Soul Traps

July 5, 2020

She calls to you from ten feet past the breakwater,
the likeness of a girl with features grim,
and a rucksack full of multicoloured pots,
or “soul traps,” as she calls them.
Her eyes are stars in sea foam;
her hair is braided kelp.
You gaze upon her scaly skin with wonder,
and ask her what they’re for, these so-called “traps.”
She paints for you a scene of sailors drowned,
of spirits free and swimming for the surface,
but rarely do they make it,
for among the ones who call the sea their home
are those who fancy trophies from above,
those who carry pots and brandish tridents.
Hunters, some would call them. Collectors.
It seems her father counts himself as one.
She says she can’t abide such savage sport
and begs of you to please come down and take them,
quickly now, before he knows they’re gone.
The angel on your shoulder calls for pause,
but the devil’s voice is louder in your ear.
It says for you to help her;
it says to take the lure.
Down the rocks and into shallow water,
and once you’re close enough she pulls you in,
holds you fast beneath the gentle waves.
The daughter of a hunter learns to bait.

Kurt Kirchmeier

The novelist Robert Holdstock died in November 2009 aged 61, leaving behind a series of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery novels (the latter under the pseudonym Ken Blake). The cycle he is best known for is the Mythago Cycle/Ryhope Wood (the terms are used interchangeably by the novelist and his publishers: here I will opt for “Mythago Wood Cycle”; and use Holdstock’s plural “mythagos”) series of novels, six in total running from 1984-2009. John Clute, co-editor of the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, summarizes the cycle thus:

The sequence as a whole is a central contribution to late-20th-Century fantasy, and is almost embarrassingly dense with fantasy tropes.

The first novel to be published in the series, Mythago Wood (1984), starts with the disappearance of the scholar-father, George Huxley, which leads to his two sons (Christian, and his younger brother, Steven) returning in 1947 to the family home, a lodge on the edge of Ryhope: a small section of ancient woodland situated in Herefordshire, on the Borders between England and Wales. They are shocked to discover the woodland’s boundaries seem to have moved, and it has overwhelmed the lodge. The father’s journal is unearthed and it relates an increasing obsession with the woodland and various “mythagos”, the core concept of Holdstock’s cycle.

The author provides several definitions of this slippery term. The first is offered in Mythago Wood by Christian Huxley to his brother, Steven – explaining how in ancient woodland the “aura” around all living things, creates “a sort of creative field that can interact with our consciousness”. Paraphrasing their father, Christian says:

And it’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s 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, and – as you saw – weaponry. 

The sons venture in the various “zones” (ash, oak, thorn, et cetera) of Ryhope asynchronously, resulting in dramatically different consequences. They find themselves sucked into the mythic landscape of Ryhope, which is an extended portal or “Time Abyss” (Clute 1999: 946-947): the further in you go, the bigger (or older) it gets. This trope appears throughout Fantasy fiction, it is “common to fantasy, uncommon anywhere else” (ibid.: 586). It crops up in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph (1945) as an object that contains the whole universe, in the year the first atomic bombs were used in warfare and, as such, is not surprisingly a lingering device of the Atomic Age. However, the sense of expansive interiority and dilatory disjuncture are common descriptors in tales of “hollow hills” and other portals to the “Otherworld”.

Kevan Manwaring
Ways Through the Wood: The Rogue Cartographies of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle as a Cognitive Map for Creative Process in Fiction

BARDIC DREAMS

March 26, 2020

Bold warriors and women, shield mates, sat
wrapped in the darkness, sheltered between knees
warmed by their lovers and heat of kettle fire.

A bard regaled with tales and love song
Bold warriors and women, shield mates, sat
toasting their fallen friends with ale and tears.

Mist rose from the surface of the enchanted lake.
Wrapped in the darkness, sheltered between knees
a sprinkle of fireflies crowned the knight’s heads.

Some stood like shields behind their ladies back
warmed by their lovers and heat of kettle fire.
Heads lolled; golden strands were drawn through fingers.

Seated knights cradled ladies between armoured thighs.
A bard regaled with tales and love song
washing the weary of bloodlust and death cries.

Mere hours before, they had held swords not cups
toasting their fallen friends with ale and tears.
Now, cameo visages flushed in firelight

revealed ice-blue eyes of Viking descent.
Mist rose from the surface of the enchanted lake
as each weary warrior visited, in tale,

the halls of Beowulf, and Artur’s Camelot.
The daytime was bent on war, but the night,
sprinkled with fireflies, was meant for lovers.

Deborah Guzzi

WILL SWORDS RISE UP

March 25, 2020

Will swords rise up
from the mists of time?
Swords, knives, helms
tossed into
watery depths —
at the end of the world
will they be reforged?

Mist rising in wisps, forming
hilt and blade
Swords of fire and earth
rusted away, ages ago
in lakes long vanished,
pools of myth.

Forged anew of
water and air,
on the last day
will weed-draped
ladies of the lake
rise to hand them forth,
girding the worthy?

J.R. Sparlin

literally spell-binding

February 11, 2020

I’ve loved fairy tales, folklore, and myth since I was a child, and then studied myth and folklore at university — so when I discovered fantasy (an entire genre full of fiction and art rooted in ancient, magical stories!) I knew I’d found my aesthetic home: the field I wanted to work in, and the professional community I wanted to be a part of.

As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own modern world with magic. To me, the particular pleasure of good fantasy comes from its unbroken link to the world’s oldest stories, expressed through an author’s skilful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. And those are powerful things.

Terri Windling
Interview with ActuSF

see a symbol hiding

November 30, 2019

In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Of course, such an overweening purpose did not develop all at once. The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’. Of course, I made up and even wrote lots of other things (especially for my children). Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme, being ultimately and radically unrelated: Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles, for instance, the only two that have been printed. The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite independently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view – and the last tale blends them.

J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, 1951

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

myth

November 4, 2018

Folk legend, fairytale, myth are thought of as escapist, but in reality they’re not – they’re distilled metaphor and truth.

Alan Garner
Interview for BBC TV programme Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers

escapist…?

February 20, 2018

Folk legend, fairytale, myth are thought of as escapist, but in reality they’re not – they’re distilled metaphor and truth.

Alan Garner
Interview in BBC TV programme “Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers

here be monsters

Her ( Tanith Lee ) eagerness to work in different modes and mix genres also demonstrates the reach of speculative / nonrealist fiction, which, when goaded by the right talent, can insinuate its tentacles into practically any other genre with fascinating, and often subversive, results. Lee’s gorgeously crafted imagistic prose and wide-ranging use of pulp conceits (body-snatching and body-switching, vampire fetish bots, monsters on the moon, alien visitations, falling angels) create a hybridized fiction that’s equal parts poetry and titillation, fusing high and low art to once again render such dubious distinctions pointless.

Lee’s stories, no matter how simple or complex, often trace their power back to myth, to a human inclination to use imagination to express fear, awe, and wonder at the incomprehensible, vast universe that surrounds us. They vividly express the conceit that modern fictions—in particular the archetype-littered modes of science fiction and fantasy – are recursions of mythology that has gestated within the cultures of humanity since we first walked…

Indrapramit Das
Space is just a starry night
Strange Horizons October 2013