Imagine a spectral trackless wood, bigger on the inside than its boundaries would permit, from which all myths spring, each manifestation of each myth different for each observer. The collective unconscious of humanity, enclosed within this mysterious wood, if you will. That’s Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.
Christian and Steven Huxley grew up in the 1930s with their distant father, who is obsessed with Ryhope Wood, the copse near their house, observing the two boys playing in its periphery and himself disappearing into the wood for days at a time. The length of his travels are mystifying to the sons, since the wood is only a few miles square, no more than a remnant of the overgrown woods of England’s past. As Mythago Wood begins, Steven, the younger son, returns from the battlefields of World War II to find his brother has fallen in love with a woman from that same wood, but she’s disappeared. Christian returns repeatedly to the wood in search of her, leaving Steven to deal with the world outside, as the inhabitants of the woods themselves emerge into our modern exterior world. A manifestation of the same woman who’s appeared to Christian and their father emerges in her turn for Steven, and in the end he must plunge into the Wood of the Subconscious after her in order to protect her from Christian, who’s become mythologized himself.
Ryhope Wood and Mythago Wood are an interesting juxtaposition of the modern world with the ancient templates from which we draw our myths and dreams, nightmares and hopes; at one point Steven calls on Keeton, an aviator himself back from fighting in France during WWII, to fly over Ryhope Wood in order to better map it out from the air, something George Huxley never was able to do. There are almost certainly similar locations scattered around the world–Keeton has himself landed in one on mainland Europe–but since this aspect of Mythago Wood is in England, we get Robin Hood, Cavaliers and the Matter of Britain, in addition to the more ancient avatars of our unconscious, such as the Neolithic Boar. Not the cutsified Howard Pyle “Robin Hood” or even the lyrical Camelot created by T.H. White. We’re talking grubby pre-Roman warriors (male and female alike) who must fight for their lives on a daily basis but consider things like indoor plumbing “Romanish”, or sissified.
I have to admit that this book was something of a slog for me, even after I realized that it’s supposed to read like a centuries old myth set in modern times or a retelling of one of those epic bardic tales, such as the Kalevala or Beowulf or the Mabinogion. The writing style isn’t quite the archaic style that Susanna Clarke adopted–Holdstock does use modern spelling and his characters use modern grammar so we don’t have to slog through twee outmoded language–but the book does evoke the atmosphere of Writings Past. It’s not a quick read by any means, despite its length, and is probably best for people who’re familiar with mythology from the British Isles. I don’t know if lengthening it would have improved it; a longer book might have allowed for more explanation for those who don’t like filling in between the author’s lines, but on the other hand, its brevity makes me think that Holdstock meant it to be a modern manifestation of English mythologies. Overall, I’d agree with the reviewers on Goodreads that it started out with an interesting concept but petered out part way through. What to read next? Well, there are the subsequent books that Holdstock wrote in the sequence, both novels and collections of short stories, which do go a bit towards explaining Mythago Wood…and of course all the folklore about myths and legends of Great Britain to which Holdstock refers.