Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: Mythago Wood

© 1984 by Robert Holdstock

[minor spoilers]

This book has been on my radar for … hmm … how does thirteen years sound?

I first spotted Mythago Wood on one of the shelves in my honeymoon suite out in Napa Valley in 2001.  Strange choice of book.  Hardcover.  I flipped it open, ruffled the pages, greatly intrigued by the pencil sketches of various fantasy creatures within.  Couldn’t figure out what the book specifically was about, even after reading the back cover.  Maybe I even read a page or two, but I had other things on my mind that week.

Anyway, I spotted a paperback version of it on a dusty old bookshelf in a dusty old bookstore in a dusty old town in rural Pennsylvania.  Recalling my encounter with it from six years previous, I bought it, brought it home, stuck it on a shelf … where it remained for seven more ears.

Finally got around to reading it.

My verdict?  Well, it was an interesting read.  Didn’t like it but didn’t not like it, either.  If you were to graph my experience of the book with x-axis approximate to page number and the y-axis my degree of enjoyment, you’d have something resembling a bell curve.

The set-up’s clever, I’ll grant it that.  Imagine a magical woodland that somehow imagines our myths – into reality.  You walk through it and the flow of time and space is altered, lengthened beyond comprehension.  You come face to face with our racial memories enfleshed.  Robin Hood is mentioned in passing several times, but never makes a cameo.  Similarly King Arthur.  Instead, Mythago Wood pulls out deeper shared memories, dating back hundreds and even thousands of years.  This being England, Celtic legends come to life in all their glorious, Roman-fightin’ barbarity.

A family at each other’s throats lies at the heart of all the tension.  After all, what can go wrong when a trio of dysfunctional men traipse into Mythago Wood, creating living myths with every step they take?  Besides everything, that is.  Eventually the plot devolves to two brothers fighting to the death over the stunning mythago named Guiwenneth, with the specter of an evil father, reimaged as a boar-troll-man-bear-pig thing, stalking them both.  Ice Age tribes join the melee, and, man, do those Stone Age warriors know how to handle a blade compared to us “civilized” modern-day men.

The book is interesting to me in the fact that it presents a respectable alternative to Tolkien.  It has long been my contention, and I suppose the contention of many, many others, that Tolkien made the mold – trailblazer, standard-bearer, shining city on the hill.  Imitated by dozens, if not hundreds, of other fantasy writers, and whether those writers called their derivative works homages or just plain rip-offs, the bottom line is Tolkien set the bar high.  Holdstock came up with a way of dealing with agrarian fantasy without having elves battle dark lords.  For that, the book gets an A+.

However, I found it hard to get into, hard to lose myself within its pages.  Harking back to that bell curve image, the middle parts of the book were the best, where beautiful, ancient Guiwenneth and our dour young hero Steven discover each other and tentatively come to love one another.  It was both romantic, exciting, and dangerous (when you consider what else was happening in the novel at the time).  Good writing, authentic writing.  My heart, as was Steven’s, was all a-flutter.

The major problem surfaces a little past two-thirds of the way in, after Steven’s now-evil brother, Christian, abducts Guiwenneth.  Steven and his friend Harry Keeton must enter the Wood, overcome its mysteries and malignancies, and rescue the girl (who has more often than not rescued Steven time and again).  A sense of urgency devolves into the stumbling upon of new tribes from various eras in the past every five to ten pages or so.  Convoluted myths and legends are chanted, danced, sung, and ultimately explained to us, a piece is taken here or there, what’s of significance is told to the reader, and on to the next ancient tribe.  I got lost, found myself easily distracted, wondering only if Steven was going to kill his brother to get the girl.

Needless to say, if anthropology is your thing, you’ll love the book.

Again, it was not bad, not bad at all.  Tweaked I would have loved it.  Instead, I only mildly liked it.  I’m happy I traveled the pages of Mythago Wood, but I wouldn’t want to revisit it or its sequels. 

Unless …

Grade: C+

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