the Ninth, piled in alongside me.
All these years later, I wondered whether the book would still possess its own singular power, especially in the face of my subsequent reading of other, perhaps more traditionally ‘literary’ books set in and around woods. Would Holdstock’s creation be diminished, or invigorated if re-entered with memories of Goodman Brown, Malory, The Wendigo, Heart of Darkness, The House on the Borderland, Satantango?
I needn’t have worried. As I read it occurred to me increasingly that Mythago Wood is a book built on echoes and reflections; although as the Fabulous Realms blog notes,
“The Mythago Wood novels are among those rare books that add to our experience rather than simply reflecting that experience back to us.”
Holdstock’s is a tale and a landscape formed as much from myth and memory as it is from word and plot, oak and elm. The more stories and folklore you bring in, the bigger and better it gets.
Into the trees
In a recent filmed conversation with Iain Sinclair around his book The Last London, Alan Moore suggests that:
“there are some places that are going to accumulate meaning much more than other places…they just blister up out of space time, these places that are loaded with atmosphere, loaded with meaning, loaded with symbols, they do something to our consciousness when we approach them.”
Moore was talking about the psychogeography of real places, but this idea could be easily applied to the fictional world of Mythago Wood. Throughout the book, Moore’s notion of accumulated and layered meaning is most obviously manifested in the mythagos themselves.
Holdstock introduces the mythagos a little like the way MR James tended to introduce his ghosts: at first flickering on the periphery, more felt than seen, but gradually gaining in stature, from an initial teasing, off-centre presence, until drawing closer and becoming something rather more substantial.
Although the central character Stephen Huxley refers to “occult processes occurring in the forest”, these figments from the past are less petrifying Jamesian revenants, than visible manifestations of folk memory; conjured out of the wood’s fertile ground by those perceptive enough to see and encounter them.
Mythagos are paranormal and peculiar, but not, on the whole, supernaturally terrifying – although they can be pretty scary in a more solid, human manner when hunting in the woods or attacking Oak Lodge with great swords and flights of arrows.
Far more disturbing than any individual Mythago emerging from out of the woods are the personas developed, and taken into the trees by Christian Huxley and his father George. Time works differently within the wood, and what might be a matter of days in the outside world could be years within Ryhope. As a result, Christian is able to transform himself into a hard, muscular and fearsome warrior – The Outsider – leader of a band of hunters known as Hawks, who brings terror to those inside and outside the wood.
Meanwhile, the late George Huxley, or some fragment of his subconscious, has been reincarnated within Ryhope wood as the Urscumug – a creature that in an earlier incarnation figures in his journal as the prime mythago he encountered, or perhaps generated himself (George Huxley also refers to this figure in his journal as The Primary). By the time Stephen begins to venture into Ryhope, the Urscumug/George is manifesting as a huge, slavering beast, half-man, half boar, with, in a freakish Freudian-nightmare twist, a face that retains some of his father’s features. In the second half of the book, this monster rampages through the forest domain, seemingly in jealous pursuit of his errant sons.
As for the mythagos from within Ryhope, it becomes clear fairly early on that the various half-glimpsed, vague forms of Prehistoric Hunters, Hoods and Arthurian figures who appear to Stephen Huxley, his brother Christian and RAF Pilot Harry Keeton, are largely symbolic, atavistic characters. These Mythic, Prehistoric, Celtic, Viking, Medieval, Civil War era and even First World War figures who populate the woods at different moments, represent both their own original individual historic epochs, but also combine to bolster the sense that time is somehow flattened, or telescoped within the ancient wood.
In this way mythagos do function a little like ghosts, but more like those in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape than James’ malevolent entities, in the way they interact with those who encounter them. To emerge, or become apparent, the mythagos appear to draw on some latent ‘occult’ power in the land itself, reacting with an individual’s psyche to trigger, or tap into the deep, supernatural forces bound into the woods. George Huxley refers to them in one entry in his journal as ‘ego’s mythological ideal’.
In some respects Mythagos are symbolic Jungian archetypes, ‘folk hero reflections’ from the distant, or imagined past. Intriguing though all this may be, Holdstock never allows theorizing about what the mythagos are to get in the way of the story.
Whilst the author alludes to Jung and collective consciousness, and perhaps Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero, the references serve to provide psychological heft, underpinning the plot, without ever swamping it.
