Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984) 296 p.

I’ve been trying to read more non-Tolkien fantasy lately. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tolkien-inspired stuff, it’s just that it dominates the genre so completely. Mythago Wood, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, fits the bill fairly well. It’s a story about Steven Huxley, who returns home at the end of WWII to the country house he once lived in with his brother and father. Huxley senior was obsessed with Ryhope Wood, a patch of primeval forest at the edge of their estate, and Steven’s brother Christian has continued his work. Ryhope Wood, of course, turns out to be something fantastic – a place where dreams and myths come true, a place much bigger on the inside than the outside, a dangerous place of magic, and so forth.

The general concept is that Ryhope reaches inside the subconscious of its visitors and makes real the myths and fantasies they have tucked away in there, so it becomes a sort of repository for all of England’s legends – Robin Hood, druids, Royalist partisans, Arthurian knights, etc. Holdstock calls these legends made flesh “mythagos.” The crux of the story revolves around all three men – Steven, Christian and their father – becoming obsessed with “Guiwenneth,” a red-haired Celtic mythago, and about the Steven’s journey into the forest to find her after she is kidnapped by Christian, who has given himself over to the forest entirely.

It’s not quite the book I thought it would be – it’s fairly post-modern, analytical, Jungian. That sort of thing. What might have been an interesting idea in theory unravels because of Holdstock’s fascination with his own anthropology lesson. The plot is unfocused, and relies far too heavily on a poorly-written “romance” between the protagonist and Guiwenneth. The final third of the book, revolving around his journey into the forest to find her, comes completely off the rails and just feels like a trudge through Stone Age tribal warfare and shamanistic story-telling. I wanted to like Mythago Wood, but from the halfway point onwards I realised that wasn’t going to happen, and it became one of those unfortunate reading experiences where I was counting the number of pages left.

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