Editorial note: this ran originally on Green Man Review but is reprinted here as we feel the series is ideal for winter reading. This staffer will have a review of The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock: Critical Essays on the Fiction up very soon.
Trying to write an omnibus consideration of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood cycle is a damnably difficult task. On a strictly practical note, two portions of the cycle (‘The Bone Forest’ and Merlin’s Wood) are fiendishly hard to find. ‘The Bone Forest’, which can be found in the collection of the same name, describes the original explorations of George Huxley and Edward Wynne-Jones into the nature of Ryhope Wood, at a time when Christian and Stephen Huxley, the protagonists of Mythago Wood and Lavondyss are still children.
However, that’s not the only reason the Ryhope Wood books defy conventional reviewing practice.
It’s not that they’re not good. On the contrary, they represent some of the finest work done in fantasy over the past few decades, and possibly longer. No, the difficulty lies in the content and structure of the series. Most fantasy slots neatly into the “heroic” category with its attempt at epic, trundling merrily along the Campbellian path of the hero’s journey. Plots are linear, armies march, kingdoms struggle against evil, and in the end it all comes right in book 3 or 5 or 7 or 9.
Not so in Ryhope.
The Ryhope Wood cycle is, like most fantasy, about heroes. However, it’s not the suitably heroic deeds, gussied up and put on display, that the Ryhope books concern themselves with. Rather, they explore something deeper: the process by which heroic myths are made, the stories that underpin them, the ways in which they change and grow over time, and how the creators of those myths fit into their own stories.
There is no linear flow to Ryhope. Each book is strongly tied to both the previous and the next one in the cycle, and each book turns in on itself so that it is a narrative moebius loop. Start any place in the series and you’re on solid footing. Conversely, a reader will never unravel all of any given book’s intricacies without absorbing the rest of the series as well.
And of course, once you’ve read the entire series, you’ll see where The Hollowing would be enriched by another reading of Mythago Wood. The unending cycle starts again, trapping the reader as effectively as Ryhope Wood itself traps those intrepid souls who seek to explore its mysteries.
Ryhope Wood is a small forest in England. It covers perhaps three square miles and sits on the Ryhope Estates, near the village of Shadoxhurst. On the border of the wood sits a house called Oak Lodge, rented by the Ryhopes to the Huxley family in the days before the Second World War. There’s an airfield nearby, while Shadoxhurst is nothing more than a sleepy rural community best known for its annual festival (and the unique dances therein). A brook wends its way into the wood, and various fences and gates make a low-key effort to keep stragglers from wandering in.
This, after a fashion, is true. However, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, this is not what Ryhope Wood is, rather, it is what the wood is made of. Ryhope, it seems, is the last remnant of the primordial forest left in England. It is old, it is dark, and it has learned to defend itself. It touches other forests and other times, other ages of the world. Far larger than its dimensions should allow, it can turn invaders back upon themselves or trap them forever.
And most importantly, this primal wood can bring forth life. Not life in the usual sense, but rather mythagos — creatures from myth and legend, spawned from the minds and memories of those who dwell near the wood, which are given dangerous life by its power. Mythagos are elemental forms, hero-figures in multiple iterations and characters out of legend and story. Each mythago springs from a subconscious mind, born from the wood only to live out its allotted cycle, die, and be reborn again.
Myths are immortal, after all. It’s only the individual manifestations that die before being resurrected in a new form. This is one of the most important lessons of Ryhope, and also one of its most bewitching. After all, one need never lose a friend or lover in Ryhope, not when they can rise again with the next season. But every incarnation of a myth or trope is subtly different, influenced by the mind that spawned it, and that too is a hard lesson that Ryhope teaches.
The first fully fledged novel in the cycle is Mythago Wood. The book, which first saw print in 1984 (though part of it appeared earlier in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) is awash in both the Oedipal struggle and the Jungian subjective unconscious. At its heart, it’s a tale of family struggle. Sons war against each other for the love of a woman, and both struggle against their monstrous, inhuman father. Or so it seems.