The mythago archetypes are not alone in moving through history. In this space, time travel is not a one way journey. Towards the end of the book, the Huxley brothers Stephen and Christian assume, or enter into, mythic pre-ordained roles as The Kinsman and The Outsider respectively, as they act out, or re-enact what seems to be another incarnation of a fateful story that has been recurring for generations.
Although the plot is focused on Stephen’s adventures around and within Ryhope, there are broader themes and ideas that reach far beyond its borders. In one scene, Stephen Huxley hears a tune played in the woods by a band of ancient hunters and is reminded of a childhood trip to Abbots Bromley, where he once heard the same music, which must have been passed down from ancient times.
Here, Holdstock gives his narrative a grander sense of scale, is by showing instances of the spiralling, or twisting of time, working on an individual level and reaching well beyond the wood – this is at once a memory personal to Stephen and an echo of something much deeper and older, from the very land itself.
“That mysterious sound had sent thrills down my spine even at that early age, something in the haunting melody speaking to a part of me that still linked with the past. Here was something I had known all my life. Only I hadn’t known it.”
Harry Keeton is also revealed to have spent time in a similar ‘ghost wood’ in France, after surviving a crash during the recent war in Europe. It is clear that this book is something more substantial than simply an entertaining fantasy set inside a magical wood.
“She’s lived a thousand times and she’s never lived at all”
Not every mythago is a mere cypher. The central character of Guiwenneth, although at some level existing as another symbolic type, becomes increasingly rounded and more ‘human’ as the story unfolds. Initially this striking, warrior-princess could appear to be a bit of a stock (male) fantasy figure – a beautiful red-headed wild woman – not dissimilar in appearance to the Wildling Ygritte “You know nothing John Snow” from George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Leila from Doctor Who. However, Holdstock succeeds in making Guiwenneth more complex, by introducing an intriguing tension between her archetypal persona and the flesh and blood woman she starts to become.
In her mythic guise, Guiwenneth is in part a symbolic aspect of the pagan Triple Goddess figure – Maid, Mother and Crone (although to Stephen and Christian she’s very much the Maid). Mythago Guiwenneth is in part a mental creation of Stephen; although an earlier version was previously created, then desired by his father George, whilst another Guiwenneth ‘married’ Stephen’s brother Christian, before dying and being buried outside the house.
The lithe, wild, physicality of Guiwenneth contrasts sharply with the domesticated, depressed and ill figure of Stephen’s mother, who can only look on in despair as her husband George became increasingly obsessed with ‘his’ vision of the red-headed warrior princess.
Guiwenneth’s raw, earthy attractions also stand up favourably when set against another young woman, the daughter of the Ryhope family, owners the estate within which the wood is set: “an unpleasant girl who conformed to all the worst caricatures of the English upper classes: weak-jawed, dull-eyed, over opinionated and under informed.”
An unfashionable Freudian reading of all this might point to some kind of atavistic, oedipal impulse on the part of the Huxleys, to get back to their roots and fuck the Earth Mother: two generations of men attempt to penetrate a mysterious wood and the woman who lives there.
Happily, there is more to the Guiwenneth story than sex. As Guiwenneth grows closer to Stephen Huxley, both physically and emotionally, some intriguing questions begin to occur. At one-point Stephen persuades her to leave the confines of the wood for a visit to the nearest town. Guiwenneth very much wants to go, but quickly finds out that she cannot leave the place, as it physically hurts when she tries to go further than Oak Lodge. This adds to her growing self-awareness and she notes, sadly, later that “I am wood and rock, not flesh and bone”. After weeks with Stephen Guiwenneth comes to understand that she is not fully human, yet is able to behave as if she is real.
The growing romantic bond between Stephen and Guiwenneth is made more poignant by the gap between her increasingly powerful human emotions and her pre-ordained legendary story. As Christian remarks to his brother: “She’s lived a thousand times and she’s never lived at all”.
‘What if I told you the forest had stopped us from entering. Would you believe me?’
If mythagos in general may sometimes be threatening, but not especially frightening, the woodland home they spring from is a very different matter. Ryhope itself is a threatening and unnerving place, and it is in Holdstock’s evocative depiction of this weird, ancient landscape that the true power and fascination of Mythago Wood lies.
Often in his descriptions of the wood Holdstock achieves a brilliant stylistic balance between crisp botanical detail and rich descriptive eloquence, a language satisfying to both brain and heart. The writing in places reminded me of John Fowles’ depiction of the Undercliff in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
There is something not right about Ryhope. This tract of primeval woodland, somehow survived into the 20th century, does not feel natural. Early on Holdstock establishes a picture of a shifty, tricksy place; a wildwood, that is both treacherous and dangerous, but it is in the atmosphere that he creates that the true power of the book resides. More than anything else, Holdstock creates for his territory an atmosphere that is utterly eerie.
