Literature Long Read: There’ll Always Be An England in Mythago Wood

Dame Vera Lynn’s version of the unabashedly patriotic 1939 song There’ll Always Be An England would no doubt have helped bolster the spirits of the British Tommys during the unending days of slogging their way through the western front during World War II. The song is like White Christmas in that respect; just as the singer of that great American song is dreaming of a white Christmas precisely because he’s stuck in some Godforsaken part of the world where the chances of a white Christmas are precisely nil, the soldier listening to There’ll Always Be An England would have been aware that, for all its patriotism, it was undercut by the very real sense that, if the pendulum had swung a different way at crucial junctures during the War, there might very well not be an England at all. At least, not in the sense they knew.

Steve and Christian Huxley, the two brothers at the heart of Rob Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, the winner of the 1984 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, would have known the song well. Steve is situated in a French village in the aftermath the end of the war, when he is summoned home by his elder brother after the death of their father George. The shadow of the war darkens their awkward reunion at the family farmhouse in Herefordshire, and all the while Ryhope Wood, the forest at the rear of the property seems to be encroaching, like a predator, towards the house. As the brothers investigate their late father’s feverish and unfulfilled obsession with the forest, they realise that the forest was pulling their father in and projecting itself upon his world. Now the brothers, particularly Christian, have taken up their father’s mantle, and they find the wood imprinting its shadowy footprint upon their own world, too.

While the principal human players in Mythago Wood are the antagonistic brothers, Ryhope Wood itself is the main character. It exists at the centre of the brothers’ world, the world of their father, and also of England itself. And it exists in such a way that it both transcends and defies the quickly moving modern world that surrounds it. It keeps something undeniably eldritch and immoveable at its heart, and defends itself against the quick burn of contemporary life.

Ryhope Wood is defended by its inhabitants, the titular mythagos. These are a motley bunch of strange, otherworldly characters, from the grotesque to the beautiful, but almost always dangerous. The easiest way to describe a mythago is through its etymology: mythago being derived from myth image. In other words, a mythago is the idealized image of a particular mythical figure. However, the definition is not always so clean-cut, and Holdstock offers some different definitions, perhaps mirroring the slippery nature of the mythagos themselves. There’s a logic in that. When we consider the history of a country, it’s fairly logical that the myths will change over time to suit the needs of the people. England seems particularly rife with the changing cultural landscapes of the various peoples who have inhabited, conquered, ruled, and visited it: the Neolithic Britons, the Romans, the early Christians, the Celts, the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavians and Vikings, the Normans and French, the Cavaliers and Roundheads, the peoples of the Empire, and more. All of them have coloured the history of England, changed it, propelled it in different directions, and yet England and its sense of Englishness prevails.

To illustrate this the wood is populated by such figures as Robin Hood, Twiglings, Arthurian legends, Cromwellian Roundheads, a Norman mounted knight, Neolithic shamans, a Cockney WW1 Tommy, and vicious Anglo-Saxon warriors. The most important mythago of all is the beautiful, flame-haired Celtic warrior-princess, Guiwenneth, who is an approximate echo of a Boudicca / Merida figure. All of these characters exist in the wood, which preserves them as if in living aspic, having been conjured from the minds of the collective age in which they were born to suit the purposes of that age, but nevertheless existing on an unending stream of collective racial consciousness that flows across time and cultures.

Queen Boudicca, who appeared to the English in a time of need, is echoed in the form of Guiwenneth, who brings her own mythic architecture.

The idea of archetypal myths underpinning a variety of different cultures across time and space isn’t new, and Mythago Wood brings this to life with wicked effectiveness. As the various myths and mythagos are revealed, two things happen. The first is that we realise that they are all a part of our shared history; the second is that the brothers become subsumed by the myths, and end up carving their own mythology into the vast landscape hidden by the forest, etching their names into collective memory. In that way aren’t we all living out our own myths; aren’t we all on the mythical journey? Carl Jung would have noted that the two brothers are opposing sides of the same consciousness. In that respect the Huxley brothers, in their brave old world, echo other hostile brother dyads such as the armoured bears in Northern Lights, Cain and Abel, Batman and Joker, and on and on.

The story is overshadowed by the Urscumug mythago, a giant half-man, half-boar monster that has been realized by the mind of their father and set free among the forest. “How he must have hated, and hated us, to have imposed such terror on to the thing,” Christian says of the Urscumug. The Urscumug functions as a sort of proto-mythical creature, perhaps an Anglo version of the dragon myth (later adopted by English culture as wider, middle-eastern cultural references began to filter through to these isles) where one of the most dangerous creatures in the forest (but one which would yield the greatest reward for hunters) was the ferocious wild boar. So the Urscumug pursues the brothers, scouring for them, overseeing them like a wrathful God, and yet, like a God, showing mercy at the moments when it is required.