In 1946, Steven Huxley returns to his home at Oak Lodge, outside of Ryhope Wood, after a period of recuperation in France. Brought home by a letter from his brother Christian after the death of their father George, Steven steps into a situation far different from the one he remembered. Evidence of his father’s mounting obsession with the wood abounds, and Christian himself is unaccountably edgy. The woman he’d spoken of in his letters to Steven, one Guiwenneth, is missing, and explanations are in short supply. Slowly, the truth comes out, or at least bits of it.
With the aid of George’s journal (what remains of it) and some grudging exposition from Christian, Steven slowly pieces together some of what’s going on: their father’s obsession with and researches in the wood, the true nature of the mythago Guiwenneth (whom father and son quarreled over), and most terrifyingly, George’s attempts to rouse the primal hero form, the Urscumug.
Both brothers begin venturing into the wood, Christian deeper than Steven, until one day Christian vanishes into the forest’s depths. Alone at the Lodge, Steven finally begins to understand his father’s researches in earnest, working both from the journal and through the papers of Huxley’s missing research partner, Edward Wynne-Jones.
Then, abruptly, a Guiwenneth emerges from the wood. Slowly, painstakingly, she and Steven form a bond, even as the wood reaches out for the Lodge. Their time together is both idyllic and romantic, though tinged with melancholy. Guiwenneth sees catastrophe ahead. After all, Christian had loved a Guiwenneth in this way as well, and he is missing.
Sure enough, doom rides out of the wood, wearing Christian’s face. A man is stabbed, and Steven himself is nearly hanged. Finally he decides to enter the wood himself in pursuit of his brother, accompanied by a friend whose reasons are not immediately obvious. The pursuit into Ryhope is a long one. What Steven learns on the trail, however, is that he has literally stepped into legend.
Even as the brothers move through the wood, they dance to its rhythms — and the further in they go, the more they resemble their long-lost, hated father.
The pace quickens, the pursuit narrows, and ultimately Steven accepts that he has become part of the story. Then and only then can he face his brother, though at this point the myth that has taken hold of them both becomes distressingly vague. Neither is fated to be the victor. What is important is the form of the myth, that in the end they meet and all is decided.
Establishing the rough format for the rest of the cycle, Mythago Wood ends with a short fable, one that both brings Steven’s story to a satisfactory close and reminds the reader that personal history seen from a distance may well be indistinguishable from myth. A sharp, concentrated blast of a book, Mythago Wood seizes the reader early on and never lets go. Slow to explain some of its core concepts, it nevertheless offers the tantalizing promise of a full explanation further on, drawing the reader into the book as surely as the Huxleys are drawn into the forest.
Lavondyss is perhaps the most problematic of the Ryhope Wood books, the least accessible and at the same time the richest. It also plays the most games with time, narrative flow and character identity, and as such is either going to delight or frustrate the reader far more than an ordinary tale of a young girl lost in the wood has any right to.
The book begins (as does its followup, The Hollowing) in medias res, with a message to the infant Tallis Keeton from her elderly grandfather. This leaps to a scene of young Tallis discussing the secret names of places with the elderly composer Ralph Vaughn Williams. He gives her a trickle of insight into where some of the songs that have been whispered to her might have come from, and gives her the final key she needs to venture closer to Ryhope (which has been barred to her by forces both trifling and magical). It’s only then, when this curious exchange ends, that we are given the story of what leads up to it.
Tallis, it seems, was the brother of Harry Keeton, who traveled into Ryhope Wood years before and simply vanished. The disappearance has done much to sunder young Tallis’s family; her father is loving but a bit distant, while her mother is overprotective, and harbors resentments against Harry that still simmer in his absence.