The late Mark Fisher explored the eerie as a mode of writing in his thoughtful collection of essays, The Weird and the Eerie, suggesting in his introduction that:
“The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?”
This is exactly the mood Holdstock sets for Mythago Wood, as he works to unsettle, rather than simply scare, entrance or horrify readers. As discussed above, the novel contains ideas and questions that reach far beyond the physical geography of its setting. Throughout, in descriptive passages focused on the character of the wood, the word ‘eerie’ itself crops up again and again, providing a specific focus for the more general feeling of disquiet that Holdstock writes into being. As the narrative progresses, the weirdness of Ryhope becomes increasingly apparent; there is something odd here, even on the outskirts:
‘The trees were small, here at the edge, but within a hundred yards they began to show their real age, great gnarled oak trunks, hollow and half-dead, twisting up from the ground, almost groaning beneath the weight of their branches. The ground rose slightly, and the tangled undergrowth was broken by weathered, lichen covered stubs of grey limestone’
There are echoes here of Tolkien’s Fangorn, or The Old Forest in The Lord of the Rings, although this particular wood is very much situated in twentieth century England. The wood’s power extends far beyond ground level and in a tense early episode, Holdstock gives us a fragmentary vision of the occult forces that protect it.
As Stephen’s curiosity about his father’s journal and his relationship with Ryhope increases, he pays a local pilot – ex-RAF man Harry Keeton, to fly him over the wood. During the flight Stephen manages to glimpse a few tantalising stretches of the deep heart of old wood:
“Looking down through the eerie light, I saw clearings, glades, a river flowing…it was the briefest of visions of a woodland almost totally obscured by the supernatural forces that guarded it.”
It soon becomes apparent that the wood, doesn’t care for intruders, even from this distance and height. The plane is hit by turbulence, and a ‘ghostly, banshee-like wailing’ forces it away from Ryhope.
“The forest itself looked tangled, dense and hostile; I could see away across the foliage tops, and they were unbroken, a sea of grey green, rippling in the wind, looking almost organic, a single entity, breathing and shifting restlessly beneath the unwelcome aerial gaze…”
Once back on the ground, days after the flight, Stephen and Keeton see something even more disturbing in one of the few photographs they manage to take when flying over the wood:
“winding tendrils of energy arising from across the great span of the woodland. They were eerie, suggestive, tentative…I counted twenty of them, like tornadoes, but thinner, knotted and twisted as the probed up from the hidden land below. The nearer vortices were clearly reaching toward the plane, to encompass the unwelcome vehicle…to reject it.”
Then, perhaps even more alarming to the pair than the elemental forces intent on driving their plane off, Stephen and Keeton examine a map of the Ryhope estate. Curiously the wood is not indicated, instead there’s just a dotted line, marking the extent of the property. It is becoming increasingly clear to the pair that this place has its own power and agency. In one startling episode, the trees begin to reach beyond the wood and into the garden of Oak Lodge, sprouting out of the ground and growing rapidly around the building: “The vision, then, was of a pseudopod of woodland trying to drag the house itself into the aura of the main body.” Eventually oaks even burst through the floor of George Huxley’s study and take over the room.
At every stage, Holdstock paces his narrative brilliantly, slowly ramping up the intrigue and our desire to get into the wood along with Stephen. Despite making various incursions into the outer edges of Ryhope, it is not until about half way through the book, that we are finally allowed further in. After patiently hinting at the mystery and fascination of this place, Holdstock suddenly lets rip with a thrilling action set piece, that sees Christian return to Oak Lodge along with a band of chilling hunter accomplices – the Hawks – to kidnap Guiwenneth and attempt to kill Stephen and Keeton before vanishing back into the wood.
Now, of course, Stephen and his companion Keeton – at this point partially revealing his own traumatic wartime experience in a similar ‘ghost wood’ in France – must get inside.
Eventually, via the Sticklebrook – one of a series of ‘Hollowings’, pathways that seem to exist beyond the rules of time and allow passage deep into the wood – Stephen and Keeton are finally able to break through to the interior.
