Mythago Wood: Classic Pulp Fiction From Robert Holdstock

Jun 24, 2020
This series of articles is going to explore all manner of pulp paperbacks from the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, many of which may have only a passing familiarity with the term ‘literature’, but in every case they hopefully score highly on the entertainment and originality scales. We begin though with a book that certainly does count as literary art, and one that earned a big fat World Fantasy award in 1985 to prove it.

An eerie woodland scene with an antlered man walking between overarching tree
Cover of Mythago Wood from 1985
Mythago Wood is an astonishing novel of deeply layered complex scenes that arguably elevates the form of the escapist fantasy novel into full blown ‘literature’. It is one of the most ‘English’ of books I have ever read, and it taps into the power of enduring and recurring myths to a degree that amazed me when I first came across it, sometime in the early nineties. Above all, it managed to reignite my interest in fantasy after a long period of having drifted into reading other ‘more serious’ genres. 

It also helps that having been born and raised in a rural environment in Cornwall, I was well suited to identify with many of the themes and images conveyed in the narrative. I often joke that I come from some wild pagan land full of darkling woods and babbling brooks, where stag-adorned locals enact centuries old folklore rituals, but it’s certainly true that the Cornwall I grew up in during the sixties and seventies was radically out of step with the urban centres of Britain during those periods of cultural and social change, echoing in many ways the narrow rural setting and 1940s timeline of Mythago Wood, on some primal subconscious level.

The setting of the novel is an isolated house (Oak Lodge) on the outskirts of Ryhope Wood, which, to the naked eye, is an enclosure of ancient woodland that appears to be three miles square, though curiously doesn’t appear on many local maps. It is of a size that a healthy man could walk round it in an hour. But Ryhope Wood is in fact an ancient ‘other place’, with a centre that remains undisturbed by man since the Ice Age. It is made up of concentric circles radiating inwards from the outer most ancient circle of land, and is much larger inside than it appears to be on the outside. In fact, the centre of Ryhope Wood seems to be some ‘middle space’ that actively resists the incursions of man. Any attempt to venture deeper into the woodland than the casual perimeter always meets with failure. Men find themselves wandering back to the edge of the wood without meaning to. Natural defences of thorn bushes, lakes, thickset trees, raging rivers and treacherous terrain combine with a sense of physical disorientation to repel anyone who tries to push inwards past the periphery. Time moves at a different pace the deeper you go into the woods, and if you manage to find one of the few safe paths that bypass the natural defences of the ancient woodland, you enter vast lands resonating with the subconscious power of myths and legends. 

And, importantly, it is a land that does not want you in it. 

Book cover showing carved wooden heads back to back with leaves and tendrils covering them
Mythago Wood - current UK cover
The protagonist, Stephen Huxley, has been recuperating in France following the end of World War II, where he served and was wounded in the line of duty. Towards the end of the war he learned that his estranged father, George Huxley, had died. In his later life, the father had shunned his family, as he became obsessed with occult secrets he believed lay in the depths of Ryhope Wood. The woodland became a source of enduring fascination to him, and he would venture deep into it for weeks or months at a time, much to the dismay of his wife who eventually died in their unhappy marriage. 

By the time Stephen returns to England from the war, his brother Christian has inherited the house. Christian is a changed man by the time the war-weary Stephen calls on him. In the intervening years he has taken up his father’s obsession with Ryhope Wood and refers to a ‘wife’ from that place who is no longer with him. As the days unfold, Christian explains that Ryhope Wood creates ‘mythagos’ – physical (and often dangerous) manifestations of mythic beings, formed from the subconscious thoughts of men nearby. Although each one is rooted in a universal myth (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter etc) the mythago’s specific form at any one time is based on the interpretation and desires of the human mind that unconsciously summons it into physical form. This becomes clear when Stephen learns that his father created a myth form called Gwyneth, who he fell in love with. After she died mysteriously, George Huxley became obsessed with the idea that she might be reborn once again. Years later, Christian too, it seems, created a Gwyneth with his own mind and fell into the same pattern as his father, falling in love with her, losing her, and then believing she might be reborn in another form to return to love him once more. But in each case, the reborn mythago always takes a different personality when freshly reimagined by another mind. 

Very soon, a haunted and paranoid Christian disappears for the final time into the woods, and Stephen is left alone in the house to face the encroaching mysteries of the wood as they begin to call out to him too, as the novel moves towards its bittersweet tragedies. 

Unusually for fantasy, the language and setting is incredibly rich and evocative, tapping into ancient folklore in an essentially poetic fashion. The late 1940s setting suits the air of rural isolation perfectly, but manages to feel timeless in its storytelling. 

It is an autumnal book to be ideally read in a remote country lodge, with rain falling outside, and trees encroaching into the low walled garden. But failing that, it cries out to be a book that you should read wherever and whenever you can. Although I can’t know for certain, I would be very surprised if Mythago Wood wasn’t an enduring favourite novel of Neil Gaiman. Its perceived influences run deep in his own writing. Michael Moorcock hailed it as the best fantasy novel of the eighties, and I think I have to agree with him on that point. 

Book cover showing ghostly silhouette of a woman walking between misty tree, oak leaves and twigs in the foreground
Mythago Wood 25th anniversary edition
Prior to Mythago Wood, Holdstock had essentially been a ‘jobbing writer’, working mostly under various pseudonyms, often alongside co-writers on work for hire contracts, producing all manner of pulp fiction, often lurid, ranging from the Red Sonja imitation series, Raven, Sword Mistress of Chaos (with eye blistering covers by Chris Achilleos that probably wouldn’t be displayed on bookshelves these days – go look them up), to novelizations of the Bodie and Doyle TV series, The Professionals. But with Mythago Wood and its inevitable sequels, Holdstock elevated his status to that of an auteur, cementing a sub-genre of fantasy that has never been equalled since. It derives perhaps from the line of dark folklore writing for ‘young adults’ by authors such as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and the similarly themed dark TV drama for kids, such as The Children of the Stones (often referred to as ‘the scariest programme ever made for children’), but invests the familiar themes with a sense of melancholy, brooding pain and loss that is almost exquisite. 

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