Tallis lives hard by the village of Shadoxhurst, near both Ryhope Wood and Oak Lodge. The mysterious Huxleys have by this time passed into something approximating local lore. It’s now the 1950s, and George and his brood have long since vanished. Shadoxhurst continues in its version of normalcy. The wood is left alone, the annual morris dances remain fraught with unexplored meaning, and sightings of a legendary local stag called Broken Boy continue at irregular intervals, at least until Tallis starts coming of age.
Then, suddenly, the message left for her by her grandfather becomes weighted with meaning. Hooded figures from the wood start whispering to her. The secret names of places, each with its own rules, become vitally important. And Tallis begins making dolls and masks, each with a name that hints at a hidden power.
At the same time, Tallis’s story gets intertwined with that of a young prince named Scathach. Thanks to the power of the wood, the lines between their stories get blurred. Tallis tells Scathach’s story, yet also feels that she’s somehow in it, seeing his world through his sister’s eyes. And then, through the power of what’s been taught to her by the figures from the wood, she finds herself interfering with his story from the outside, reaching in from beyond the wood to guard his broken body from both friend and foe.
Just as Tallis is reaching in, however, the wood is reaching out to her. Its power disrupts the Shadoxhurst dances and, inevitably, pulls Tallis to it. More accurately, it sends Scathach, who harbors some secrets of his own, to her, to fetch her under the trees and into the story she’d both started to tell and started to live.
What follows seems, at first, to be a straightforward tale of Tallis’s life in the wood with Scathach and his companions. We meet her again at age 20, the mother of three children who have died, the scar-faced lover of the grim prince whose companions owe a terrible debt to a dark spirit of the wood. Gradually it becomes clear that Tallis and her lover are headed for that grim battle she observed from outside the wood so long ago, and the story begins to loop back on itself.
Weaving itself into the tale is also the story of George Huxley’s research partner, Wynne-Jones. He’s now dwelling in the wood as a shaman, well aware that he’s become part of the story that once flowed from his and Huxley’s subconscious. Trapped within the myth structure he’d once explored, he’s doomed by the pattern of narrative he’s folded himself into. At some point soon, the time of the shaman will end, and Wynne-Jones’s adopted son Tig will devour him, absorbing his dreams and leading his people into a new understanding. Tig himself is doomed, and Wynne-Jones knows this as well. And so, he does his best to smooth the course of the inevitable, all the while waiting with his daughter for the return of his half-mythago son.
To describe what happens next is to do an injustice to the book and to the reader. Suffice to say that all concerned find their destiny, while Tallis undergoes a cycle of rebirth and transformation that weaves her story through itself again and again. She finds her way home and yet she does not; she survives and yet she does not; she gives birth, and yet she does not. What the reader is ultimately left with is dizzying, exhilarating and thought-provoking. More than any of the other Ryhope Wood books, Lavondyss is not heroic. Instead, it is a meditation on the nature of the heroic, and on the blurring of the lines between the teller of the tale and the tale itself. By itself, Lavondyss can be almost infuriatingly dense. Read in conjunction with the rest of the works, it is a masterpiece.
The Hollowing is once again a tale of parent and child, but this time the dynamic is different. Suddenly the father — one Richard Bradley — is the protagonist, and the story revolves around his attempts to rescue his son, who has vanished into the depths of Ryhope Wood. More of a straightforward quest tale, the book’s main thrust follows Richard’s efforts to penetrate the depths of the wood in order to extract his son, Alex, long missing and thought dead. But since this is a Ryhope novel, it can’t be as simple as all that.
Alex Bradley is a fairly normal child, or would be if he weren’t friends with the off-kilter Tallis Keeton, who stands at the center of Lavondyss. Something of her magic rubs off on Alex, especially after her disappearance, and so it is that when Tallis’s father returns from his own trip into the wood, it’s Alex who is the only one who can connect with him. Seemingly deranged, Michael Keeton serves as the bridge between Lavondyss and The Hollowing, giving the reader a look at the close of Tallis’s story from the outside and, in the process, drawing Alex in.