For the most part Holdstock carefully builds, then maintains, a creeping sense of edgy unease rather than venturing into full on horror, but there’s one point late on, where he creates an almost Lovecraftian vision of weirdness, to provide a genuine moment of skin-crawling alarm. This occurs when Stephen and Keeton reach an internal border within the wood, between one zone and another, a threshold marked by a peculiarly grotesque tree:
‘In the middle of the glade stood an imposing tree, its swell of foliage broad and dense, reaching close to the ground. On the far side, however…it was blighted and grotesquely parasitized. Its foliage was brown and rotting, and great ropes of creeper and sucking plant parasites like a net of tendrils…at times the tree quivered and great ripples of writing activity coursed down the sucker net, back to the tree line…The very ground itself was a mess of roots and bindweed, and strange sticky protusions that reached inches into the air and waved, as if searching for prey…’
The species is a Horse Chestnut – carefully and deliberately so – this corrupted tree marks a point in time, as well as geography – here is where later sylvan arrivals give way to older, native British species; so the incomer literally rots away before us. Never has vegetation seemed so horrific, yet so utterly compelling.
The strange tree of two halves is also reminiscent of another that Peredur son of Evrawg comes across in the Mabinogion. I don’t know if Holdstock definitely drew on the Welsh stories as a source, but it seems a likely possibility.
“On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other green with leaves.” The Mabinogion, Penguin, 1976, Ed. Jeffrey Gantz
In his introduction the 1976 Penguin edition of The Mabinogion, Gantz highlights this striking tree as an exemplary image of the divide between this world and the realms of the Faerie or the ‘otherworld’.
“Of all the strange and supernatural images in The Mabinogion, none captures the essence of these medieval Welsh tales so concisely as does this vertically halved tree: the green leaves symbolizing the rich and concrete beauty of the mortal world, the flames symbolizing the flickering shadowy uncertainty of the otherworld, and the whole emblematic tension and mystery which characterize all forms of Celtic art.”
Holdstock’s tree provides a rare moment of grand-guignol amidst the author’s usual subtle changes to mood and atmosphere. This makes sense as a dramatic marker here, as past this point the story reaches perhaps its most disturbing and eerie moments, as Stephen and Keeton pass through an area of the wood populated with crumbling buildings and houses from different ages – these include prehistoric huts, Roman Villas and even a large Medieval Castle.
All are ruined and all, here amidst the twisting ranks of hazels, birches and oaks, feel jarringly out of place and out of time. In describing the dereliction of what appears to be a Tudor Mansion, Holdstock allows himself a little hint of gothic to create a genuinely chilling moment:
“the broch marked the outskirts of an eerie and haunting landscape of such legendary, lost buildings, paths and natural ridges through the bright undergrowth…There was a Tudor building of exquisite design, its walls grey-green with mossy growth, its timbers corroded and crumbling. In its garden, statues rose like white marble wraiths, faces peering at us from the tangle of ivy and rose, arms outstretched, fingers pointing.”
There’s an almost aching quality of loss in this passage, combined with a chilling sense of doom. Holdstock conveys a genuine sense of the unrelenting passage of time, catching it brilliantly in the cadaverous statues, with their accusing fingers, standing ruined and overgrown here in gardens lost to an almost alien past.
For me, it is passages like the above that mark Mythago Wood out as special. My initial reading as a young teenager had left a deep mind-scar behind, but I’d raced through the book then, eager to get in and out of the wood, and see the secrets at its heart.
This time around, my third reading, I found ambling around within the pages rather than rushing to the end far more enjoyable: revelling in the language, picking up on allusions and noting beautifully-crafted images and telling details.
In 2014 Gollancz reissued Mythago Wood in an anniversary edition, with great hope that it would find a new generation of readers, and remind a few older ones of its singular brilliance. Sadly the reissue didn’t go as well as the publisher hoped. When I heard this, I was reminded of Robert Louis Stephenson’s comment on Treasure Island: “If this doesn’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day…”
Lately there seems to be an upswell in interest in Holdstock’s creation – I’ve noticed increasing references to Mythago Wood and later books in the series on social media, while Robert Macfarlane – a fan – mentioned the books in a recent essay for the Guardian: Badger or Bulbasaur – have children lost touch with nature?
Now, more than thirty years after it was first published, with a little help from influential readers such as Macfarlane, perhaps like Stephen and Christian’s small boat, Mythago Wood can re-emerge from the stream of time and catch hold of young imaginations once more.
Links & References
Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock, Grafton Books, 1986
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute and John Grant, Orbit, 1997
The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher, Repeater Books, 2016
The Mabinogion, Ed Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976
Tree photographs my own – old oaks in Richmond Park, Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods, rather than Ryhope.