Ryhope Wood—the Mythago Wood of Robert Holdstock's 1984 World Fantasy Award-winning novel—is a landscape of the unconscious, populated by the echoes of tales told by the people who live near it. Largely unbound by the laws of time and space, Ryhope is many times larger inside than out, and its architecture is of legends and Jungian archetypes, the mythagos, or myth-images, of the title. The wood has a sort of sentience, but it is fed by human imagination and memory. In Mythago Wood it was the unconscious of the narrator Steven Huxley, his brother Christian, and—to a lesser extent—their father George that shaped the inhabitants and events of Ryhope. That book centered on the wood and the mythago Guiwenneth, a Celtic princess whom first George and Christian, then Steven and Christian, fought over. In Avilion, the first direct sequel to that book, it is the half-human, half-mythago children of Steven and Guiwenneth, Jack and Yssobel, who are simultaneously creating and being created by the wood. The novel's central preoccupation is whether they will surrender to narrative destiny, or break free of it.
That Ryhope Wood should have served Holdstock so well (Avilion is his seventh book about the setting) is a tribute to its richness of conception. Ryhope afforded Holdstock the freedom to mix characters from folklore with reconstructed figures from the depths of memory. Though the details of their language and appearance were as accurate as Holdstock could make them, the rhythms of their stories were subject to entanglements with other narratives, leaving (usually) the core episodes of their legends intact. Thus incarnations of Arthur and Odysseus, Robin Hood and the Wild Hunt can exist alongside each other, complete in themselves, but responsive to the flow of other narratives around them. Ryhope is the literal leaf-mold of the mind that Tolkien speaks of, without the necessity of changing any of the names.
In part, then, Holdstock's works about Ryhope are a meditation on story, its function and power, and its ability to maintain meaning even through repetition. But where a book like Lavondyss (1988) ends up being about the tyranny of narrative, there are arguments in Avilion that favor not story itself, but the teller, and individual telling. His mythagos are aware, on some level, of their own futures, but their pasts are often more complicated. "She smiled as she recognized a part of the legend that was her mother's" (p. 11). This is Yssobel, Guiwenneth's daughter, encountering a stone which bears the story of her grandfather Peredur. It is significant that the word used here is "legend" and not "life"; Guiwenneth's past is as much a story told to her by the Huxleys and others as it is a product of action and memory.
This is true of other mythagos. Growing up, one of Yssobel's companions (and later, her secret lover) is Odysseus, before his wars and wanderings. Later he departs, and when they encounter each other again his memory of her and the time since their separation is dim. These lacunae of memory-narrative are gradually filled in by the wood-storyteller, as it reshapes the gentle boy that is Yssobel's first love into the cunning and ruthless man he must become in order to carry out his destiny at Troy and Ithaca.
Even more striking is Guiwenneth's encounter with her father, Peredur, as a young man. He has yet to meet her mother, and yet he recognizes the daughter of his future. Holdstock somewhat clumsily inserts allusions to Wells's novel The Time Machine into Avilion, but it's an unnecessary cue. In order for Ryhope Wood to sustain itself, the stories cannot end; they must be continually retold, stumbling over each other, playing out the core episodes of their legend-lives while allowing the details to change.
The concept, in description, begins to sound almost sacred, as though Ryhope Wood were a manifestation of Mircea Eliade's ideas about the eternal return; but while Holdstock and his characters are capable of awe, and perhaps even reverence, for the possibilities of the wood, there is no sense of holiness about their attitudes. The wood contains many places of worship, for gods remembered and forgotten, but it is not itself a cathedral. It is just the world, the only one Yssobel and Jack have ever known.
Growing up in a Roman villa near the valley of their mother's resurrection, each child has grown up haunted by long-gone relations. Jack has visions of his ethnographer grandfather George Huxley, while Yssobel dreams of her uncle Christian, who once abducted and abused her mother. Guiwenneth is understandably upset by this and, having become convinced that Christian, like Peredur, has returned from death, Guiwenneth leaves the villa determined to exact her revenge on him. In the wake of their mother's departure, the siblings are drawn in opposite directions; Yssobel travels after her mother, towards the heart of the wood, while Jack travels to the wood's edge, hoping to find answers at his father's childhood home, Oak Lodge.