For when forces from the heart of the wood reach out to take Michael Keeton, they take Alex as well — or at least the part of him that matters. What’s left is listless and wooden. A few months later, the shell of Alex escapes his surroundings and vanishes. A body that turns up at the border of Ryhope is identified as Alex; his parents grieve; and life in the real world moves on, more or less.
Years later, Richard Bradley is divorced, dull, and broken when suddenly, improbably, he’s given hope that his son is still alive. The message comes from a strange woman named Helen Silverlock, whom he may or may not have encountered years before, and it gives him just enough hope to venture into the wood himself to meet Helen’s colleagues. They’re part of a research project trying to explore the nature and composition of the wood, and the head of the project has both good and bad news for Richard.
The good news is that he’s quite certain that Alex is alive, and not that far away. The bad news is that Lytton (the project head) feels that Alex’s dreams and mythagos are overwhelming those left behind by George Huxley all those years ago, and Lytton is willing to do anything to stop the corruption of Huxley’s mythopoetic wonderland. And if Richard can’t get his son out of the wood quickly, Lytton seems prepared to take stronger measures.
The rest of the book concerns itself with Richard’s attempts to rescue Alex, and his growing relationship with Helen. She has her own demons to fight in the depths of the wood, however, and one of the beautiful aspects of the book is the fact that her story is clearly demonstrated to be as important and personal as his; it just takes place mostly off-stage. Once again, Ryhope reminds us that there isn’t just one story.
Ultimately, though, the book is about Richard’s quest for Alex, the metaphorical as much as the physical. The Richard we meet at the beginning of the book is an unfit father for Alex. He’s not cruel or abusive, but he doesn’t believe, and his son can’t share his special world with him. When Alex begs his father to grab a stick and dance around a bonfire with him, the best Richard can manage is a halfhearted swipe at an autographed cricket bat and no dancing. His love is not lacking, but there’s no understanding between father and son.
But when Richard tries to penetrate the wood to reach his son, what he’s really struggling against is not physical obstacles or even the nature of Ryhope itself, but rather what lives in his son’s head — the hopes, dreams, fears and elemental feelings of a young, scared boy. The first time Richard tries it, he fails, and is forced out of the wood to start all over again. It’s only after he grows to understand himself as both father and man (the scene wherein he courts Helen is retroactively hysterical) that he can finally penetrate both the wood’s defenses and Alex’s. This process is neither fast nor easy, and it involves (among other things) a side trip into the story of Babel, the elimination of one of Greek myth’s most legendary figures, and an egregious abuse of The Pirates of Penzance.
As in Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, there’s no real mother figure in The Hollowing, at least not a human one. Any nurturing is done by the hollyjack, Alex’s name for the evergreen female daurog who protects him, dreams with him, and lets him reach out to find his father. But Alex’s flesh-and-blood mother fulfills none of these functions, and ultimately drifts out of the story, embittered and peripheral.
If The Hollowing has a weakness, it’s in the presentation of Helen’s story, which feels a trifle rushed. When she’s allowed to breathe as a character, the growing connection between her and Richard is something the reader can enjoy and actively root for. It’s only when she’s actively carrying around important plot elements that she suffers as a character. There are other characters, from Huxley-worshipping Lytton to the boisterous French explorer Arnauld Lacan to the resourceful, frightened translator Sarin; this incarnation of Ryhope Wood is alive with strong figures who, whether they like it or not, are themselves archetypes and mythic figures, obeying the great dance of the wood even as they subconsciously call the tune.
The book ends, appropriately enough, with a tale supposedly collected by Huxley and entitled “Jack His Father.” It’s a fairy tale, like many of the tales gallivanting through Ryhope, and like most of them it’s bloody in the extreme. But when the severed heads and calamities have wound to a successful conclusion, what’s left is a boy’s love and respect for his father, and in that way The Hollowing ends in more satisfying fashion than any of the other Ryhope books thus far.
