“I found myself in a dark wood,” wrote Dante. Ancient, mysterious woods are an eldritch power that have enchanted, frightened, and inspired humanity since the dawn of time. In Robert Holdstock’s award-winning book Mythago Wood, it is the titular wild woodland of Celtic and English folklore that is at the centre of this dark and disturbing novel.
But there is more than forest spirits and shadows that haunt Holdstock’s primal forest. The woods are alive with ancient and limitless archetypes of myth that are transformed into flesh and blood. Heroic kings and brave outlaws; beautiful noblewomen and savage huntsmen; and the Urscumug, who “decks himself with woods and leaves, on top of animal hides. Face seems smeared with white clay, forming a mask upon exaggerated features below.”
The wood is Rhyope, and it has been the obsession of George Huxley for many years. With a febrile mind, he has kept notebooks that are filled with both the beautiful and deadly mythago creatures he has encountered in the woods.
Weary and wounded from the global conflict of World War II, George’s son, Steven, returns home to Oak Lodge, his family home in Herefordshire. His father is dead from an illness that has inflicted him for years and Steven’s brother, Christian, is master of the old estate.
But Christian has been delving into his father’s notebooks. And he has fallen in love with one of the mythagos, Guiwenneth, who “had lived a thousand times, and never lived at all.” Steven finds his brother becoming as obsessed about Rhyope as their father, returning back to it time after time and returning home with the “air of the primitive about him… reeking of sweat and vegetation, as if he had spent the days away buried in compost.” It is only when Steven finds the buried body of Guiwenneth in the back garden that he begins to understand that there is a brutal, disturbing, unknowable, pre-Christian consciousness at work at the heart of this primal wood.
The narrative is told through the tight first-person of Steven. It’s the perfect choice as the plot unfolds and the primal personas emerge from the wild wood to entice Steven into their mystery. Like his brother Christian, Steven, too, soon discovers his father’s notebooks and begins to be at once attracted and repulsed by the brutal and primitive spirit of the wood. He also falls in love with a reincarnation of the mythagos Guiwenneth. But this is a tale of star-crossed lovers because Christian returns from the wild wood, having gone “native” like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The bewitching power of the wood has transformed Christian into a savage leader of a band of even more bloodthirsty warriors called Hawks and he has come to snatch Guiwenneth away.
And now begins a gripping, outlandish quest as Steven and his friend Keeton decide to venture into the woods, forging their way to the heart of the wood and being aided by a host of myths: Saxons, Roman, pre-Christian Celts, and Neolithic clans, tribes out of fable, and even older legends that time has forgotten. Steven is on the trail of his brother, now known as the “outsider” in the fabled wood, his name passing into lore and legend the further he goes into the wood, the more he kills and menaces the mythagos within the wild wood.
Throughout it all, Rhyope Wood is a fantastical character in this novel. Holdstock weaves its own dark psychology on all who enter. The wood is febrile, unreal, visceral, deadly, and beautifully brutal. It contains its horror, its secrets, and yet so freely unleashes it on all those who wander in.
In fact, Holdstock’s novel is remarkably original and avant-garde for its time. It is so strangely and wonderfully at odds with the ever-pervading idea that the world-building of fantasy must be feudal, sometimes even sentimental. In Mythago Wood it is pagan, brutal with a shamanistic subconscious; a bewildering mixture of a lost pre-historic world where the lost instinctual energies of animal and human spirits are alive and hungry.
Robert Holdstock more than most writers can rightfully assert: “I found myself in a dark wood.”