Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (or as it is also known, the Ryhope Wood series) is one of fantasy literature’s truly unique creations. Like most works of quality, the books are founded upon a simple premise, in this case an alternate reality where the sub-conscious comes alive. Mythago Wood, the first book published in the series, immediately garnered attention, winning Holdstoock the World Fantasy and British Science Fiction Awards in 1984, and formed the basis for the seven books that followed. Informed by Jung and mythical archetypes more than Tolkien, the book is unconventional to say the least, and worth a read for anyone seeking cliché-free fantasy rich with imagination, symbolism, and quality writing.
Mythago Wood is the story of a soldier returning home to see his family after being injured at the end of WWII. Stephen Huxley’s family home is situated in the English countryside along the edge of a small patch of forest called Ryhope Wood. Events peculiar from the outset, Stephen’s brother Christian acts in a peculiar fashion and hints at fantastical creatures, strange women, and the lure of traversing Ryhope’s dark shadows. Uncomfortable memories of the boys’ father also linger, adding tension to a situation already moody with the strangeness of the Wood. Curiosity piquing with each mystical element emerging from the trees, it’s not long before Stephen decides to make his own excursions into Ryhope. What he finds leads inward as much as onward.
The single defining feature of Mythago Wood, from both a story point of view and thematically, is Ryhope Wood. Though only three miles in diameter on maps, it’s possible to walk for weeks on end through the mystical land and never reach the other side. A multi-dimensional device, it exists to both propel the plot and symbolize a fantastical version of the collective unconscious. The imagination literally coming to life in the confines of the Wood, the specific facets of thought which appear are terrifying, friendly, mysterious, unexplainable, and all around representative of the deeper workings of the sub-conscious. Obviously informed by ideas and writings of Karl Jung, the story is rife with symbolism involving parentage, brotherhood, lovers, as well as fears and anxieties.
Mythago Wood is at times adventure, at others horror, and always suspenseful. Holdstock does a wonderful job structuring the plot to unveil the Wood, or, from another point of view, dig deeper into Stephen’s consciousness, building to an exciting and unpredictable conclusion. The language is rich and vivid, and always keeps the narrative personal. Whether it be Stephen’s relationship with his brother, contemplation on the journal his father left behind, or the strange affair he has with Gwyneth, a woman who may or may not have emerged from the Wood, the narrative is squarely focused on the individual and their conscious and sub-conscious interaction with the outside world.
Faults of the novel are preference based. Overly-serious scholars of psychoanalysis may frown upon the fantastical manner in which Holdstock manifests the sub-conscious, beasts, kingdoms, etc., while the more open-minded may enjoy the extrapolation. Holdstock was, after all, trying to tell a story not offer a one-to-one analogy. Secondly, the surreal feel of the narrative may leave some people uncomfortable, i.e. never knowing whether what is being described is real or not, or if there is even a purpose to Stephen’s actions. But again, those who are able to relax and appreciate the story for what it is, will get the most from it, the layers of meaning Holdstock has created worth the afterthought.
In the end, Mythago Wood is a highly imaginative tale using Jungian tenets of psychoanalysis in fantasy form. Based on the paranormal events Stephen comes upon at his homecoming from war, the story is engrossing from the start, and goes on to develop strong aspects of fear and the unknown, the theme of the sub-conscious fully developed to collective unconscious proportions. Though archetypal creatures do indeed haunt Ryhope Wood, the story is more than just horror, Stephen’s knowledge of himself evolving all the way to the last page. For those seeking well-written fantasy that is something new—a breath of fresh air compared to the myriad of epic fantasy on the market today—this book may be for you.