Thursday, 3 December 2009

Gone Through the Gate of Horn

I was really sad to hear about the death of Robert Holdstock on Sunday. He was a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed ever since the publication of Mythago Wood in 1985. This is one of the great works of post-war British fantasy, and it is perhaps appropriate that it is set in the years immediately following the war, since it in part deals with the disconnection of the modern era from the continuum of the past. Mythago Wood was a fine novel in itself, but it also created a template for other works through its establishment of an imaginative device via which the mythic Matter of Britain could be explored and reflected upon. The sequence of novels which followed were not so much sequels as further expansions of the possibilities inherent in the original model. They include Lavondyss (1988), the title novella of The Bone Forest (1991), The Hollowing (1993), Merlin’s Wood (1994), The Hollowing (1997), Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997), and his recent return to the original story Avilion (2009). Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, the Hollowing and Gate of Ivory have been collected as The Mythago Cycle volumes 1 & 2.

Mythago Wood takes place in and around a small area of ancient woodland in Herefordshire known as Ryhope Wood. It is narrated by Steven Huxley, who returns after the death of his father George in 1947 to Oak Lodge, the cottage on the edge of the wood in which he and his brother Christian grew up. The father was a remote figure whose obsession with his study of the wood led to the neglect of his family and his wife Jennifer’s suicide (an event which is explored further, and to heartrending effect, in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). Sundered families and their conflicts are at the heart of all the Mythago novels, and the psychological anguish which such fragmentation causes is the catalyst both for the search for solace in the universalised stories of myth and for the unleashing of the unconscious energies which create the concretised myth images (or mythagos) from the woodland’s vortex. For George Huxley’s discovery, derived from a mixture of anthropology, archaeology and science, is that there really is substance to the flickering shapes darting from woodland shadows in the periphery of vision.

His scholarly speculations are conveyed, in the manner of Victorian and Edwardian literature, through journal entries, and also through the clarifications of his son Christian, who has returned to the Lodge directly after the war. ‘The old man believed that all life is surrounded by an energetic aura’, he says. ‘In these ancient woodlands, primary woodlands, the combined aura forms something far more powerful, a sort of creative field that can interact with our unconscious. And it’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing…The form of the idealized myth, the hero figure, alters with cultural changes, assuming the identity and technology of the time. When one culture invades another…the heroes are made manifest, and not just in one location!…When the mind image of the mythago forms it forms in the whole population…and when it is no longer needed, it remains in our collective unconscious, and is transmitted through the generations’. Steven voices his understanding of his father’s ideas: ‘and the changing form of the mythago…is based on an archetype, an archaic primary image which father called the Urscumug, and from which all later forms come’. The setting of the novel in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provides the necessary context of national dislocation for the manifestation of such heroic mythagos. Think of the myths of the Blitz, the more modern mythagos of the city captured in novels such as Michael Moorcock’s Mother London or Graham Joyce’s Facts of Life (centring around the Coventry blitzkrieg). Or going further back, to the phantom archers of the First World War trenches, seemingly conjured from the pages of Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen.

But such heroes no longer emerge from the landscape of the ancient woodland, and the novel is more interested in the rediscovery of the ancient myths through conscious investigation and the violent disruption of individual psyches. The pain which Holdstock’s characters go through serves to highlight the more personal level of the matter of myth, the recurrent needs which these stories reflect.It is not the heroic figure of Arthur who is resurrected by Huxley and his sons, but that of Guinnevere, or Guiwenneth as she is here known (the etymological evolution of names is another important aspect of the Mythago books). As such, the novels are a reflection on the need of our psyches for stories which reflect and embody our own inchoate emotions, and of the way that we interact with them on a personal level. The imagos which the Huxleys conjure up from the woodland are not immutable. Their basic structure is further shaped by the hidden currents of the heart. Steven reads as much in his father’s diaries; ‘I found, in his erratic recordings, much that told me of his sense of danger, of what – just once – he called “ego’s mythological ideal”, the involvement of the creator’s mind which he feared would influence the shape and behaviour of the mythago forms’.

This sets up the idea of the interaction of the unconscious, at both its universal and personal level, with the specific spirit of place, the genus loci of the ‘oak vortex’. It is perhaps its density, its sense of a hidden interior separate from the world beyond which makes the ancient woodland such a perfect site for the manifestation of archetypal figures drawn from the deep wells of the subconscious. Finding a point of entry into the seemingly impenetrable thicket of Ryhope Wood offers a passage into worlds within worlds, a realm in which space and time expand. The further one journeys towards the heart of the wood, the further one penetrates the deeper recesses of the mind. The distortion of dimension which intensifies towards the centre is hinted at in Steven’s childhood memory of the brothers launching a bark boat along the stream entering the woods. When it fails to emerge on the other side they assume it has sunk or got caught in some tangle of twigs, but some six months later it does appear again, having navigated who knows what waters. The wood offers a sense of refuge from the battering complexities of the modern world, a sparsely populated place where a sense of solitude can be found. The retreat into its deeper spaces and the receding echoes of an ancestral past is part of the age old attempt to rediscover a dimly intuited Eden of lost innocence, to heal the fractures of time, both personal and cultural. Often, with Holdstock, this is represented by the attempt to make shattered familial connections whole again. The reconnection with the world of your ancestors makes this doubly meaningful. The family is the current shoot given flower by these lengthy tangles of roots. This notional space in which everything will be made whole once more is to be found at the heart of the wood, and one of the names by which it is known is Lavondyss, which is the title and subject of the second book.

