Here, the intersection of the timeless momentIs England and nowhere. Never and always. (T S Eliot, Little Gidding, 1942)
In 1981 the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an American genre magazine --already venerable then and still going strong today— published a 16,000-word story called 'Mythago Wood' by an English writer, Robert Holdstock.
At the time Holdstock was a jobbing SF and fantasy writer of a kind more common then than now, producing quantities of genre writing under a range of pen names (Ken Blake, Robert Black, Richard Kirk, Chris Carlsen, Robert Faulcon, Steven Eisler) some of which were publishers' 'house names.' But 'Robert Holdstock' was his real name, and 'Mythago Wood' was something different. It made his name and won the first in a series of increasingly prestigious awards that his work has received in Britain, the USA, and France. It was also a breakthrough into an astonishingly rich, dark, strange and honest kind of imagining and feeling about English landscape.
The original 1981 story is about a wood. Obviously. Ryhope Wood is a small, fenced-in area of ancient wildwood in Herefordshire. Except that's not all it is. People who go into the wood get lost. They walk for days, weeks, months, trying to penetrate to a centre that can never be found, as the wood puzzles their path and leads them astray. Time passes differently there. The further in you go, the more you find, the more enriched and the more lost you become, and the harder it is to come out. Characters in the stories become obsessed with the wood. They try to explore it, map it, fly over and take aerial photographs of it, theorise and write treatises about it, in their effort to understand it. Such attempts always fail. The wood resists, absorbing and changing them. Most of these explorers become, in the eyes of the world, more or less mad: they are drawn deeper and deeper into a world populated by ancient, mythogenic figures of the landscape. There is no escape.
And so in a sense it was for Holdstock. The 1981 story, like the wood of the title, turned out to be far bigger on the inside than it looked from outside. It grew into a great tree of a novel, also called Mythago Wood, which was published in 1984. This tree became a wood, the so-called Mythago Wood Cycle, or the Ryhope Wood series, as three more great trees surged up --Lavondyss (1988), The Hollowing (1993), and Gate of Ivory (1998)— accompanied by a back-story made up of novellas and short stories which were collected in The Bone Forest (1991). After 1998 it seemed that Holdstock had kicked the mythago habit and turned to other things, but a new addition to the series, Avilion, is coming out in 2009 (not yet published at the time of writing).
The novels are all the same book, really, or at least all parts of one big book, in the way that trees make a wood. Taken together, they form a spiralling, recursive knotwork of prequels and sequels that re-enter Ryhope Wood by different paths, as if maybe this time --this time— Holdstock will find his, and our, way into the centre of it, or the origin of it. He will finally understand what it's all about, and put it to rest.
It's not that Ryhope Wood lacks story. On the contrary, it is filled with it. Characters who get lost in the wood are enmeshed in Story like birds in mist-nets or moths in cobwebs: the endlessly-repeating tales of English/British myth and legend, and the family struggles of fathers against sons, brothers against brothers. (Yes, there are women here - mothers, daughters and lovers are central characters - but I do suspect that the cycle is a male thing, in the way that Jungian psychology is male psychology.)
In Ryhope Wood, and sometimes emerging from it into 'our' world, are figures, some apparently human, some apparently animal, some strange both-and-neither figures, that include characters from old story (Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter, the Green Knight, Arthur, Mordred, Guinevere) alongside figures from an even older, wilder palaeo-mythography. These figures are not simple reappearances of the familiar, but odd, wry-shaped, disturbing doubles, precursors, avatars and archetypes. And they are not ghosts or traces or memories. They are real, strong, and physical, sometimes loving, but often decidedly not.
Yet what you come away with as a reader, and remember long after reading one of these books, isn't the story or the characters, particularly. There are two things: the extended puzzle, the endless effort to understand what this wood is, what it is doing and how; and the intense physical actuality of the wood. You breathe, touch and taste it, in passages of intense and synaesthesic landscape writing. Here's an example from Lavondyss:
"But the old Daurog came closer. … It stepped slowly towards Tallis, crouched with much rustling and snapping of sinews and reached a long, tapering twig-finger to touch her hand. Its nail was a rose thorn; she allowed it to scratch her skin, making a faint red mark.... The Daurog … spoke words; they were high-pitched and meaningless: bird chatter; the creak of a branch; more chatter; the rustle of leaves in wind."
So. Why am I writing about these books as part of a series of essays by divers hands about classics of Englishness?
There is a strand of English writing (and English music, art, film, and above all feeling) that is completely familiar and yet has always had to fight for its position in the marketplaces of the intellect, because it is never--never— taken seriously. Its roots are in the early twentieth century, and its heyday was around 1967-1977.