Wild boar: dangerous, tasty fare in high heels.

From his vantage in the farmhouse, Steve finds to his discomfort that the forest moves; oak saplings appear around the farmhouse, and huge roots and branches crash through their father’s study, colonizing it, (re)claiming it. There’s definitely more than a whiff here of the Ents roaming across Fangorn forest to attack Saruman in The Lord Of The Rings, but forests do in fact move, and do find ways of reasserting themselves against the spread of human activity. Not just in fantasy, either. In 2019 NASA showed that in the two decades since the year 2000 the world had “re-greened” by an order of 5% – that is, the world’s forests and leaf-area had grown by an area the size of the Amazon Rainforest in that time – around two million square miles.

It even happens in little old England. Epping Forest, another place of strange and ancient wonder, has grown over the last few years, and has the potential to grow its green-leaf area by a whopping 10% over the next few years. And in a hundred years, or a thousand, what then of what Thomas Hardy called the “flux and reflux of nature”? Mythago Wood shows the constance of nature and the resilience of mythical forms even while the superficial aspects of the culture – or the entire civilization – of the day changes its colours. The myths are linked; they are, in effect, the same. The wood defends itself.

In my novel The Green Man there is also a sense of the forest defending itself, and defying the logic and rationale of the world of men by abiding by its own rhythms. Despite it being set in the 14th century in a community of monks and friars, I feel as though it’s a contemporary novel; the timelessness of the behaviour of the characters is mirrored by the timelessness of the Northumberland forests. So I was intrigued to see such themes crop up in Mythago Wood. Just as my character Brother Jacobus seems keen to want to impress upon the others his scientific knowledge of the world and its workings, the Huxley brothers’ father becomes obsessed with trying to extract the truth of the forest through strange encephalographic techniques and scientific endeavours. Yet these activities are swept aside by the power of myth.

The Green Man: the forest, made flesh.

Christian, the elder brother, attempts to carry on George’s work after the latter’s death. When Christian disappears into the forest, Steven eventually becomes worried but, wary of exploring the forest himself, enlists the help of a local pilot, Harry Keeton. Keeton, an RAF pilot, also bears his own scars from the War in the form of a hideous burn to his face. Together, Steven and Keeton survey the site aerially to gather some greater understanding of its secrets. However, even with the power of modern technology at their disposal, they are repulsed by the forest, which throws up great thermal vents that toss Keeton’s aeroplane away like a toy. Not easily will the forest relinquish its secrets. So it is on foot that the humans have to explore the forest and traverse the terrain that stretches back into antiquity.

The mythago central to the story is that of Guiwenneth, the idealized manifestation of the beautiful Celtic warrior-princess. We first see her as a headless corpse in a shallow grave, buried by Christian. She had been produced – or, perhaps, the correct term would be awakened – by the mind of Christian as he explored the wood, because myths can’t be killed. Guiwenneth reappears later in the story, reawakened in the forest by the mind of Steven. This is after Christian has disappeared into the forest, gripped by the same obsessive mania as their father. Guiwenneth has her own mythology, explained in the novel’s prologue: a story of a girl stolen from her mother by her mother’s malevolent twin sister and latterly rescued by her father; itself, of course, a story shot through with rich psychological meaning. Guiwenneth becomes the beating heart of the novel. As a representation of a lost ideal, she captures the hearts of the male protagonists, who all fall desperately in love with her.

