This week Simon Spanton looks back at the masterpiece that is Mythago Wood.
Rob Holdstock died on this day in 2009. It was, of course, far too soon and a massive loss to his family and friends. But we also lost one of this country’s finest fantasists. Our Friday Reads blog today really couldn’t be for any book other than Rob’s masterpiece, Mythago Wood.
I read this book for the first time in about 1986. Perhaps 1987. I came to it as a relatively new fantasy reader, one brought up on Tolkien and Moorcock. But one who had foundered in some shallower waters of late. Tolkien had blown me away, Moorcock had shown me what other wildnesses were possible but then I had read a few of the new crop of epic fantasies from America and I had struggled. Already some of the imagery was seeming very familiar, the plots, for all their sweep and action, a little too predictable. The wonders of Julian May and Stephen Donaldson were still in my future, but for now fantasy and me were in trouble. Was this really all there was? Had Tolkien and Moorcock nailed it?
And then I came across Mythago Wood. And there were depths. And wonder. And fear. And a fantasy that grew out of a heartfelt connection to the land. A fantasy published in 1984, with characters dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War but which felt ancient, locked into a timeless reality that shadows and dwarfs our society. But whose mystery gives us strength.
Mythago Wood is about a family who live on the edge of the three-mile-square Ryhope Wood in Hertfordshire. But Ryhope is something else. It is also an eternal forest. A forest that stretches forever. And it is home to our mythologies. And once you have been lured in you never really leave. There is a very human story here about sons and fathers and there is mystery, magic, adventure and danger enough for any fan of fantasy. But the thing about Mythago Wood that has grown in me for all the near thirty years since I first read it is its profound love of the British (and specifically for Rob, I think, the English) countryside. I place it firmly in a tradition of British nature writing that includes Richard Jeffries and Edward Thomas and more recent exponents like Robert MacFarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Writers who are in love with the stuff of nature, the stuff that makes us. Mythago Wood is a stunning fantasy but it is also an intricate and powerful love song to the nature this country is built on and from. Robert Holdstock saved fantasy for me but he also introduced me to a whole other genre of writing that has given me equal pleasure.
So thank you Rob. And here’s to every Mythago Wood.
‘I am the shadow of the tall white stone where my father lies, the shadow that moves with the day towards the river where the fish swims, towards the forests where the glade of the woodcocks is blue with flowers. I am the rain that makes the hare run, sends the doe to the thicket, stops the fire in the middle of the round house. My enemies are thunder and the beasts of the earth who crawl by night, but I am not afraid. I am the heart of my father, and his father. Bright as iron, swift as arrow, strong as oak. I am the land.’
Guiwenneth’s Song, from Mythago Wood.
Want to know what the rest of Team Gollancz are reading this weekend?
Charlie: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!
Gillian: Our Robot Overlords (on her iPad)- Our Robot Overlords this is a fantastic top-secret film-tie written by the wonderful Mark Stay (@markstay) in that Gollancz are over the moon to be publishing later in 2014. Watch this space for news, because the story will blow your socks off and I can’t wait to be able to share a few teaser details. But it’s exciting, exciting stuff!