Tolkien romanticized pastoralism in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It was, seemingly, a sweet deal to be a subsistence farmer in the Shire — or landlord, anyway, as Bilbo Baggins was. Plenty of meals, time to go down the pub at night, all that fun stuff.
That’s the thought that kept running through my head as I read Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. In it, the protagonist discovers that a three square mile of primeval woodland near his childhood home in England is not only immensely bigger on the inside, but the interior stretches back through time. And that interior is inhabited by living memories of the stories told by all the people who lived in what would become England. Neolithic tribes, Saxon invaders, 17th century cavaliers and more come and go in the boundaries of Ryhope Wood.
In Mythago Wood, Holdstock reminds us constantly that the past was a rough place, at least by modern western civilization’s standards. One is never sure of food and shelter’s availability, life can be brutish and short and daily existence really depends on the weather and terrain.
Like Tolkien, it seems Holdstock looked back on the cultural history of England and its varied peoples. But unlike Tolkien, he painted a less idyllic picture of past times and the people who lived there.2 Or at least was upfront about how rough things could be. Holdstock also less fabricated a mythology for England than drew upon the many existing strands and wove that patchwork variety into his novel’s premise.
I’m pleased to find out on finishing Mythago Wood there are several more entries in the cycle to track down; plus Holdstock also wrote a trilogy mixing Arthurian fantasy with Greek mythology! Already I like this guy.
1 Even if it doesn’t really reflect the dress of the character in question.
2 He also touches oh so lightly on England during the Ice Age, which is a period of human prehistory that fascinates me, particularly as a venue for fantasy fiction.