Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my abiding interest in the primeval woodlands of the world and their mythological associations. There are few forests in legend or literature that are as replete with such connotations as Broceliande, a mythical wood reputedly located in France’s very own Celtic heartland, Brittany. Broceliande is a notable place of legend because of its uncertain location, unusual weather, and its ties with Arthurian Romance, in particular a magical fountain and the tomb of the legendary figure Merlin. Broceliande is first named as a legendary forest in literature in 1160, in the Roman de Rou, a verse chronicle written by Wace, a Norman poet. In modern times, Broceliande is most commonly considered to be Paimpont forest in Brittany, although most serious scholars think that Broceliande is a purely mythological place that never existed at all. However, the notion of Broceliande cannot be dismissed entirely – an ancient and immense forest did, after all, cover the entire centre of Brittany until the High Middle Ages. Certainly this mystical forest, whether real or imagined, has figured prominently in fiction from the time of Wace right up to the present day – most recently in Robert Holdstock’s mesmerizing fantasy novel, Merlin’s Wood.
Merlin’s Wood is part of the Mythago sequence – a haunting series of novels in which Holdstock journeys deep into one of the ancient wildwoods of Britain, revealing its myths and mysteries. The novels Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, The Hollowing, Gate of Ivory and Avilion are 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. There is much more to Ryhope Wood than this, however, for it is a place lost to time where familiar mythic archetypes such as King Arthur, Robin Hood and Herne the Hunter are brought to life in twisted and terrifying ways by the individual and collective imagination of humankind. These ‘images of myth’ give rise to the term mythago (a shortening of the Latin phrase myth imago). Considered part of the Mythago sequence despite its French setting, Merlin’s Wood presents Broceliande as a smaller version of Ryhope Wood, where Celtic myths similarly come to life. The story tells of how, in the depths of Broceliande Merlin and the enchantress Vivien continue to play out their deadly feud. Meanwhile, a child is born deaf, dumb and blind. His senses return at the expense of his mother’s, who must discover the wood’s mystery and set the combatants free.
With its themes of stealing of power, Merlin’s Wood is influenced by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God. The work is replete with magical and mythical vignettes, many of which are powerfully evocative of the primal and arcane. These fantastical tropes are juxtaposed with the familiar (to regular readers of Holdstock) themes of familial relationships and loss. Whilst not everyone will enjoy Merlin’s Wood – it may be a fantasy novel but it bears no relation to much of the sword-and-sorcery dross that currently plagues the genre – it will definitely appeal to serious readers of both myth and mythic fiction (a genre which Holdstock helped almost single-handedly to define). In drawing on Broceliande as an inspiration, Holdstock is also following in some fairly distinguished footsteps: the name was an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional realm of Beleriand in Middle-earth (Broseliand was used in the early sketches of The Silmarillion). On its own merits Merlin’s Wood is a marvellous tale, richly written in lyrical, almost poetic prose – proof that fantasy, when done well, has the power to pull you out of your mundane life and transport you to new places, other worlds glimpsed in the shadows of wild places, where myth and legend come to life.