There he manages to summon his grandfather's mythago, who haunts the long-abandoned rooms like a ghost. The elder Huxley serves as a sort of an oracle, scrawling notes about his own manifestation in his journal, and giving Jack a cryptic account of Yssobel's story.
"Yssobel stole the armour of a king. She fought in the armour of that king. And she died in the armour of that king." He paused, searching. "She followed the shadow of the king's stone—and came to the night-black lake. She crossed to the underworld in the king's boat. There she exacted vengeance. There she healed a wound that had cut deeply. Yssobel . . ." (pp. 67-8)
Between these glimpses into his sister's narrative, Jack manages—after some struggle—to reach the nearby village of Shadoxhurst and make friends, including Caylen Reeve, the local vicar, who has a surprising kinship with the wood. But others in the village view the "Wood-Haunter" with suspicion, and when the faerie-like Amurngoth follow his trail out of the wood and kidnap a young human boy, leaving a wood-born Change in his place, Jack fears he will be blamed. He pursues the Amurngoth back into the wood in hopes of rescuing the child, the search for his sister deferred.
Yssobel, at first, seems destined to disrupt narratives, not surrender to them. In seeking her mother, she encounters King Arthur, mortally wounded by Mordred. This is the king whose armour, and death, she steals in order to pass into Avilion, the wood's center, where the stories die and are reborn. There she tracks Guiwenneth to the vast army of the dead called Legion, now led by Christian Huxley. Christian, too, has become a part of the wood's tapestry of stories, but he has yet to surrender to the requirements of his own story—he has had warnings of Guiwenneth's rage, and he turns Legion from its fated course in an attempt to find and eliminate her before she can destroy him.
Attempting to summarize Avilion in a useful way leads one to consider whether there may be too much story here. While Holdstock manages to prevent figures like Arthur and Odysseus from overpowering the novel, there are threads—notably the subplot involving the Amurngoth and their human captives—that are not so satisfyingly integrated into the weave. Overall, however, the book succeeds remarkably well, accreting mythic resonance as it progresses and demarking the boundaries of an epic without blurring the family saga at its heart. There are times early in the novel when the concerns of Jack and Yssobel, half-imaginary even in the context of their own world, are difficult to engage with; the layers of metafiction become an impediment to reader sympathy. Where other stories about Ryhope were first contact stories, Avilion is concerned, at least in part, with being the alien. But Holdstock redeems this seeming misstep with moments of surprising emotional impact, as he makes larger points about accepting change and loss. As Odysseus tells Yssobel when their joint story is about to end:
"You loved me, Yssobel, and you knew it wouldn't last. There is an agony—don't deny it—there is an agony in holding to something that must pass away. I don't know how we know it, but we can see the end of love. And yet the end of love is not the end of fondness. You must pass on. I have murder to commit. Your life is love; mine is the knife, the blade, practicality without beauty." (p. 260)
That this Odysseus is the echo of a man created by the stories Steven Huxley told his daughter, that those stories may bear no resemblance to the actual man, that the man may never have existed, matters not. The thesis of Avilion is, at bottom, the same as that of all the books set in Ryhope Wood; that stories need not be true in order to be real, or to matter. Odysseus knows, on some level, that he is being written by the wood—he knows that he is being prepared for something, that he will change to suit the needs of the narrative. He knows that he has no control over this. But he knows, too, that Yssobel is different, that she is flesh and blood, not wood and sap. He is telling her that she has a choice.
Yssobel's choice, and her brother's, are better left for the reader to discover, though Holdstock's narrative ethos would seem to argue that "spoilers," and endings in general, are not nearly so important as the path taken to reach them. As with his other works, Avilion has passages which feel like passages into places never visited, not places outside but within: a dawning recognition, a chill of superstitious awe. Holdstock wrote stories about story as well as anyone, and better than most. His recent death is not just a personal tragedy for those who knew and loved him, but a literary tragedy for readers everywhere.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in numerous venues; his novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award. He lives in St. Paul and blogs at http://snurri.livejournal.com.