The fourth book in the Ryhope cycle, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the inverse of Mythago Wood. It is the story of Christian Huxley as hero, not as despoiling Outsider. It’s the story of a boy who witnesses his mother’s madness and suicide, his father’s descent into obsession, and who undertakes the most heroic of quests and sacrifices despite — or perhaps because of — it.
And yet, this Christian is not incompatible with the Christian of Mythago Wood. The seeds of that novel are sown here, a decade and a half later. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is much more straightforward than the other Ryhope books. It starts at its end, perhaps inevitably, with the announcement that what follows will be a memoir, and then skips across the formative events of young Christian’s life. Most notably detailed is his mother’s gruesome suicide, an event that will be returned to again and again in different incarnations throughout the book.
It is only after his return from the battlefields of the Second World War that the wood reaches out to Christian, and it does so through his father. Mysterious intrusions at the Lodge by a female figure lead to less-than-friendly encounters with his father. George Huxley, it seems, is obsessed with the female figure, whom he names Guiwenneth, and whom he follows again and again into the wood.
Eventually, Huxley vanishes into the wood, and it is his son who remains behind to grow obsessed with the appearance of yet another incarnation of Guiwenneth. Soon he, too, is ready to traipse off into Ryhope to follow the elusive red-haired mythago, armed only with a little knowledge, a little equipment, and a great deal of overconfidence.
In the wood, Christian is an Everyman figure. He wonders at everything, narrating his journey step-by-step with a refreshingly straightforward style. Not for him are long hypothetical tangents about the nature of the mythagos. He accepts the wood and its inhabitants as real, perhaps as a product of his obsessive love for Guiwenneth, and as such willingly submerges himself in its reality. Unconsciously at first, he throws himself into the role of mythic hero, acquiring companions, accepting quests, and having the sort of scrapes normally associated with the sort of characters first-year English majors are forced to study.
There’s a dark undercurrent to this seemingly straightforward tale, however. Again and again the subject of Christian’s mother’s suicide is revisited, and each time the tale is told differently. As Christian becomes more of a myth, he understands better what really happened that day, but not why. And so, in search of understanding as much as for the companionship of his beloved Guiwenneth, he travels further into the wood with the mysterious, doom-shadowed Legion and its larger-than-life warleader, Kylhuk.
Kylhuk is on a quest of his own, and each task he accomplishes unleashes another dire consequence. And so all of Legion is racing against time toward the ultimate achievement of Kylhuk’s quest, a destination that cannot be reached without Christian and his very special family history.
Something is waiting for Christian beyond the end of Kylhuk’s quest, however: a decision and a hint at a dark future that reminds us of where the Ryhope cycle began.
Curiously enough, Christian’s distance from his father is apparent from the beginning here. His father is never “father” or “George Huxley.” He’s simply “Huxley,” a looming figure who is equal parts taskmaster and rival. Here, for the first time, we have a book where the mother figure matters more than the father, even in her absence. Huxley is more a presence than a character, an impetus to drive Christian into Guiwenneth’s arms and into attempts at heroism.
Indeed, in many ways, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the antithesis of Mythago Wood. The horrific Christian from the first book is a noble quester here, reasonably selfless and in pursuit of others’ goals as well as his own. His allies are (like all heroic companions in the Ryhope books) a doomed band, but they choose to live as vibrantly as they are able. Perhaps most importantly. Kylhuk’s quest — and by extension, Christian’s — is a quest to achieve, to find, to do, unlike the central pursuit of Mythago Wood, which is all about undoing another’s work.
Even with the foreshadows of the future hanging over the ending, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the most straightforward and hopeful of the Ryhope books thus far. Poor lovestruck, unprepared Christian is allowed to act heroically of his own free will, to make his mistakes and to rise above them, and to ultimately become a hero, at least for the moment.
