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Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn
Robert Holdstock
Roc Books, 325 pages


Ron Walotsky
Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn
Robert Holdstock
Born in 1948 in Kent, Robert Holdstock worked in medical research before becoming a full-time writer in 1975. He has written more than 20 novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, and has received both the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award for his work. He lives in London, but escapes to the forests whenever possible.

Robert Holdstock Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Mythago Cycle
Interview with Robert Holdstock

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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First, let me state that despite more than a passing familiarity, I lack the depth of knowledge of Welsh and Celtic lore necessary to assess or appreciate this work in its entirety, a circumstance shared, I suspect, by most readers as well as the occasional reviewer.  Rich with allegory and metaphor, dense in the pantomime and pantheon of mythic deities called upon to act out traditional as well as recontextualized roles, this is a novel likely to mislead and confuse the uninitiated, to bear them as easily astray as a  walk through Ryhope Wood.  But in many respects this is little different than the experiences of the author's characters, a reflection of the recurring labyrinthine search made of the Wood's heart, investigations into its identity at both a mythic as well as deeply personal level.

This is the fourth visit to Mythago -- sixth if one counts the story collection of The Bone Forest and the novella Merlin's Wood -- a return that brings the cycle full circle, existing almost as a prequel to the first mentioned work, except that within Robert Holdstock's often dream-like mythogenesis, the notion of chronology is an illusion, nonexistent.  Nonetheless, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn returns us to the Huxley family, in particular Christian's experience of the haunted forest prior to the events recounted in Mythago Wood.  Once again the author uses his narrative to explore the mutable yet persistent imagining into existence of our collective and cultural unconscious, through the mind the creation of "mythagoes," legends destined to live out again and again their roles within our need for archetypal heroes, ever-changing with society or the individual.  And yet these imaginings brought to life within the magical sanctuary of Ryhope Wood carry the darker imprint of each character's psychology, for beneath the pennants and armor of Arthurian trappings, or the romanticism inherent in faerie, "there is a beast at the heart of the world... the first hero."

The twisted, at times murderous, desires and dysfunctions of the Huxley family are retold this time from Christian's perspective.  However, in this novel the author moves beyond his past and echoing investigations into the guised and suggestively oedipal conflicts between father and son, brother and brother, myth and mythographer of earlier books to the equally complicated relationship between Christian and his mother.  As always in the Mythago Cycle, one figure often masks another, various aspects of Graves' White Goddess mirrored in the figures of Jennifer, Guiwenneth, the impish girl on a pale horse, or even the mysterious figure known only as Raven, just as Frazier's King of the Wood has variously stalked the pages of previous novels.  Beneath all this mummery, as with myth and folklore itself, dwell questions of identity, individual, cultural, as well as that of legend: "We create stories to illuminate truth.  We create lies to hide pain."  But the distinction between truth and falsity, fiction and fact, is no more discernable or readily identified than the fabled Gates awaiting Christian at the end of the narrative.

Holdstock draws heavily from The Mabinogion in this tale, as well as, to a lesser extent, Arthurian and Greek legend, sources he has played upon before, but perhaps never as extensively as here: Mabon, Pwyll, Kylhuk (Kilhwch), and Olwen sport and blur with the Arthurian Merlin, Vivyane and Lady of the Fountain, all miscegenously entangled with the proverbial Boatman, French courtly space and references to Greek and Roman mythology.  While some earlier reviewers have found such polyglot and diffuse use of lore discordant within the ostensible setting of an English forest, anyone reading Campbell, Frazier or Graves will recognize the appropriateness of cultural merging, especially within the context of the author's use of these divergent yet not dissimilar archetypes to explore broader themes of cultural identity and the meaning and social use of narrative myth itself.  Questions as to this intent are quickly dispelled by the equally and culturally ubiquitous tale contained of Someone son of Somebody.  Indeed, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn becomes, as evidenced by the delightful imbedded story of Kylhuk and Olwen, a tale within tales, like the circling paths that wander Ryhope Wood, as likely to lead one out as in, or deposit the visitor within a different time or place.

This "obsession with taking different paths to the centre of the labyrinth" 1 may well impose a distance between this work and the more traditional reader of fantasy.  Certainly, those readers looking for a more conventional series or novel will likely be put off by Holdstock's repeated (though not always obvious) circling of similar themes and content.  And, as another reviewer has commented, the author's plots have become repetitive, each Mythago Cycle book a return, if by another character, to the twisted pathways of Ryhope Wood for reasons -- and beset by trials -- largely similar.  While there does exist an integral and conceptual rationale for this reiteration, it can be argued that the author narratively has neither improved upon nor, beyond Lavondyss, significantly expanded the original premise found in Mythago Wood, regardless whether each work is able to stand to a degree upon its own. 

Superficially, this latest novel represents a change from the original in terms of characterization, tone and the amount of energy expended upon singular if related stories existing within the umbrella of Christian's experience of the forest.  There is a humor present here that would be hard to imagine in the haunted, more brooding Mythago Wood, and Christian is treated with a compassion and humanity that seems greatly at odds with his earlier portrayal through his brother's eyes. Even in its darker moments -- Jennifer's suicide, Christian's eventual sacrifice --  there exists a celebratory element for the most part absent in the previous works, a reveling in myth's varied yet recurring nature.  Still, as in Campbell's comprehensive study, but one among many masks, some will unavoidably find, after several books, Holdstock's restated themes exhaustive.  This may be a mistake, a missing of the point amidst the obvious.  Nonetheless, I imagine the reader's judgment will hinge ultimately upon an abiding interest in mythology, and a belief in its continuing relevance to society.   


1 Newman, Kim, Octocon Convention Programme Book (at which Robert Holdstock was Guest of Honour), 1994.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.


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