Don’t ask me what my favourite book is. I can’t tell you. What I can do is offer up a list of books I never tire of. Here’s the first …
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The wildwood lies at the heart of English folklore. No surprise there – once upon a time, these isles were covered in forest practically from coast to coast. Tales of the Green Man, Jack-of-the-Green, Herne the Hunter and Robin Hood all sprang from that ancient wooded realm. Our oldest stories were first told in the shadow of the trees.
Of all the writers who have explored the wildwood, none has delved deeper or with more success than Robert Holdstock. In his novel Mythago Wood, first published in 1984, he tells the story of two brothers – Steven and Christian Huxley – who venture into the mysterious Ryhope Wood in pursuit of their father. George Huxley has been conducting research into the wood’s ability to create mythagos – physical manifestations of mythological archetypes drawn from the subconscious minds of those who enter the wood. George’s investigations have drawn him deeper and deeper into the forest, and now he has vanished.
When Christian too disappears, Steven embarks on an odyssey to find both missing men. He is accompanied by the strange and feral Guiwenneth, a pre-Celtic mythago created from his own mind. On the way, he encounters characters from the entire span of human history: Roman soldiers and Bronze age tribesmen, Neolithic warriors and Arthurian knights. The further Steven travels, the bigger the wood becomes around him … and the more ancient become the myths he awakens.
There’s nothing I don’t adore about this book. The central concept is sublime. The structure of the story – which follows Steven from the first moment he discovers Christian analysing their father’s rambling notebooks, to the point where he has trekked for months through the tangled woods to in pursuit of the Urscumug, the most ancient and monstrous mythago of all, drawn directly from the subconscious of his own father – is simple and elegant. Holdstock’s prose is simultaneously beautiful, earthy and accessible. He conjures the bosky atmosphere of the primal wildwood to the point where you can smell it, taste it, touch it, yet still remains focused on the human story playing out under the forest canopy.
Most of all, he creates that most elusive of all things: the tale of magic that feels utterly real, the fantasy you entirely believe, the imaginary landscape you hope with all your heart that you yourself might one day tread.
Holdstock went on to write several more novels about Ryhope Wood. The first sequel was Lavondyss, in which the sister of one of the secondary characters from the first book makes strange wooden masks which, when she looks through them, allow her to access the mythical wildwood realm. It is even better than Mythago Wood. The most recent, Avilion, was published in 2009, shortly before Holdstock’s untimely death. Avilion tells the story of Steven and Guiwenneth’s children – each half-human, half-mythago – and their attempts to resolve their strange heritage. It too is a triumph.