I’ve never been a fan of fantasy novels, though I like the idea of them. The ones I’ve read all teetered on the edge of ridiculous, and most lost their balance. One of the exceptions is Mythago Wood, written by the now deceased Robert Holdstock. It’s hard to explain it without eyes everywhere glazing over and telling you to get a life, but here goes: it’s about two brothers and their relationship to the small wood by their Oxfordshire village in England. The wood is not all it seems, populated by physical images of myths, ‘mythagos’, sprung up by the collective remembering of mythical figures and places in nearby human populations.

Now, please bear with me (those 50 Shades can wait). As I said, the story centres around two brothers, one of whom (the eldest, Christian) has an obsession with his father’s research papers into the place. His perplexed younger brother Steven potters about, finding the odd diary entry from his deceased father, until his brother disappears. Steven’s obsession starts when a sensual mythago woman from Britain’s Celtic memory emerges, searching the lonely house and spitting at the mention of Christian.
That sounds better right? A bit of human drama. Steven falls in love with her as he realises she is the woman his elder brother has been so traumatised by. Christian disappears into woodland barely three square miles. However, getting through its defences opens up a parallel world inhabited by variations of the Robin Hood myth, King Arthur, lost Saxons, and a British WW1 Tommy who heartbreakingly discovers what he really is.

I don’t know why I picked this book up years ago, because its premise sounds ridiculous. Maybe it was the cover’s haunting look that grabbed me. It isn’t like fantasy at all, in the sense that it feels real and haunts you from the first page as a ghost story would. The build up is slow and it might test your patience. Everybody I lent it to has given it back unfinished, confused at the praise I gave it. All I can do in response is shake my head in equal confusion and wonder if they have a soul (you all do, love you really, mwah and all that), but they missed out.

Once the story gets going you don’t want to leave. Christian returns looking years older, steals the girl (the feisty Guiwinneth), carries her back into the woods (the core of which holds the last ice age) along with his army. Leaving Steven and his mate Keeton for dead, Christian becomes the hunted through an adventure that ends with a hand over the mouth (metaphorically obviously).

What a book. A strange one, yes, but one of the best I’ve ever read. If you like that haunted feeling you maybe got when watching The Others, I guarantee you will love this one. The best fantasy book ever. The only great one?

Note: I haven’t read Game of Thrones yet. And I’m open to persuasion about others (I do not like The Lord of the Rings – but the films were great).

Further reading:

Read an extract of Mythago Wood

A university paper on George Huxley, the brothers’ father in Mythago Wood. Worth a read.

Review by Jess Hyslop

Image taken from http://www.ghostwoods.com/2009/10/hidden-gems-mythago-wood-by-robert-holdstock-712/

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