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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock: Critical Essays on the Fiction
edited by Donald E. Morse and Kálmán Matolcsy
McFarland, 202 pages

The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock: Critical Essays on the Fiction
Donald E. Morse
Donald E. Morse is a professor at the University of Debrecen, in Hungary, and is an emeritus professor at the University of Oakland in Michigan. He is the author of a dozen books and over 100 scholarly articles.

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Kálmán Matolcsy
Kálmán Matolcsy is a translator, poet, composer, and a professor at the University of Debrecen. He has written numerous scholarly articles on the literature of horror, fantasy and science fiction.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

When Robert Holdstock died, late in 2009, he left behind a body of acclaimed work that effectively constituted a paradigm shift in how we regard fantasy. But there was no equivalent body of critical work that his significance in the genre should warrant. This volume is a first step towards filling that gap. But only a first, and at times rather tentative, step.

Let me consider some of the problems with the volume to start with, then we can set these aside and turn to what is good about it. Some of the problems are minor: at least one of the contributors writing about Lavondyss, ('Tallis, the Feminine Presence in Mythago Wood: Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region' by Elizabeth A. Whittingham) seems to be blissfully unaware that the Mr. Williams that Tallis meets early in the novel is actually Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer of, among other things, 'Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,' so missing an entire layer of irony and resonance within the novel. More seriously, there are gaps in the book. There are no more than passing references to his use of horror, for instance in Necromancer or The Fetch, even though these works make explicit stylistic elements that run through everything else he wrote. Works such as The Bone Forest and Merlin's Wood are barely mentioned or ignored completely. I would also have welcomed some discussion of his short fiction. And while there are two essays on The Merlin Codex ('"So many names in so many tongues...": Allusive Mythology in Celtika' by C.W. Sullivan III and 'Thresholds, Polders, and Crosshatches in The Merlin Codex' by Tom Shippey), it is clear that neither author is in sympathy with the work or is even making any serious effort to understand it, which also means that they make no effort to put it into the context of the Mythago sequence. Now, it is true that The Merlin Codex is multilayered, allusive, complex and perhaps not entirely successful; but at the same time it is perhaps the most ambitious work that Holdstock ever undertook, it bears a clear and important relationship with the Mythago sequence, and it deserves better than either of these essays give it.

What we have, then, is a work that actually concerns itself almost exclusively with the Mythago sequence. That is, apart from the two essays I've mentioned on The Merlin Codex, and one essay ('Time Winds: Early Science Fiction' by Andy Sawyer) on the three early sf novels, the remaining eight essays focus exclusively on the five Mythago novels. (The book was clearly completed before the publication of Avilion, and hence before Holdstock's death; the final novel and the death are acknowledged in Donald E. Morse's introduction, 'Mythago Wood - "A Source of Visions and Adventure"', but none of the other contributors seem to be aware of either.) The book is rather oddly structured, in that there are three thematic essays in Part One, which is called 'Approaches,' followed by eight essays in Part Two, which is called 'The Novels,' an arrangement that would make perfect sense were it not for the fact that the three thematic essays in part one cover much the same ground as the five essays devoted to the Mythago sequence in part two.

The three essays in part one are actually the best in the book. 'The Embodiment of Abstraction in the Mythago Novels' by W.A. Senior, 'Masks in the Forest: The Dynamics of Surface and Depth in the Mythago Cycle' by Kálmán Matolcsy and 'Exploring the Habitats of Myth: The Spatiotemporal Structure of Ryhope Wood' by Stefan Ekman all deal with the five novels (the shorter work in The Bone Forest is still under-represented) as a whole, which actually suits them. I have no doubt that, when he began the original novella of 'Mythago Wood,' Holdstock had no notion of the complexities that would unfold by the time he came to Avilion. Nevertheless, the sequence grew organically. It is significant that none of the books within itself, nor the sequence as it was written, forms a chronological order. Though they may jump backwards and forwards in time, the guiding principle of the sequence is the depth of exploration of the wood: each successive volume may come before or after the previous one in time, but it takes us deeper into the wood. Sadly, none of the contributors explore the achronological nature of both Ryhope Wood and the Mythago Wood sequence, even though such achronology takes us back into the science fiction novels and on into The Merlin Codex (though Sawyer notes the way that a fascination of time runs through all of Holdstock's work, it is Ekman who comes closest to perceiving the importance of time as a way of interpreting the books, and even he stops some way short of the goal). Nevertheless, this organic, achronological growth of the sequence means that it is easy to take a perception regarding one volume and apply it to a later work in the sequence, or vice versa. So an examination of the whole sequence opens up more, reveals more, than consideration of any single volume might do.

As we move into the second part of the book, therefore, we can anticipate that some of the depth and resonance to be found in the sequence as a whole will be lost. Here, Sawyer's essay on the science fiction novels feels as though it stands at a tangent to the book as a whole. These novels were important as an initial development of themes and ideas that would snake through everything else he wrote subsequently; yet none of the other contributors mention the science fiction at all. And after this, we are back going through the Mythago sequence one novel at a time. There is one essay on Mythago Wood, 'Profusion Sublime and the Fantastic: Mythago Wood' by Marek Oziewicz, which is good but doesn't really break new ground. As befits its status as, perhaps, the best individual novel in the sequence, Lavondyss attracts two contributions. There is a feminist reading by Elizabeth A. Whittingham, which raises interesting issues without really chasing them down, and there is 'Embedded Narratives in Lavondyss and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness' by Vera Benczik, which has no rival as the most peculiar essay in the book. I am quite happy to consider a compare and contrast approach to two widely differing works, if the author can give a convincing reason why they should be looked at in parallel. Benczik doesn't just fail to give such a reason, but she doesn't even seem to be comparing and contrasting the same sort of thing. Insofar as there are embedded narratives within The Left Hand of Darkness it is all part of the encyclopedic structure of the book, providing a wider context for the central narrative. Insofar as there are embedded narratives within Lavondyss it is all part of the achronological structure of the book, providing variant perspectives on the one story. I'm not even sure I would care to call them embedded narratives. In other words, Benczik devotes her essay to comparing two things that are structurally different, that are intentionally doing totally different jobs, and that have no other conceivable relationship to each other.

If that is the single worst essay in the book, it is followed by the single best essay. 'Stories to Illuminate Truth and Lies to Hide Pain: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn' by co-editor Donald E. Morse is an examination of childhood guilt about the suicide of a parent that is the central issue of Holdstock's penultimate Mythago novel. It is a powerful psychological subject that reflects on how Holdstock used the sequence to address issues that tend to be at best ignored, at worst trivialised, in most modern fantasy. I was recently on a panel with Donald Morse at the British Library at which he used the term trauma in talking about Holdstock's work, and it is that sense of trauma that makes this such a perceptive essay. Indeed the only criticism could be that he did not extend the idea of trauma across the other works in the sequence.

The essay that follows, '"A Heap of Broken Images" -- The Mythological Wasteland of the Mind: The Hollowing and Ancient Echoes' by Ildikó Limpár inevitably suffers in comparison. It also suffers in that, like other essays in the book, it raises issues, in this case, the notion of Ryhope Wood as a mental landscape, without really pursuing them to a satisfactory conclusion. Still, it is a much better work than the two distinctly unsatisfactory essays on The Merlin Codex that follow it.

As a first step towards providing a serious critical study of the work of Robert Holdstock, we have to welcome this book. But I suspect only a few of its essays will stand the test of time, and we are left recognising that there is still room for a comprehensive critical study of this most important writer.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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