I created Mythago Wood in order to be able to explore the notion of ‘lost legends’ and ‘lost heroes’. It was my idea that for every King Arthur we remember, there are twenty wonderful heroes whose stories were lost. For every tale of a Greek hero, there are twenty tales of that hero that were never written down. Lost. During the writing of the book I decided to imply that our own ‘collective unconscious’ minds still carry memories of those great, forgotten heroes. And indeed, of those great, forgotten events. So I drew on Carl Jung, yes, and I researched the mythological past through the work of Joseph Campbell, and The Golden Bough, the massive work by James Frazier. I also drew heavily on Greek and Norse mythology. But the essential point is that all my work is fiction, and the whole point of my fantasy work is to try to illuminate and create in the readers’ minds the sense of how enormous the past of legend and myth has been; and of how very little remains.

In this way, yes, I am close to Mike Moorcock in that he writes robust tales of imaginary heroes, imaginary mythologies. And Alan Moore, too, draws inspiration from the source. We call it, here: ‘drawing water from the same well’. The late writer Keith Roberts said this to me first, and it is certainly the case that Keith Roberts and I were inspired by the same sense of the obscure and vanished past; heroes in the mist; heroism and the summoning of ancient forces, now forgotten and beyond our powers.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Octavio Aragao. 17th July 2008

I work slowly, I agree. I try to write poetically, and without cliché. Thirty years ago a good friend, and fine writer a generation older than me, dissected one of my short stories, showing me just how much cliché I was using. It was the best lesson I ever had! After that, I decided to try and establish a strongly poetic prose, with deliberate use of repetition of imagery, and phrases, and a certain ‘rhyming’ style. You will read this at its most deliberate in Lavondyss.

I don’t always refer to the classics for inspiration, though sometimes I find a theme there, or a reference point. Merlin’s Wood and the Merlin Codexx are inspired by our poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Indeed, when I read his poem ‘Ulysses’, the last few lines became the rock on which I could build the thematic structure of the Merlin Codex books. I had had the idea before that, though.

You ask me about the play Medea by Euripides. This was certainly inspirational in the Codex idea: the performance I saw showed Medea’s sons being brutally murdered by their mother. After their deaths, on stage, they lay in a glass coffin, covered with blood. The young actors were talking, squirming around, and giggling together, even as the rage and anger of the play unfolded on the main stage. The audience was amused.

And it occurred to me that Medea, a loving mother, might only have pretended to kill her sons by Jason. If so: where would she have hidden them? And what if their father Jason discovered they were still alive?

The rest came naturally: Jason rebuilds his ship, Argo, and recruits new Argonauts. And one Argonaut is Merlin, a semi-immortal man wandering the world. This Merlin is the same Merlin whom I had introduced in the mid 90s, in Merlin’s Wood.

So the new books became an extension of the old book, just as Merlin’s Wood itself was an extension of the Mythago Cycle of novels. And Jason, in the new work, is the same Jason who appears in The Hollowing, the third Mythago book. Thus do ideas connect across the years of imagination.

The research I did for Celtika was mainly into the legendary invasion of Greece by a massive army of Celtic tribes, drawn from all over the ancient world at the time. They raided the oracle at Delphi, but with little success. I tried to make a prose style that shifted between the ‘heroic’ style of our own Celtic literature and the ‘heroic’ style of ancient Greek literature. Of course, I can only refer to translations; but it was enormous fun to play with both traditions and styles of narrative. The Iron Grail is a conscious recreation of the narrative style of an early Irish epic, The Cattle Raid, one of the most brilliant accounts of warfare, combat, gods, spirits and Celtic royalty ever written; it is a miracle and a delight that the ancient text has survived into the modern age.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Octavio Aragao. 17th July 2008

And in the stars, in the silence of that silent world,
Sky-stretched above me as I stretch in sleep, Earth pillowed, The small, much dazzling gleam of eternity, the infinity That embraces the wide-eyed wonderer, The wanderer in the void of thought; There, yes there! There is the moment; there the dream.

I lie on earth. Soon earth will lie on me. Will I see through chalk, clay; through the finger’s dusting On the wood; Through the small whisper of parting; the salt drop?

Will I see the trip I need, I wonder, Find it among those rusting Fire-rustling echoes of eternity? Some so old. And some so new. New words. New worlds of stars, Where thoughts, like and unlike ours, perhaps begin to queue, And radiate, Hoping to be heard! Night sky, wrap me round Hold me in your fire, your future, the memory of fire. I do not need the sound of fury to be in your embrace, Only the transport to your echoing, soundless space.

Robert Holdstock

You can use time travel, psychic powers and ghosts not just as plot devices, but as tools to explore human life, the nature of ritual and dreams. In fact you can use them to look at the functioning of the human mind, and the development of story.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Stan Nichols 1993 for: Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty interviews with Writers of the Fantastic

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