The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

john_howe_celtic_mythago-wood

A prolific author, Holdstock created a considerable body of work often under various pseudonyms and pen names. He wrote not only fantasy and science fiction but also mysteries and horror, did novelisations of films, and edited collections, but whatever he did he did quickly, publishing a book every three or four months, under numerous names. But not the Mythago Wood novels. Those took time: time to percolate through his sensibility, time to accumulate the images, time to select the many myths to be used, time to write. Like many writers, he only gradually realised that he had come upon his treasure lode of story, that all his stories were waiting for him in that sentient wood. So he kept returning to Mythago Wood over some 25 years, and each time explored and deepened the possibilities inherent in his subject. Then the subject itself began to expand, for the Wood, though compact, is deep and within it time and space do not conform to the rules of this world. Time is strange in Mythago Wood, with seasons sometimes succeeding one another over a few days and space often malleable with one mythic world intersecting others.

The Mythago Wood novels are among those rare books that add to our experience rather than simply reflecting that experience back to us. Looking over Holdstock’s career it is possible to see now an almost inevitable trajectory of work that led again and again back to Mythago Wood. His last, culminating novel, Avilion, presents a fully realised portrait of the ‘sentient’ wood, exploring what had been implied in earlier works: that the beings in the wood produced through human desires, thoughts and dreams were far more than reflections of those desires, thoughts and dreams – they were themselves actual beings. The image of the human appearing out of nature occurs in one of Holdstock’s favourite poems by W B Yeats, The Song of Wandering Angus, where Angus, the Celtic god of love, himself falls in love with a magical woman who metamorphoses from a trout only to disappear “into the brightening air.” The poem pictures the god wandering the earth in search of the “glimmering girl.” He strangely ages during his quest but never gives up, “though old with wandering”. Similarly, the Huxley men pursue their dream of the ideal woman and, like the god, they too grow old with wandering. This compelling metaphor for love found, love enjoyed, and love lost reflects the central experience in human life of loss that is mirrored again and again in these powerful fictions.

Holdstock’s agent once wryly remarked of a new novel the author had just completed that it was not exactly ‘beach reading’ – a description that greatly amused him. It is true, however, that there is nothing frivolous or trivial about his fiction, for he raises some profound and often difficult questions while exploring people driven to the very edge of sanity. Such topics certainly do not make very very suitable ‘beach reading’, but beyond this and similar caveats these novels do illustrate what happens when humans meet the limits of their humanity, as well as the consequences of transgressing those limits. In this sense, among others, Holdstock’s novels add to our knowledge of the human heart and mind. More than that, Holdstock shows us an arrangement of inherited memories, feelings, thoughts and childlike fears which lie just below consciousness like elements uniquely designed in a pattern that both pleases and disturbs us in equal measure. As a writer Robert Holdstock dared to dream Mythago Wood into several extraordinary novels that will be read, reread, treasured, and shared down through the years. His words have the power to come alive in us, his readers, as we absorb the mythic fantasy of a sentient wood and its mythagos.

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3 Responses to “The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock”

  1. simon7banks June 18, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

    I read “Mythago Wood” after reading a thoughtful piece on Holdstock – maybe an obituary. I liked it, but I didn’t feel driven to the next book. I should try, nonetheless. The idea holds me, but not the narrative. I did notice a real implausibility – a young RAF officer, in peaceful late 1940s England, takes a spear thrust through the shoulder and has it cared for at the RAF station without anyone insisting on going to the police.

    • ashsilverlock June 18, 2017 at 9:38 pm #

      Give Lavondyss a try – it’s very different to Mythago Wood and, to me at least, it’s a far superior novel.

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