People often look back on their childhoods as periods of lost innocence, and perhaps Holdstock was recalling some of his experiences of growing up as a self-avowed ‘man of Kent’ in creating the enchanted space of Ryhope Wood. Although nominally set in Herefordshire, perhaps in order to place the wood at the heart of England, Ryhope always had the feel of a Kentish locale for me, perhaps a reflection of my own upbringing as a ‘Kentish man’. There’s an important distinction between the two appellations; one indicates that you’ve been born below the Medway, the other above. Although essentially a London suburbanite, I did travel down into the weald of Kent on many occasions, and there were several stretches of ancient woodland which possessed a powerful atmosphere which lingers in my imagination to this day. They were then and are now more than ever bifurcated and sheared away by transport routes and commuter satellite developments which fill in all the ‘empty’ spaces of this overcrowded corner of the island, warped by the gravity well of London’s dense mass. I always laugh at the sign which greets you as you descend from the heights of the Dart Bridge across the Thames and crawl along the motorway with the other multi-lane traffic, past the bleak architecture of high-rise motels and supermarket storage hangers; ‘Welcome to Kent’, it says. ‘The Garden of England’. Well, the garden has been concreted over. The small clumps of woodland which are left (and lets not forget the depredations of ‘the great storm’ – or was it ‘the great wind’?) become an even more alluring haven, the need for a place to retreat from this choked landscape which screams of the tawdry cheapness of the bottom line ever more vital. The fact that Holdstock sets his novels at the dawn of this modern age is key to what makes them so much more than just another retreat into the mists of Celtic fantasia. They confront the need for escapism, but don’t allow their characters that comfort. He is intent on showing how these stories serve a purpose beyond ‘mere’ escapism. To this extent, they amount at times to an almost propagandistic manifesto for the importance of the imagination, and of the stories which it creates.

The notion of the mythagos developed as the novels progressed, and Holdstock himself had time to reflect on his creation. The Hollowing plays an interesting variation by having a boy with a damaged psyche lost in the woods, his disturbed state leading to the creation of mythagos beyond the standard ‘template’. And what could be more natural for a boy of his age than to people the woods with velociraptors. The cathedral in the trees amongst whose ruins he takes sanctuary is a powerfully resonant image, too. Again, I remember a stretch of woodland (Beaver Woods) which lay beyond the boundary of the busy Sidcup bypass (and was thus already imbued with a certain sense of danger – somewhere beyond the normal range of childhood territory) in the midst of which were the ruins of an old house (including a sundial). It is the kind of place which has no-doubt become amplified and distorted by memory and dream, to the extent that I would be reluctant to return for fear of dispelling the aura of slightly threatening enchantment which it has accumulated with what is no doubt a drab actuality.

Real people who have themselves delved into the collective experience of English landscape and memory occasionally make an appearance; there’s Alfred Watkins, the author of the 1925 book The Old Straight Track, which introduced the idea of ley lines, who corresponds with George Huxley in Mythago Wood; Vaughan Williams converses with the aptly named protagonist of Lavondyss, Tallis Keeton; and the name Huxley itself suggests the writer Aldous, who bridged the worlds of science and the arts, becoming the seemingly paradoxical figure of a rationalist mystic. Holdstock himself studied medical zoology to Masters level, and you can sense something of scientist’s need to classify in his explorations of the Matter of British myth, a filing of archetypes into their stratified phyla. Christian Huxley articulates the impulse towards pursuing scholarly speculation which provides one element of the Mythago books when his brother Steven questions his motives in continuing his father’s work; ‘Why, to study the earliest times of man…From these mythagos we can learn so much of how it was, and how it was hoped to be. The aspirations, the visions, the cultural identity of a time so far gone that even its stone monuments are incomprehensible to us. To learn. To communicate through those persistent images of our past that are locked in each and every one of us’.

Of course, he is lying. His motives are anchored in personal needs with no such loftily idealistic detachment. But the novels can do both. They can stray along interesting speculative byways whilst telling a story rooted in the traditional literary values of character and psychological verisimilitude. In many ways, he has created a confluence between the sometimes disparate qualities of literary and fantastic fiction, the latter of which has often been accused of neglecting character in favour of landscape and symbolic detail. Here these details actually emerge from the psyches of the characters, and so are emblematic of them. The mythagos, meanwhile, are emanations of the landscape and evolve a unique personality which diverges from their archetypal role according to the extent to which they interact with the ‘real’ characters who come into their realm and draw them forth. This creates a typically science fictional (for Holdstock’s fantasies have the worked-through rigour of SF) meditation on the nature of humanity. In an inquisitive aside of the kind which would seem out of place in a generic fantasy which takes its materials for granted, Steven wonders just how mythagos are created. ‘How did the generic process work, I wondered, watching this beautiful, solid, soft and warm human creature. Did she form out of the leaf litter? Did wild animals carry sticks together and shape them into bones, and then, over the autumn, dying leaves fall and coat the bones in wildwood flesh? Was there a moment, in the wood, when something approximating to a human creature rose from the underbrush, and was shaped to perfection by the intensity of the human will, operating outside the woodland? Or was she just suddenly…there. One moment a wraith, the next a reality, the uncertain, dreamlike vision that suddenly clears and can be seen to be real’. Ultimately, the characters will be absorbed in the coils of their own story, becoming mythagos themselves, their tales told to future generations. A grace which the lasting influence of his novels will also bestow upon Robert Holdstock.

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