Robert Holdstock passed away last November, and this novel’s success and influence within the fantasy genre garnered a lot of remarks on many of the sites I frequent at the time. Based on the cover to my addition, I sort of expected this to be a high fantasy/sword and sorcery novel. Instead, I was surprised to find a lot of precursors to the urban fantasy of the likes of Neil Gaiman.
The novel is narrated by Stephen Huxley, a British World War II veteran who returns to his family’s estate in the late 1940s after his father’s death. Huxley’s father was an Oxford professor who had spent most of Stephen’s youth exploring the nearby Ryhope Wood and spinning magnificent fantasies about the forest. Stephen finds that his brother Christian has become similarly obsessed, and he is drawn into the mystery of the wood himself when he finds a shallow grave with a woman’s corpse on the grounds and meets a beautiful young warrior woman named Guiwenneth. Ryhope Wood, it turns out, is a magical forest that warps space and time where embodiments of British myth – called Mythago – dwell. Eventually, Stephen enlists a Royal Air Force veteran named Harry Keeton to mount an expedition into the wood to find the warrior woman with whom he has fallen in love.
Mythago Wood is very well-written and the narrator has a compelling voice. The first half really drew me in with some intriguing mysteries and a well-established mood. Harry Keeton is a fantastic character – a stoic Brit who puts on a brave face as he challenges the unfathomable Wood. I really like Holdstock’s choice to set this so close to the war and populate it with veterans; the horrors of the war subtly hang over everything that happens here, and the escapism of the Wood contrasts with and parallels the conflict. However, as the characters unraveled the mysteries of Ryhope Wood, I found the place less and less interesting. The idea of embodied myths certainly has potential, but the metaphysical workings of the place killed a lot of the tension for me – once we learn that the Wood is shaped by human thoughts, its rules can shift dramatically, and the outcome is predestined…well, there’s not much suspense left at that point.
Also, I was left unsatisfied by the central romance with Guiwenneth. As a Mythago, she is the embodiment of fantasies…apparently male fantasies. She’s big, strong, beautiful, young…and that’s about all we get from her. She’s free of the encumbrances of personality or agency, which makes the characters’ obsession with her slightly disturbing. Since so much of the novel turns on Stephen’s quest for his love, the shallow physicality of that passion undercut the drama. It’s even more bothersome that Guiwenneth is really the only female character in the book. I know the sequel follows Keeton’s sister, so I could easily imagine Holdstock redeeming himself on the gender front, but I felt the lack of a real, believable female presence in this novel.