by Robert Holdstock
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 7, 2022
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A new edition of this novel (pictured to the right) will be published next Tuesday, July 12, under the Tor Essentials banner. The story began with a short version in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in September 1981. The expanded novel first appeared in the UK three years later from Gollanz. It has had multiple other printings over the years, including at least two different ones from the Science Fiction Book Club, both of which I've had. The second version was part of their 50th Anniversary Collection, and it's the one I just read. I'll provide cover images of those below. Two different bibliographic sources I checked say the original story was a novelette, which is confirmed by F&SF's archives, yet the SF Awards Database has it listed as a novella when it was up for the World Fantasy Award, "short fiction" when it won the British Science Fiction Association award, but a novelette as finalist for the Locus. The novel in turn won both the WFA and BSFA, and was a Locus finalist. I'm sure I read the story several times, but the novel only once before, and it's been such a long time I can't recall how many revisions to the first part might have been made, nor do I know if there have been any further revisions for the new edition. Probably not, since Holdstock died in 2009.
Dark and mysterious forests have generated many folktales over the centuries, even before the Grimms began compiling them. From the Black Forest in real world Germany to Middle Earth's Mirkwood, from Gilgamesh's Cedar Forest to the woods Vern fled to in Rivers Solomon's recent Sorrowland, and many others in between. The "ghost wood" in this story is not named Mythago, but rather Ryhope Wood, since that family owns the land that encompasses the small but dense woods close to Oak Lodge, where the Huxley family has lived for years. Mythago was a word coined by George Huxley to describe the strange visions he had while in the wood. It was his theory that Ryhope Wood encompassed more than the small, visible parcel of land, the perimeter of which could be walked in about an hour. There were portions of the wood that defied his ability to penetrate, that is until he was able to gain insight from the mythagos. That is pronounced with the emphasis on the second sylable, myth-AAHH-go. They are beings that live within the ghost forest, remnants of past human occupation, past times, perhaps even from other locations. Several sections of the book are excerpts from Huxley's journals, but most of the exposition is a first-person narration by his son Steven, newly returned to Oak Lodge following his ordeal during World War Two. He had convalesced in the south of France, but came home after his father's death (disappearance?), and his brother Christian's news of his new bride, Guiwenneth. Steven finds Christian despondent, but also not forthcoming as to why Guiwenneth was no longer with him, nor about what might have happened to their father.
It was the elder Huxley's belief that the mythagos were generated within the mind of the observer, but not unique to their own thoughts, but rather retained in everyone's unconscious mind. Mythagos were first noticed in peripheral vision, but with more concentration they could become more real and experienced and interacted with as tangible beings, either human, animal, or … other. Huxley believed the primal mythago was Urscumug, that it originated in the center of the wood, but in an area divorced from time and/or space. Other mythagos had been generated at different historical periods, as a way for the people to call up a champion to defend themselves against invading armies…Roman, Saxon, French, etc. Mythagos from Arthurian Briton, or Irish/Celtic warriors that had previously fought the Saxons, or Angles who had fought the French, along with various other historical periods, including the legends of Robin Hood. Guiwenneth was a mythago, or actually was multiple mythagos, appearing to George Huxley at one time, later to Christian, again to Steven. She was supposedly the daughter of one of a pair of sisters who were rivals. Her aunt, who had married a Roman, stole her away from her mother, whom the aunt killed, but soldiers loyal to her mother rescued her. Tradition holds that she perpetually regenerated after being taken to the center of the wood, Lavondyss, a place separated from the world by a wall of fire. Thus she was known as the Girl Who Returned From the Fire, doomed to be loved by many men, then lost to them, over and over. Later in the book Steven befriends an airman from a nearby base, who wants to accompany him into the wood, since he thinks it may be connected to another ghost wood, one he landed in when his plane was shot down during the war.
The wood is a place of mystery, one in which a person has a feeling of always being observed by others, and of being directly repulsed by the force of the wood reluctant to give up its secrets. This is the type of fantasy I prefer. Mysterious, but also oddly believable. A story of a place that retains every thought and deed ever experienced there. A place in which only the pure of heart and deed will find solace. Maybe. But what man thinks of himself is not necessarily how the wood, and the mythagos, will see him. The tale is also dark and brooding simply due to the familial relationships. George's wife died young, mostly from a broken heart, since George became so obsessed with the wood he hardly had time for her or his sons. Sibling rivalry is also an element of the plot, the jealousy or anger generated by perceived slights, of parental preferences, of neglect or indifference. I don't know what Holdstock might have intended, but I saw Guiwenneth as a symbol of all women, mostly treated as property by men, but who longs to be the ruler of her own destiny. Not sure how many incarnations it will take before that is possible. The narration is rich with descriptive detail, not just of the wood and what lurks there, but also the deep emotions felt by Steven as he navigates a treacherous path. Holdstock followed this with six other novels, none of which I have read, but they might be in my future. A recent comment I read about the second book, Lavondyss, indicates it is better than this one, which means it must be great. I highly recommend Mythago Wood.
Below are images of the various appearances of this story that I have owned, beginning with the cover art for the novelette in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; the first SFBC release, with art similar to the original Gollanz printing; then the book I just read, from SFBC's 50th Anniversary Collection.
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