Twenty-five years ago, Robert Holdstock gave us an instant fantasy classic in the slender shape of Mythago Wood, the tale of an unbridled mythic past erupting into the post-WWII insularity of a very English family. Ryhope Wood, its setting, remains an ingenious device: an ancient wildwood of TARDIS-like proportions, which reshapes itself through contact with human imaginations.* It brings stories to life, as ‘mythagos’: people and creatures of myth, subtly altered by the minds they came from, given flesh to roam the forest’s trackless pathways, bringing their castles and battlefields with them. Anglo-Saxon kings rub shoulders with wandering Greek heroes; Iron Age forts stand near caves whose paintings are still wet.
Many of Holdstock’s subsequent novels have gone back to Ryhope – with slightly diminishing returns – but Avilion is the first to continue the original story directly. Steven Huxley and his mythago lover Guiwenneth now live in a Roman villa deep in the Wood. Their restless children, Yssobel and Jack, are torn between the ‘red’ (human) and ‘green’ (mythago) sides of their nature. Jack longs to see the world beyond Ryhope; Yssobel dreams of going to its heart, Avilion, place of resurrection. Her journey there is an inspired piece of storytelling, as is the shamanic logic of how she gets in – by putting on the armour of a certain king to "steal his death" – but is less successful when she unwittingly rouses a spectre from her parents’ past. The returned villain is never properly re-established for the new story, being referred to more often than he is seen, and his impact is accordingly diminished.
The shift away from the older generation means a change in thematic focus. Gone is the contrast between the repressed, brittle Englishmen wandering Ryhope and the raw, sensual myths that spring from their heads, such a strength of Mythago Wood. In its place are equally compelling, if less neatly framed, issues of identity, memory, and death. Both Yssobel and Jack are searching for who they are within their dual (and duelling) heritages; among the mythagos, there is a king forced to choose between being merciful and being remembered, and a hero who must embrace what his story demands he become. It is a question that strikes to the heart of how the Wood works: where is the line between afterlife and myth, between selfhood and story? Is a mythago whose story ends and then resumes in Avilion (like Guiwenneth), or a person who dies and is resurrected by Ryhope’s pillaging of human memory (like Steven’s father), the same individual?
Familiarity may have dulled some of Ryhope’s edges, but it is still satisfyingly rich, a place of moss, mud and rot; if a narrative can be pungent, this is. Much of Avilion’s power lies in the way it is told. The prose is simple, deriving its vivid, urgent quality from rhythm and sound and the cumulative effect of short sentences, rather than florid vocabulary. But it is also sprinkled with phrases that resonate in the imagination like bard song, whose imagery is rooted in woodland. A sword wound is “cold as a winter’s waking”, while Jack, fighting to leave Ryhope, feels himself held by “chains made of vines and briar”; one character is described as “full of everything that was the red in man”, another as “bright frost in darkness”.
With its emphasis on endings, renewal, and the inexorable power of Story, this is a fittingly intense revisiting of the world and themes of Mythago Wood.
[* With characteristic pithiness, noted SF critic John Clute has described Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood as an “abyssal chthonic resonator”. Now that’s a phrase to conjure with.]