I have a book at home which distils this English feeling better than anything else I've come across, a Reader's Digest book published in 1973 and abundantly illustrated, called Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. It's all there. You can enquire within upon everything from William Blake to witch posts, from corn dollies to horned gods, all carefully linked to a particular county, vale or village. The first reproduction in it is a detail from Paul Nash's Landscape of the Summer Solstice, setting us firmly in a familiar world of neo-romantic pastoral vision and localised English folk and landscape history.
I've chosen the Reader's Digest deliberately, because it is, in the intellectual sphere, so not acceptable. This feeling and set of ideas is not academic folklore, not careful, reverent stuff. This is the people's folk. Folk for kids. Folk-rock—not the refined interpretation of English folk music. The soundtrack to this state of mind is rooted in Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but its greatest flowering was early Caravan, Mellow Candle, Forest, Comus, Jan Dukes de Grey, the Mike Oldfield of Hergest Ridge. The only full-on literary expression of this English feeling (though not its folk trappings) that I can think of is T S Eliot's Four Quartets.
One of the core ideas of this imaginative world, one which repeats again and again, is this: that through an intense sensory and imaginative relationship with some very particular place in England --a valley, a wood, a hill, a river, a circle of standing stones-- you can encounter some kind of mythical, mystical presence. This presence is extremely localised but it is also immensely connected and immensely old. It is almost always expressed as a kind of story, whether it be myth, legendary history or fairy tale, which you either observe being played out, or more often get drawn into and re-live yourself. Such encounters are most likely to be experienced by people who are displaced, excluded and on the threshold of something, often adulthood, and normally feature in texts that occupy an equivalent position in the literary world: in 'children's,' 'fantasy,' 'popular,' 'genre' or 'non-literary' fiction.
Most people could make a list of this kind of thing. My own personal canon includes, off the top of my head: Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill (1906); Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams (1907); Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe books (1954- 1976); Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963), and The Owl Service (1967); and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence (1963-1977). Similar ideas play out in 1970s children's TV: The Children of the Stones, Doctor Who and the Daemons. They saturate popular books of the sixties and seventies, like Janet and Colin Bord's Mysterious Britain (1972) and John Michell's The View Over Atlantis (1969), books which look backwards to ground-breaking works by Alfred Watkins (who 'discovered' ley lines), T C Lethbridge (who found sun-god and moon-goddess figures in the Cambridgeshire hills) and O G S Crawford (who described a whole goddess archaeology spread across England).
Holdstock has explicitly placed himself in the 1970s folky-pastoral tradition. Here's his account of writing the story 'Scarrowfell' for a Hallowe'en reading: "I was in the middle of my 'mythago' period at this time, and was listening to a great deal of European folk music, especially British. I'd found a 'Morris' album called Morris On, featuring such stalwarts of folksong as John Kirkpatrick, Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings, which was huge fun to listen to …. The words were resonant and haunting. And they inspired a story. On the Hallowe'en night I read the piece and between sections played the Morris music for effect, a sort of 'radio' performance. It went down quite well."
But it would be misleading to describe the Mythago Wood books as simply part of this sunlit, neo-romantic 1970s world. Holdstock's cycle is a late-comer to this tradition and he makes it into something different, original, obsessive and peculiar. These are books which examine themselves and wonder endlessly about their own roots. To read them is to explore theories of the mind (Ryhope Wood is a working model and a making-real of the archetype-rich Jungian unconsciousness) and theories of anthropological mythography (Holdstock draws on the works of Joseph Campbell in particular). They are also books conscious of their own heritage as "a central contribution to late-20th-century fantasy writing … almost embarrassingly dense with fantasy tropes" (John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy). They can be read as a kind of encyclopaedic collection of fantasy story ideas.
In most ways the Mythago Wood cycle is nothing like The Lord of the Rings, but in one big way it is. Both Holdstock and Tolkien locate a post-war England (Mythago Wood begins with a demobbed soldier returning home in 1945) that has no national myths, no largeness, no wild woods. It is all drab and dull and cramped and austere. In this England, both Tolkien and Holdstock take a small space -a wood, a shire ("in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit")- and they make its littleness big, massive, capacious, filling the space they've opened up with a huge imagined other place: an endless forest, a bottomless well of quasi-invented, quasi-borrowed folklore, myth, history, and landscape. It is a place that grows and grows without end, not outwards but inwards and backwards, the mind discovering the endless riches of itself. --Peter Higgins