One charge that might, in the fevered twitches of the present day, ostensibly be made against Mythago Wood is the absence of female characters. The brothers’ mother appears only in the second-hand, dying “off-screen” whilst being ignominiously ignored by her husband. A smattering of other female characters occur (a prepubescent twelve year-old Neolithic shaman painted green); and a Saxon mother appears for a short scene of succour in the forest, but it’s Guiwenneth who represents femalekind in this book. And she literally is a representation of femalekind, a kind of perfected abstraction. Steven describes as her as “truly the idealized vision of the Celtic Princess, lustrous red hair, pale skin, a body at once childlike yet strong. She is a warrior. But carries her weapons with awkwardness, as if unfamiliar.” In short, she’s too perfect. She’s not real. She’s the awakened product of men who have been ruined by obsession, and war. These are devastated men, who’ve sacrificed a great slice of their lives for freedom, and are left with very little to show for it personally. She calls to mind Tinkerbell and Peter Pan. Pan (meaning “everything”) is the boy who refuses to grow up and engage the world on real terms. His female companion is Tinkerbell, a sexualized fairy who represents a perfected vision of femalekind from the perspective of a wantaway, twelve year old boy. She isn’t real. So Peter can have her, but he can’t truly have her; as such he throws away a chance at a relationship with Wendy, a real, flesh-and-blood girl. So it is with Guiwenneth who, while being highly sexualized (Steven describes her “terrifying sexuality”), isn’t real. Even as she represents a myth of cultural importance, she also represents the wretched uselessness of refusing to let go of that myth when the time comes (I am also reminded of the coda to the story of Nehushtan, where Hezekiah orders the bronze snake to be destroyed in the Book of Kings).

Guiwenneth. Artwork by Arjaan

The book is overt about the warring siblings myth. It becomes apparent the moment Christian, having disappeared into the woods for weeks on end (and we know by this point that time itself is heavily distorted within the wood; from Christian’s perspective he has disappeared for several years), returns in the guise of a brutal Saxon warrior-king. He ransacks the family home in search of Guiwenneth, the mythago he had loved and buried, and who now loves Steven, the brother who remained. By this stage, Christian no longer cares about Guiwenneth. “I care about having her,” he says (italics mine). At this point he drags Guiwenneth off to the forest for his own like the caveman he has become, and leaves Steven to be hanged until dead, which he would’ve done had he not been saved by Harry Keeton.

So, the brothers are set on an inexorable collision course as Steven and Harry set off into the wood to rescue Guiwenneth. In doing so they plunge their own tales into the great stream of myth. As with all great warring brother structures, really the two brothers become at this point representative of the two types of choice that are available within the individual – will you be Abel or Cain? Christian, it transpires, becomes the archetypal embodiment of the Outsider. Every culture has its Outsider figures, just as every culture has its in-group preference baked in. The lines between in-group preference get blurred the more people and societies interact with one another, but the Outsider is still recognizable as a mythical entity, no matter how open a society becomes, because he bears the unmistakeable trait of malevolent intent. Holdsworth is very careful to make the distinction between stranger and outsider here. “The Outsider is not a stranger,” Steven explains. “A stranger can be reasoned with, traded with, helped, or even sacrificed if necessary.” But the Outsider is unnatural and transcendental, and the Outsider’s otherness is amplified by the tribal nature of early human societies. Christian becomes the Outsider unbounded by time or space and, critically, he cannot be killed. We are told that many attempt to kill him – even Guiwenneth stabs him, but not mortally – but only the brother can slay him. As Christian says: “The legend is clear. Only the kin can kill the Outsider – or is killed. Only the kin.

Of course. Any invocation of myth is either a warning or heed to act and/or choose in the right manner. Are you able to kill off the malevolent section of your personality? The one that wants to cause pain and disruption and damage, derived from your own shortcomings? In fact, can you even recognize it? And do you have the tenacity to face it down and destroy it when you do? Steven at first ignores Christian’s disappearance into the wood but, at last, he knows he must chase him and face him. The brothers are taking up “roles laid down by myth, perhaps from the beginnings of time.”

England: old

The England that hosts this strange stream of myths and dramas changes on the surface, but at its most profound remains undisturbed and untrammelled by politics, technology, and other such ephemeral trends. Whatever happens on the surface, England endures. The people endure. They, in the words of Tom Wolfe, “…conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream.” The people are neither the beginning nor the end, but they and we act out the same dramas, and are fated to have the same choices. That’s why we need myths, and why they need to alter their own images to remain relevant to the societies that are changing on the surface.

Or, as Christian observes, “When so much is lost in the dark of time there must be a myth to glorify that lost knowledge.”

Maybe the greatest myth is England itself, stretching from the Ice-Age to the present day, twisting and growing, evolving as peoples pass in, out, and through. And we write our own mythology within that great stream by acting out those principles that we hold dear. Steven knew that. So would all of his fellow soldiers who fought in the Second World War, who stood against the nihilistic tyranny of fascism, and in doing so acted out their own personal myths. Thus they added to great myth of the nation, precisely because its future was worth preserving. There’ll always be an England? As long as there’s a you, and a me.


I’ll take a break from blogging over the Christmas period, so I’ll be back in January, when episode 0 and episode 1 of Chronscast will finally be launched.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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