Avilion, by Robert Holdstock

By Robert Holdstock (Gollancz, 2009, 344pp, £12.99)

Avilion is by sad default the last novel in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series. It is also possibly the first ‘true’ sequel to the original novel, being the further adventures of some of Mythago Wood’s primary characters as well as introducing new ones. Other books and stories in the series have focused on new characters, or told parallel stories, or popped across the Channel to a similar wood in Brittany (Merlin’s Wood), or told a prequel story instead (Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). It would be interesting to know if Holdstock planned further volumes before his untimely death or if this was always intended to be the end because it is noticeable that the series has moved far beyond its origins and, perhaps, what made it so beguiling in the first place.

To recap, the proper name of the titular wood is Ryhope Wood, which appears from the outside as a small spinney no more than a few square miles in area. In fact it is one of the few remaining areas of primal woodland in Britain with trees that date back to the end of the last Ice Age. It shelters, and gives physical form to, myth-images from the subconscious race memories of all the peoples who have lived in these islands, starting with the first hunter-gatherers who followed the ice northwards and all through the centuries to the present day. In Mythago Wood these myth-images were labelled ‘mythagos’ by George Huxley, the first scientist to observe and record the phenomenon. Within the wood the myths that create the mythagos loop through time, and characters who are or who are to become mythagos may find themselves caught up in the aftermath of mythical adventures they have not yet had.

Ryhope is considerably larger inside than out and penetrating through the trees brings the careless wanderer to mythago landscapes – realms of ice and fire; castles; and warring, nameless tribes. In Ryhope, characters cannot just travel between A and B, as both locations themselves are mythagos and by the time they have got to B it might have changed because of something they haven’t done yet – something that is scheduled to become legend.

As fiction, Ryhope builds on foundations laid down by the English woodland tales of Kenneth Grahame and ‘B.B.’, and Holdstock takes great care to populate it with mythagos from English folk memory: for example, Herne the Hunter, Arthur and Robin Hood may all appear as individuals but they are also all mythagos of the same original mythical hero. Where our prehistoric culture is unknown, Holdstock simply makes it up, extending the line of known myth back in time to create a plausible ur-myth to give it form. He blends these prehistoric mythagos seamlessly with those from the more familiar stories of our childhoods. Thus the simple logic of mythago creation leads to a complex juggling act of story-telling, and Holdstock pulls it off extremely well. To write these stories he must also create the ur-myths, give them a timeline, front-load them into the novel and then decide where on the timeline to insert his characters.

But it is because Avilion follows this simple logic so successfully that fans of the original novel might find it a letdown.

George Huxley had two sons, Christian and Steven. In previous books, both of these went into the wood for their own reasons. Christian is now chief of Legion, a mythago army of mercenaries introduced in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn that travels between mythical battles to offer its services to one side or another. Steven has long settled in the wood with his beloved Guiwenneth, who is just one manifestation of the group of mythagos that includes the Earth goddess and Guinevere: she died earlier, but that is no handicap when you are a mythago attached to a resurrection myth. Between them Steven and Guiwenneth have two children, Jack and Yssobel, half human and half mythago. They think of their two halves, human and mythago, as ‘red’ and ‘green’. Jack is dominated by his ‘red’ side: it is always his ambition to head out of the wood and explore as much as he can of his father’s world. Yssobel is fundamentally ‘green’, with an urge to go ever deeper, both into the wood and into the heart of myth.

Newcomers to the wood bring the potential for their own mythagos with them and the classically educated Steven has some choice examples. Wanting somewhere to live, he deliberately didn’t think of castles with their concomitant histories of war and armies but instead mythagoed up a Roman villa from the golden age of the Pax Romana: terracotta roof, whitewashed walls, each room bright and happy. (To add dramatic spice, there is always a random unknown element to mythago creation. A Roman villa grows from Steven’s imagination but it is at first bleak and mouldering, requiring work to become the happy family home he wanted; and a mythago attached to a resurrection myth might return, but whose version of the myth is it that comes back?)

