I first heard about Mythago Wood on sffworld.com during a discussion of great fantasy novels. One moderator even called it “legendary”. Intrigued by anything to earn such an honor, and a “World Fantasy Award” winner to boot, I decided it was in my best interest to check out the 1984 novel by Robert Holdstock.
The premise of Mythago Wood is quite original, if not possibly unique, a hard thing to come by in fantasy these days. Unlike your typical secondary-world adventure, Mythago Wood starts right here on Earth toward the end of World War II. The protagonist, Steven, is a stiff-upper lip veteran from an affluent British family that reminds me a lot of Jonathan from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Much like Stoker’s novel, in Mythago Wood there is no shortage of posturing, mulling, and reading people’s diaries before anyone takes action. When his only brother, Christian, disappears for months in a deadly forest, Steven decides it’s the best time to renovate the old house. Only when the love interest is introduced does the story get going. Her name is Guiwenneth and she’s not all too familiar with social etiquette, like bathing or grooming, but it’s OK because she’s a beautiful feisty redhead who explores the house with childlike innocence and kicks ass with a spear. Basically, she’s every fantasy fan’s dream girl (and not unlike the kind I dream up myself). Gwynn is, in fact, so superior you tend to wonder how she could fall for such a weak, spineless, cowardly male like Steven—but I digress. The only thing that really matters about Gwynn is that she may not actually exist—at least not in the traditional sense. She is a “mythago” which is, and I’ll do my best here, a mix of Steven’s psyche and a myth from Britain’s past, brought to life through the inter-dimensional magic of the forest itself. Yeah. Which brings up so many questions it boggles the mind. The how and when this magic works is never fully explained, and, whether explanation is even feasible is beyond the scope of this review. But it’s just for this reason that their love affair feels doomed. How does a normal man carry on a relationship with a mythological character?
Calling these woods “haunted” would be an understatement. In Ryhope Wood, you may encounter Robin Hood (who will try to kill you, for some reason), ancient pirates, ghosts, monsters, Vikings; and all craziness settlers to the British Isles dreamt up since the Ice Age. What’s more, time and space expands inside the forest, so though it may seem only a few miles across from the outside, it extends as deep as the Amazon on the inside.
It’s only when Gwynn is kidnapped that Steven finally grows a pair and springs into action, which starts the third act of the book. Much of it reads as an adventure reminiscent of Tolkien. There is much about sloping hills and coursing rivers and the changing of foliage (what is it with Brits and their love of nature descriptions?) These kinds of passages often feel like filler and I tend to rush through them to get to the “meat” of the story. If done well, such passages can pull a reader in, but a little goes a long way (Lord of the Rings is no exception). The other problem I found with Mythago Wood is a thing a professor of mine once said, “Please don’t make it all just a dream.” Some poor writers can’t help thinking themselves clever by having their stories end with “but it was all just a dream” even though every reader feels cheated by it, not to mention it’s cliche. Dream endings are one of the few absolutes in writing where I find it hard to play Devil’s Advocate. Even though Mythago Wood does not take this route, the dream like quality of the forest, the sense that anything imaginable is possible, makes whatever happens feel inconsequential, which is precisely what people hate about dream stories. At one point, when the heroes are about to face impossible odds, the novel pulls a deus ex machina and they’re all saved by ghosts! It’s just the sort of thing you might expect in a magic forest, but it still felt like a cheat to me.