© Estate of Robert Holdstock, illustration by Christopher Zacharow.
I remember reading good reviews of this in LOCUS when it came out in 1985, but for some reason I never picked it up. My loss, it’s an excellent book, a literate fantasy with echoes of some of my favorite fantasy authors: George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen, but with an original flavor all its own.
An old house in the country, home of the Huxley family for many generations, is the setting, and the ancient and mysterious forest it sits next to. In square miles, this forest is not large, but it has many strange and magical properties, including being much larger inside than would seem possible if this were not a fantasy. Christian Huxley is newly returned from fighting in World War Two Europe to this home where he and his brother grew up. Their father was always busy studying the forest, making long expeditions into it, bringing back artifacts, and writing in his study, with apparently little time for his wife and children. Christian has little fondness for his father’s memory, now that the old man has apparently disappeared for good into the woods. His brother Steven is still nominally living in the house when Christian gets there, but is following in his father’s footsteps, and soon he, too is gone for long travels there.
When Christian explores the edge of the woods himself, he begins to realize what a massive and powerful place it is, and the creatures and people inside it are equally strange and mysterious. Only his father’s journal and Steven’s occasional visits and knowledge can begin to unlock some of the mysteries, and before long Christian is himself being drawn into the enticing place. As the story develops, things continue to get stranger. For instance, the woods themselves are growing toward and finally INTO the house, sprouting in the very ground beneath it. Then there’s the young woman, Guiwenneth, who emerges to take up company with Christian. Is she a myth brought to life by his own mind, or something that’s been in the wood all along, with many other iconic figures? When Steven comes back with a band of outlaws to claim her, Christian and his friend Keeton barely survive, and yet Christian is determined to go deep into the wood to find and save the girl, and Keeton agrees to go with him. The final third of the book is this epic quest, full of deep magic and thrilling action. Thus the story develops from well-conceived ideas to full-blown epic fantasy, and it’s all terrific.
The woods itself reminds me at times of the island on the TV show “Lost,” in that it seems to have a life and immense power of its own, and this story never stopped surprising and delighting me. Looking up Holdstock’s Wikipedia entry, I was sorry to see that he died too young fairly recently, but happy to learn that there are several other books about Mythago Wood that I can now search for and enjoy.
Very highly recommended!