Ruined or habitable, villas like Steven’s used to dot our landscape: so far, so English. But Steven brings other influences with him and they sit awkwardly in the world that Holdstock has created. Playing a key role in the story, including having a relationship with Yssobel, is a pre-Iliad Odysseus, who to his credit is shocked to learn of what he will be getting up to when Troy falls. (Mythagos may have their fate pre-ordained by their creator myth, but as individuals they look and feel human, with human loves and fears and consciences. The death of a mythago is just as tragic as the death of a human: at least, from the mythago’s point of view.) Meanwhile, Steven’s favourite novel in the outside world is The Time Machine and that novel’s Palace of Green Porcelain is here too. It is lacking in Eloi and Morlocks, who you would have thought would come as part of the mythago package and who even get a mention in passing, but it still has the function given to it by H.G. Wells as a future museum of ancient civilisations. It is the first hint of any technology later than the Bronze Age to appear in the wood and the effect is jarring.

A building from a mythical, pastoral future, and a young Greek lad from the land of sun and sand and olive groves – we are a long way from the archetypal English landscape that Mythago Wood was all about. The reader is also left wondering why Holdstock chose those two and not any others from the depths of Steven’s imagination. Why is Odysseus at the stage of his life where he is still conveniently a lone operator, not accompanied by a shipload of discontented Greek sailors – other than that the plot required it and the sailors would get in the way? And supposing Steven had preferred something else by H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds? The Invisible Man? The History of Mr Polly? Supposing instead of H.G. Wells he was into musical theatre? The potential for farce is suddenly only a few short steps away, and a fantasy series as important as this deserves better.

Thus, even though Avilion follows on logically from the world created by the earlier book, it also leaves that world behind. So English was the earlier series that Ralph Vaughan Williams – the actual man, not a mythago – could appear in an earlier novel and not seem out of place, but there would be no place for him here. The setting has become more fantasy-generic: a world of warped time and space that could see an appearance by Silverberg’s Gilgamesh. Much was made in the first novel – with a brief mention here, too, via George Huxley’s notes – of the vortices of energy within secluded glades of oak and ash that create the mythagos. It is a beautiful image that takes the reader straight into the mystery of the wood. In Avilion, seeing mythagos effectively running their own time-warped civilisation in a variety of non-arborial landscapes just emphasises the divide.

The narrative jumps between present and past, as befits the novel’s theme of the simultaneous creation and re-enaction of legend. Yssobel has vanished from the villa, we know not where: Jack has made the perilous, year-long journey back to Oak Lodge, his ancestral home on the edge of the woods, to summon up his grandfather George as a mythago and gather clues as to where she has gone. She is seeking her mother, who in keeping with her own legend has also done a disappearing act and Yssobel has worked out that she has gone to Avilion, a variant spelling of Avalon brought to us by Tennyson’s ‘The Passing of Arthur’. I laughed out loud at the ingenuity with which Yssobel finds her way there. Who else do we know who according to legend quite famously went to Avalon? And how did he get there? So, why not hitch a lift? Ingenious – but again, a few treacherous thoughts take us perilously close to farce as a disconsolate Arthur finds himself stranded on the shore of the lake, inconveniently alive contrary to what the myth says he should be, and (rather ungratefully) swears a vendetta against the woman who stole his death.

The story satisfies when one looks back at what it has accomplished but the actual telling of the story, at least in the uncorrected proof copy that I was able to read, had some unsatisfactory glitches along the way. At one point we get to see the wood actually warping – characters travel down a gorge which physically closes behind them as they move from one myth-zone to another – and yet we are simply told this, without any feeling or emotion attached to it. The wonder of Ryhope Wood is on an intellectual plane: we are just told what the wood can do, take it or leave it. And there are the points mentioned earlier: this may be a Mythago Wood story but it is no longer a story about the wood. Using ‘green’ to describe the character of a mythago conjures up wood resonances that do not really pay off.

But the novel is, at heart, Jack and Yssobel’s two stories and thus the story of children growing up and leaving home. Any young person who sets out into the world for the first time has a moment of fumbling for their true identity, seeking a meaning to their life apart from the forces that have guided them so far. The problem is magnified for these two by being half mythago: a large part of their existence is already quite literally mapped out for them. They can follow it, they can kick back against it, or they can learn to live with it whilst retaining their own character and independence. The latter option is ultimately the path that they take, each in their own ways.

The characters have grown, and the world with it: they have formed themselves into something new that breaks away from the myths that bound them. It is a good note for the Mythago Wood series to end on.