Review: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

There is something magical about forests. Whenever I walk in one, whether it is the rainforests of Tasmania or the dry eucalypt forests near Melbourne, I feel a deep sense of peace and perspective to be surrounded by beings that live on such different timescales. There is the wonder of trees and their way of living, and the reminder that Earth does not belong to us (by weight, plants overwhelmingly dominate the planet). Such wonder has no doubt inspired everything from “forest bathing” (derived from the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku) to the rich tradition of myths and legends of forest folk, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to FernGully.

The woods in Robert Holdstock’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Mythago Wood are much more masculine, violent places. The story centres on Steven Huxley, a 20-year-old recently returned to England from the horrors of World War II. But all is not well at his family home on an estate in Herefordshire. His father George is dead, and his brother Christian is increasingly distant. Both have been fixated on the neighbouring ancient woodland, which possesses magical properties.

In a letter and diary entries we find out the substance of this fixation. George and a friend from Oxford discovered that a mysterious interaction between the energies of mind and tree causes forest legends of old – Robin Hood, King Arthur, Celtic tribes – to spring into life as mythagos. It’s one of these, the red-haired Guiwenneth, who becomes an obsession for the Huxley men, driving each of them in turn to attempt to reach the heart of the woods. There is no love lost between the three men, and the rivalry and animosity between Christian and Steven in particular threatens the very existence of the woodland.

This is a novel that begins as an intellectual quest and ends with a real, physical one, as Steven goes into the woods after Guiwenneth after she is stolen by Christian. It is filled with characters and beings of myth – half-boar/half-men, animated skeletons, woodland tribes – so there is plenty to wonder at. I was in two minds about the meticulous world-building, on the one hand enjoying the intellectual stimulation of puzzling it all out, on the other keen to get to the action.

Harder for me to get past is the relentless hypermasculinity of the story. There is really only one female character (the other suicides before the book’s events, driven to despair), and she is literally a figment of the men’s imagination, an idealized creature that is simultaneously childlike and heroically strong, by turns coquettish and fierce. Steven is weirdly obsessed with her “unpleasant” but “erotic” odour, a result of her living unwashed in the woods. “Was she mine?” he wonders over and over. Moreover the men’s attempts to “penetrate” (the verb is used multiple times) the woodland, and by extension their own minds, smacks of the egocentricism that fueled exploration and colonialism in other wild woods across the globe. Built into the premise is that neither Guiwenneth or the beings of the woods can truly have agency of their own; their only purpose is to live the stories spun from the minds of men.

History, and how it becomes myth, is at the heart of Mythago Wood. Steven’s journey inwards is also partly a journey back in time, and he confronts the various waves of invasion that make up British history, from Celts to Romans, Saxons to Vikings and beyond. The forest is said to be a remnant of the wildwood, Britain and Europe’s original forest that grew as the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age (in reality there is thought to be no remaining true wildwood in Britain). There is an intriguing idea here. “She knew of the ice,” Steven wonders:

and the retreat of the ice … Was it possible that the stories could survive that long? Tales of the glaciers, and the new forests and the advance of human societies northwards across the marshes and the frozen hills?

We know in Australia that Aboriginal oral histories do preserve knowledge of changes to the environment thousands of years ago, such as volcanic eruptions and sea level rise. In Mythago Wood these stories serve a more nationalistic purpose, stamping a claim on the British countryside. The woods themselves are a refuge from invaders; an understandable occupation after Britain’s war years. While I was enchanted by parts of this novel, I ultimately found it too much of its time.

Gay rating: not gay

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