Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Into a Dark Wood - Reviewing Robert Holdstock

 I stumbled across a recent (and excellent) review / overview of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” cycle over at The Green Man Review, and it got me to thinking about the books.

If you’ve never read them, these books are some of the most mind-blowing, original, puzzling, and under-appreciated novels in the fantasy genre. And they’re nearly impossible to explain. They’re “you had to be there” novels, because nothing I say can clearly capture, or even loosely capture, the essence of Holdstock’s novels.

Ryhope Wood is a small tract of forest in Herefordshire, England. It’s approximately three miles across. You could ride around it entirely in a few hours. But inside, once you breach its outer defenses, it is both timeless and nearly endless. You could travel for lifetimes without reaching the far side.

What Holdstock does in these novels is capture that most difficult thing in all of writing to capture. Magic. I mean real magic. Not fireballs and unicorns and all the other stuff genericized by the larger part of the fantasy genre as “magic”. I’m talking real bone and sinew magic. Echoes in the blood magic. That fleeting feeling that momentarily comes over you when you hear a snatch of music, or smell a campfire, or feel a sudden kinship – however briefly – with your older, deeper self. The self that still remembers cold nights huddled over smoldering fires in the primeval forest. The self that remembers the smell of animal-skin clothing and the taste of rare boar meat.

These books won’t appeal to everyone. They are difficult. Opaque. Unlike most fantasy novels, the reader never fully understands the rules of the wood. As soon as something starts to become clear, we realize we are walking on quicksand and must move aside and reconsider things. Quickly. If you think you are aware of where one of the novels is heading, there is a good chance that you are dead wrong.

The books venture into the labyrinth of the subconscious, the hidden parts of our mind that we can’t directly access but are there nonetheless, living fragments of our latent human instincts, remnants of our “survival of the fittest” past when each day was a struggle to survive. As such, the labyrinth is the recurring theme of the books. The mind and the forest are reflections of one another, labyrinths, and each character travels in toward the dark, unmapped center in search of the self.

Is there really a collective subconscious? I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. And I’m certain psychologists couldn’t agree on an answer either. But reading these novels, it certainly feels true. And for those with a background or an interest in mythology and mythological symbolism, these books are a treasure-trove.

These books aren’t without their faults. They are unevenly paced. Their strangeness is sometime off-putting, keeping the reader at arm’s length. Since they operate on a different set of rules, we don’t often clearly understand the characters’ motivations, and it causes us to mentally question the decisions they make.
These are quibbles, really, in the greater scope of things. Because these are great, great books. If you are a reader of fantasy literature and you haven’t read any of the Ryhope novels, you are missing out on one of the truly great series of this (or any other) genre. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Oh, and start with Mythago Wood. It’s the right way to introduce yourself to Ryhope.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation!..sounds like something to add to my, oh, ever-lengthening reading list.

    Nice to "meet" you :)..new follower..

  2. Very nice to meet you as well, Barbara. Thanks for stopping by to read my random ramblings! :)

  3. I want to enjoy him because everything there is precisely what I enjoy - but so far I have dabbled rather than going for the full immersion. Your crit has just spurred me to give it another go. Many thanks.

  4. Hi Mike. Thanks for stopping in. I'm glad I was able to convince you to give them another try. They are not the most accessible novels, especially if you try to start at any book other than Mythago Wood. They're each an independent narrative and don't require you to read the previous books, but each of the narratives builds and refers to those that come before, so that as you progress through the novels you get a better understanding of the forest and the intertwining characters. Lavondyss - the second novel - in the best of the books, IMO, but also the most difficult. It is a book split into two halves, and the second half is incredible, almost a religious experience in its own odd way.