Friday, April 13, 2007

Doorways to Elsewhere II: Review of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Grade: B+ (charitably)

If Ysabel failed due to the lack of a compelling narrative voice, then Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood succeeds on it, just barely. The premise is sketchy: there's a wood in England that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. It's driven one man to obsession, and threatens to do the same to his sons. The wood is inhabited by mythological beings, mythagos as indicated by the title, that are heroic archetypes, taken from the cultural subconscious. When the British Isles still were covered by the post-glacial Wild Wood, these heroes emerged from it, as needed, from the brains of the various cultures.

A background like that, and it's all what you do with it. Holdstock resists a sentimentalist's or escapist's approach, at least in the first half, and reveals the story as the compiled diary of the protagonist, Steven Huxley. The diary voice is fairly well done: Steven writes in a convincing nineteenth/early twentieth century mode (the story is set at the end of the second world war). The prose has the appropriate shadings of purple where expected, a convincing disaffection when describing emotion (which strikes me as English) but a lot of exclamation points. Better, the diary framework offers a nice unreliable narrator kludge to keep the story moving along, and to avoid dwelling overlong on the obvious questions that would trouble any sane person in a situation like that. It's sometimes nice not to have to dwell on every single doubt that flutters through a protagonist's brain.

The first half of the book unfolds pretty well: the wood is mysterious. It consumed Steven's father, who became some kind of mythic being himself, and then his brother. The mythagos it generates are real, people who speak and reason, and love. Attempts to breach its perimeter are rebuffed in convincingly creepy confusion, and time passes oddly for those who do pass through its borders. It recalled the genius of Crowley's Little, Big: the farther in you get, the bigger it gets. Which is something you can feel in the woodlands, where different views can appear a totally new landscape, fractal like a coastline, space filled up in twists and turns.

But when Steven gets in, all that suggestion unfortunately must be put though the paces of the plot. Too bad. Within, the wood is quite mappable, and rather than being complex, it is just huge, with various mythagos, whole societies of them, living in different parts of it. While the ambiguity worked fine in the first half, the second half suffers because Holdstock didn't reveal what the whole thing is. When the mystery of the place was stripped away, I wanted answers instead of haphazard musings: how do these roaming heroes deal with one another? Do they fight? How do they view themselves, the outside? How about other cultures? Where the hell is the ocean in these myths of the British Isles? Holdstock furthermore invents lost cultures at a rate to outnumber the remembered ones. They're not uninteresting, but with the wealth of actual ancestral lore, why not use it?

Steven, as he travels inward, becomes an archetype himself, the kinsman of the dreaded Outsider, with a destiny of his own. It's a fine Freudian mess he's gotten himself into (Daddy neglected him for the obsession, became a primitive woodland god, and his brother stole his mythago gal more or less to act out on the old man), and while it's sort of all there, Holdstock doesn't toy a lot with the psychological angle either. Too bad, it might have been fun to hold it up against the epic.

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