Avilion (book, Robert Holdstock, 2009)
A review published originally in Death Ray #21.
Robert Holdstock has a special place in the hearts of serious fantasy lovers. Unlike the majority of the books nestled in the fantasy section of your local Waterstones, Holdstock owes little to Tolkien, but hearkens back to the tradition from which Tolkien himself sprang: our common mythic heritage. It’s a branch of the fantasy family tree that bore most of the fruit before the good professor set pen to paper, but which has since been almost shaded out by others trying to mimic what Tolkien achieved, more’s the pity.
Most of Holdstock’s books take place within Ryhope Wood, a three square-mile patch of ancient forest in Herefordshire. A fragment of the greenwood that once covered all of Europe, there’s deep magic within its bounds. It is semi-sentient, paradoxically huge inside, and can conjure legendary beings out of the minds of the humans who dwell near its boundaries. These ‘myth imagos’ gave the name to Holdstock’s first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, published to great acclaim in 1984. Holdstock has revisited the wood many times since then, but Avilion is the first direct sequel to that first tale.
Stephen Huxley, Mythago Wood’s protagonist, has been living deep in Ryhope with a mythago of Guiwenneth, a celtic archetype whose historic personage gave rise to the legends of Guinevere and others, and who he claimed back from death. They have two half-human children, Yssobel and Jack. Jack yearns to experience the world his father left behind, Yssobel is being drawn into ever greater affinity with the magic of the wood and has unwittingly called Jack’s murderous brother, Christian, back into being. This so upsets her mother (whom Christian kidnapped, raped and murdered many years earlier) she departs on a quest for revenge. The dismayed Yssobel sets out to bring her mother home, changing all their lives forever.
The narrative of each successive Ryhope book has grown more impenetrable, like a wild thicket. The questions of who calls whom into existence and whether any of it has any kind of objective reality weave a tricksy glamour about Holdstock’s stories. But these are not books of easy answers, and his interlaying of psychology, myth, and ontology with raw emotion, sometimes falteringly conveyed in verse, conveys the messiness of real life. Like real life, like the bark of the trees he so loves, Holdstock shows us the roughness of magic and nature, bound up in blood and filth. Avilion is penetratingly honest, there is no idyll to be had, and happiness comes with its fair share of suffering, loss, and self-delusion. Wisdom in Holdstock’s world is bought with pain.
It doesn’t really matter that the reader is left struggling for sense on occasion, Holdstock’s ethereal prose is all encompassing, his use of language so affective that it swallows you whole. He’s one of the few authors capable of not only showing another world, but actively transporting to it. He writes of love and death in a shyly awkward way, a poet wrapped up in the privacy of his word-wood. Coming out of the end of one of his novels is to emerge from this private world feeling like you’ve been living another life, as fragmentary, chaotic and disordered and as bound up by story as a real one. It’s an immersive experience that few other authors can match, though the stories sometimes make as little sense as the dreams they resemble.
Avilion is not quite as potent as some of the other entries in the series, but it offers much as Jack and Yssobel attain adulthood in very different ways, and discover what ‘home’ really means. Good fantasy, like myth should transform. Much fantasy, despite its wars and intrigues, is really about maintaining the status quo, its vacuum-sealed kingdoms and shallow-worn paths from kitchen boy to king providing a cocoon of comfort for the reader. Holdstock cocoons you alright, but his twiggy bowers offer little comfort; his kings are the real deal, plucked bloody and raging from myth, all are remembered for their suffering as much as their success. It’s arguable that all myth and great fantasy, all great literature, even, employs loss as an engine for transformation. Ryhope Wood continues to provide both.
Did you know?
Avilion is the name Alfred Tennyson used for Avalon in his poem, Morte D’Arthur.