by Robert Holdstock
Published by Gollancz, 2009
Fantasy, when done well, has the power to pull you out of your mundane life and transport you to new places, it’s escapism at it’s purest. What if those other worlds were right here though, all around us, glimpsed in the shadows of the wild places, well that’s how myths and legends have evolved. What we need is an author with the power to invoke those myths and bring them to life, ladies and gentleman meet Robert Holdstock.
There can be very few of us who have not stood in a wild place and felt the power of the place, very few who have run our fingers down the carvings of an ancient rock and not felt a connection with the carver. There is something deep in our psyche, which despite the technological marvels all around us, can still connect to us to our past when, rather than just observers of nature, we were a part of it.
Merlin’s Wood is a collection of five stories which take the ideas of mythology, nature, pagan ceremony and mysticism and fuse them in unique, entertaining and brilliantly imaginative ways. Merlin’s Wood itself is a short novel which borrows from Arthurian legend and in particular Tennyson’s Idyll’s Of The Kings to examine the legend of Merlin and the enchantress Vivien. Martin and Rebecca grew up on the edge of Broceliande forest in Brittany and, along with others in the area, know of its legends and myths. Returning to their childhood home, following the death of their mother, their childhood experiences and encounters with the darker side of the forest are revisited. It’s not long before they find themselves drawn into the ongoing mysteries with tragic results. It’s a marvelous tale, richly written in a lyrical almost poetic prose. The forest is described beautifully and the sense of place is fantastic.
Scarrowell invokes mummers, lych gates, pagan ceremonies and ancient tradition in a Wicker Man like tale set in the eponymous village. It’s once again quite brilliant in its mythic splendour and invocation of the sense of place.
Thorn is the tale of a young stonemason compelled to carve the head of a green man in a new cathedral. His compulsion and obsessions are explained when the face starts talking and it’s true purpose is revealed.
Earth and Stone is an early Holdstock tale which imagines a time traveller visiting the magnificent ancient stone structures of Newgrange as they are built and determining their true purpose. It’s perhaps the weakest of the tales here but it also shows how far Robert Holdstock has developed as a writer.
Finally The Bone Forest is the magnificent prequel to Mythago Wood, set in Ryhope Wood it explains the backstory to that tale and we finally find out how what drove Stephen and Christian’s father to explore the forest.
These are tales of wild places on the edge of reality beautifully woven into engaging narratives, myths for the modern age no less. They draw on ancient tradition but only as foundation material on which to build a whole new mythology for the new age. Its great to see Robert Holdstock’s groundbreaking work being republished and introduced to a new audience, it might not be the generic heroic fantasy which many fans have grown up with, it requires thought and imagination but it offers escapism and emotion of the purest kind. Whilst Mythago Wood is lauded by critics I feel that Merlin’s Wood may be his finest achievement so grab the chance to read it while you can.
Rating 4.5 out of 5
PS – This review was written before the tragic news of Robert Holdstocks death. I feel the stories in this book are a fitting legacy to a great author.