It is a rare fantasy novel that engages and challenges, forfeiting the conventions of pseudo-medieval gibberish for intelligence and verité. It is even more rare for such a novel to be part of a series that has consistently done so for over a decade. Robert Holdstock has created in the Mythago cycle a series of fantasy novels, which are among the best in the field, and his most recent novel, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, continues the same excellent tradition, and in fact is one of the better works of the series.
In Mythago Wood, the first novel, we are introduced to Stephen and Christian Huxley, the troubled sons of a father obsessed with mythagoes, and follow Stephen's journey into Ryhope Wood, where he combats the bitter warrior his elder brother has become. In Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, we learn what caused Christian to become that way, and the tragedy of his love for the delightful Guiwenneth. It does however stand alone as a separate novel and portrait of a young man confused and alone in a strange land.
The central premise of the Mythago cycle is the existence of mythagoes - myth imagos. Holdstock suggests that each person holds in his deep unconscious mind primal images, a racial memory of mythic archetypes. We draw forth these images to create our own myths but in some special places, primeval woodland, unchanged in millennia, these images become reality: living breathing myths. Ryhope Wood is one such place and not only can it bring forth mythagoes from the subconscious of the Huxley family, but there time and space are distorted: a decade in Ryhope itself can pass while a week passes in the real world, and vast distances can be travelled though the wood appears only to a few miles across.
After his father George has disappeared into the wood and his mother Jennifer has taken her own life, Christian - marked as "slathan" by a mysterious mythago warrior as a child - in time follows Guiwenneth into the wood himself. Like his father before, and his brother to come, he has fallen deeply in love with the mythago, a pre-Roman huntress myth-form, young and beautiful. Once in the wood they join up with Legion, a vast army - from iron age shamen to arthurian knights to 17th century cavaliers - in its quest to discover the imprisoned Mabon and the Gates of Ivory and Horn, of truth and lies.
In the time that follows, Christian must learn to survive in the shifting realities of the mythic landscape and the raw and often brutal lifestyle, to learn the truth about his mother's death, his destiny and those of the ones he loves. As he travels through myths of the past, of tragedy and heroism we are introduced to a myriad of characters and situations, culminating in a terrible choice for Christian. It is a more linear and straightforward plot than most of Holdstock's recent novels, but this is not a disadvantage, rather it allows a greater appreciation of a plot that has both depth and intricacy without losing clarity.
This novel is essentially a story of one man transformation from naïve young man to a hardened warrior, already on a path of destruction that leads to the events in Mythago Wood. Christian is a very sympathetic central character, who is realistically innocent at first without being stupid and who develops convincingly as he learns the ways of Legion. Christian is surrounded by a small group of mythagoes who are by their nature archetypes. However, Holdstock manages to imbue more depth, colour and quirky delight in this group than many other authors do with 'normal' characters. Especially notable are Guiwenneth, Someone (a Celtic warrior who has lost his true name) and Kylhuk, the expansive warrior king of Legion.
The Mythago cycle is one of the best fantasy series available, and Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is perhaps the best of the series. It is coherent, well thought out, well characterised fiction, dark and occasionally humorous, and far ahead of most other fantasy. It uses an original premise to explore the nature of myth, human belief and human nature. It is not the bubblegum fantasy so prevalent in bookshops, and essential reading for those wanting something a little more intelligent.
© 1998 Helen Steele