Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mythago Wood - A Journey Through the Psyche

I read quite a lot as a child and teenager and, like many treasured memories from our childhoods, many of my favourite books have somewhat lost their sheen as I've grown older. So it was very little expectation that I returned to a fondly remembered book from my early teens; Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. My memory of that novel was of a fantastical story involving the then fascinating concept of racial consciousness and a mysterious wood in which figures from imagination came to life. However there is much more to this book than that, as it is one of those great works of literature that has more and more secrets and lessons to divulge on each read.

The premise of Mythago Wood is fascinating and in many ways unique to my experience. Here we have an ancient wood in which the racial memories of local people, their subconscious imaginings of great heroes and historical figures, are incarnated in corporeal form. So far, so Disney, you might think. However, what Holdstock does brilliantly well is bring these figures back in a vivid, unapologetic, unsettling, and often threatening way. Here is a portrayal of our ancestors in their most unromantic form - filthy, violent and alien.
They come upon the book's protagonists from the depths of the wood, materialising from the shadows, speaking foreign tongues and exhibiting frightening and animalistic behaviour. Often they physically attack the main characters. The deeper into the wood one travels, the further back in humanity's history one goes, and the more savage its inhabitants become. The message, taken at face value, is that the history of our race has been one violent struggle for survival, where only the strong and self-sufficient could survive.

However, like the wood itself, this story is one of many layers and one of many interpretations. Due to the fact that these creatures, the mythagos, are drawn from the subconscious of modern man, they embody the human psyche laid bare. All of its fears, its dark desires, its loves, losses and heartbreak, its anger and its despair are incarnated in the forest. These figures, initially shadowy ghosts on the edge of vision, spring from the depths of the human mind and haunt the pages of this book, and also its main characters. Sentient beings, they interact with the human protagonists, forcing them to confront their own secret thoughts and feelings, along with those of their relatives and companions.

                                           Copyright: Geoff Taylor, www.geofftaylor-artist.com.

It is into this strange and dangerous world that the main character, Steven, arrives. His life has been closely tied to the wood, and its effects on his relationships with his father and his brother from the core plot of the book. Where in another setting this complex analysis of familial ties would most likely have been explored through conversation and interaction, the unique effects of the wood allow for a powerful and intense analysis. To say any more would be to divulge too much of the story, but suffice it to say that Holdstock's examination of this theme and the true meaning of myth is one that stays with the reader for a very long time.


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