Terran's Reviews > Mythago Wood

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
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May 28, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: for-fun, reviewed
Read in May, 2009

This was a loaner from a London friend, and my first introduction to "mythic fantasy". I found it fascinating and compelling.

Very quickly, the story surrounds a family in Britain, c. end of WWI, and their interactions with the strange, ancient woodland on their property. Like so many other fantasy places, their wood is much bigger on the inside than out. Unlike many other fantasy environments, it's not a particularly nice place.

As you pass deeper into this wood, you also pass deeper into the history and mythology of Britain. Walking through the ages of the forest, you encounter echos of Robin Hood and Arthur, but also far older entities. As you pass back through Medieval, Norman, Saxon, Roman, Neolithic, Paleolithic, and ultimately into the last Ice Age, you face a succession of Invaders and Defenders, struggling for supremacy and to hold on to their respective cultures in the face of the onslaught of change from invading societies. These are not the Disney-fied Robin Hoods who take from the rich and give to the poor; they are dangerous, frightening men and women of far older ages, when survival was much more a matter of physical prowess and willingness to kill rather than be killed. An age when mindsets had much more to do with oral tradition, myth, and magic than with scientific rationality.

Informed by Campbell, Jung, and others, Mythago Wood is a place filled with archetypes from social collective subconscious, rendered flesh by the strange properties of the primeval wood. The Wood, itself, is an active character, resisting progress and shaping those who enter it.

I found the writing extremely vivid and compelling. The descriptions of the Wood summon up every camping trip or backcountry hike through trail-less wood that I've taken. The characters that populate the wood are almost frighteningly real, and you can feel their dangerousness and their alienness radiating from every encounter. Reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, Holdstock has done a marvelous job of rendering the mindsets of peoples who think about the world fundamentally differently than we post-Enlightenment rationalists do.

My one complaint would be that the modern characters often act in frustrating or outright foolish ways. It feels like the author has fallen for a couple of heavily overdone tropes. For example, the all-too popular, "I will not take my modern weapons to face the dangerous man, but rather will face him as an 'equal', with hand weapons" move. (Leaving aside the fact that the enemy is WAY, WAY BETTER with hand weapons than you are.) Or the "I will sacrifice the element of surprise by shouting at the man who has promised to rip out my intestines, rather than sneaking up on him and killing him." I suppose that Holdstock is making a point about the effect of the wood, and how the modern characters slip into the mythic roles. But I still find such poor decision-making from otherwise intelligent characters to be like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Still, even with my perhaps overly picky response to character actions like that, I still found this a brilliantly compelling novel. Holdstock's ability to draw characters of a radically different time and culture and to generate mythic story text whose feel mirrors that of oral-tradition cultures makes this book a welcome and invigoratingly creative work, in a field that is generally too full of rehashings of the same tired stories and storytelling.
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