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Robert Holdstock was a fantasy and science fiction writer who paid his dues, writing stories and novels under pseudonyms for over a decade before the novella Mythago Wood won the BSFA award and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1982. In 1984 he expanded the novella into a novel and then into the Ryhope Wood sequence, about which Neil Gaiman comments in "On the Edge of the Dark Woods,":
The Ryhope Wood series continued until the appearance of Avilion in 2009. Between 2001 and 2007 Holdstock also produced the clearly Arthurian Merlin Codex, consisting of Celtika, The Iron Grail and The Broken Kings. So to answer my student's question, how Arthurian is Mythago Wood? Well, I'm still working on that. The name of the giant Peredur is obviously Arthurian, but little else about him is. And while Holdstock's Guiwenneth is far more appealing than the average Guinevere, she seems to be more closely related to Blodeuwedd, the maiden made out of broom, meadowsweet, and oak by the magicians Math and Gwydion in the Welsh Mabinogi, than Arthur's queen.
But leave out the Arthurian. Is Mythago Wood a great novel? The jury's out in my mind - and my student concurred as we crowded together on the Bx12 toward Fordham one afternoon. As best I can guess, Part I of the novel was the original novella, which ends with Steven's encounter with the Urscumug, the primal mythago engendered by his father. If that is the case, as far as I'm concerned the taut and mysterious novella only suffers from its expansion into a novel. Steven's compelling attraction to Guiwenneth does not need to be explained, let alone played out in a repetitive idyll that extends across several chapters. The character of Harry Keeton, the flyer, comes out of nowhere to provide a jarring external view of the wood's power - then disappears abruptly, only to manifest out of nowhere again. And is Steven really fated to kill Christian? Why? Because he's a mythago now? Then why doesn't he do it? Instead of being apocalyptic, the brothers' final showdown leaves their relationship more obscure than before.
Part I is effective precisely because of its loose ends. If you use the terms Edgar Allan Poe established in "The Philosophy of Composition," it depends - as Poe argues short stories always should - upon effect, rather than plot. In the novel, the magic, which is so imprecise in the novella, becomes, as Gaiman would have it, more precise and scientific. So much so that scenes that were grey areas in the novella, such as the Urscumug's relationship with Steven, feel like lacunae instead. In particular, the irresolution of the novel's ending feels more like handwaving and a set-up for a series.
Still, the book is eerie and unforgettable. I'll certainly read more. But I think I'll skip ahead to the Merlin Codex before returning to Mythago Wood - even if there's part of me that already knows that I've been there before.