Finally, the cycle closes with Avilion. Even before Holdstock’s untimely passing, it would have been impossible to read Avilion as anything other than a tale of partings, a resolution to many of the threads woven through the Ryhope Wood cycle. Now, it presents itself as a fond and graceful farewell to Ryhope and the Huxley family, an affectionate gift of endings to characters who, in their own ways, have all earned peace.
Despite being the last of the cycle to be written, the book slots in early in the continuity of mythago-haunted Rhyhope Wood. The cover touts it as a sequel to Mythago Wood and that’s exactly right, placing it firmly between that book and Lavondyss, though it’s worlds away from either in terms of mood and tone. Where the former is a fever dream and the latter is relentless in its intensity, Avilion is a more generous book, accessible in a way that none of its predecessors ever managed.
Part of that is due to the nature of the two main characters, Yssobel and Jack. The children of human Steven Huxley and personified myth-fragment Guiwenneth, they each have a “red” and a “green” side, human and mythago in equal proportions. On one hand, this serves to allow the reader an easier access into the world of the wood, as their understandings of their unique home and existence become ours. On the other, this blending of two worlds drives the children away from their homes in opposite directions. Spurred on by a vision of her murderous uncle Christian, Yssobel leaves home to find Avilion, the secret heart of the primal forest. There, she knows she’ll find her mother, who has fled into time with an itinerant band of lost soldiers calling themselves Legion. She’ll also find her uncle, who now commands Legion from within a haze of fear and doubt, haunted as much by Yssobel as she is by him.
Jack’s reaction is opposite. He heads for the edge of the wood, for the ancestral Huxley manse of Oak Lodge and a fragile understanding of how mythago and human can mix at the border of the outside world. His mission there is simple: to conjure a mythago of his grandfather George, a ghost of the wood with Huxley’s own memories who can help Jack find his lost sister.
But while all roads in the wood may lead to Avilion, the paths there are terrible and strange. Jack travels with a troop of monsters and stolen boy with a secret name, while Yssobel’s route forces her to steal the death of a king named Arthur – a king who prefers his glorious death to a second chance at life, and will stop at nothing to reclaim it.
As noted earlier, this is by far the most accessible of the Ryhope Wood books. The concepts of the ghost-haunted mythago wood and the sad history of the Huxleys are laid out in simple terms. They’re familiar to readers by now, and the terror and wonder of their discovery is left for other books in the series. Instead, Avilion is more plot-driven, a story of finding one’s proper place in things. This holds true for all of the characters, from a wrily youthful Odysseus painfully aware of what his future holds to the nameless boy stolen away as a changeling to Arthur and Jack and Yssobel themselves. If the lesson of Ryhope Wood is that the story-form is eternal and ever-changing, the offering of Avilion is that within that form, there can be happy endings. And if it fails to reach the fevered intensity of its predecessors, Avilion is still a worthy entry into the Ryhope Wood saga, as fitting as any of its literary siblings and perhaps more generous in the end.
With the last book written and the circle closed, it’s possible to assess the Rhyope Wood cycle in its entirety. While not the thickest, the best-known, or the best selling, the Ryhope cycle is one of the most important fantasy series of recent memory. While other exemplars of the genre tell stories, Holdstock tells stories of storytelling, and yet manages to make them as exciting and engrossing as the most acrobatic bit of literary swordplay. His characters are multifaceted jewels, showing different aspects depending on whose tale they are cast in.
Ultimately, the Ryhope books are stories about stories, about the line between tale and teller and what happens when that line erases itself. Utilizing the same elements again and again (the unloved child, the doomed companions, the scarag and daurog of the greenwood, etc.), Holdstock accomplishes the almost unbelievable trick of having his books play by the rules of their stories. Each is a version, a mythago of a novel, as it were — the same tale told in a different way, for a different time. It may refer to its ancestral versions in much the same way Tig refers to the dreams of the shaman Wynne-Jones, but it is fully realized and uniquely alive.