No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 21, 1998

"Enter these enchanted woods ...": The Enchanted Forest and the Wildwood

Published in Charmed Lives #2, Summer 1998 (edited by Meredith MacArdle)

'[The wood is] primary woodland. Untouched, essentially unmanaged, for eight thousand or so years… something more than just trees and bracken, dog-fern and bramble. It had become an entity, not conscious, not watching, but somehow sentient and to an astonishing degree timeless.'

'The Wood is, like all woods in this country… part of the great Forest that once covered this land. At the merest nudge, it… becomes the great Forest again. [Anyone] will tell you how... he has been lost in the smallest spinney. He can hear traffic on the road, but the road is not there, while there are sounds behind him of a great beast crawling through the undergrowth. This is the great Forest… it is voiceless, yet it has a will at least as strong as yours.'

The first excerpt is from The Hollowing (1993), a sequel - of sorts - to Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (1984). The second is from Diana Wynne Jones' Hexwood (also 1993), perhaps the deepest and most mature of her juvenile novels. Hexwood has been dismissed as 'Mythago Wood for children'. However, while the two novels deal with the sentience of the forest, and its role in the genesis of myth, they do it from two different angles.

Mythago Wood is a journey into the subconscious, the well of dreams that underlies and contains all human myth, as much as it is the journal of Steven Huxley's journey into Ryhope Wood. The wood is populated by "mythagos" - embodiments of mythic archetypes which are born from the minds of those who come within range of the forest's influence. Sometimes the mythagos are harmless; more often, they are not. Huxley's father is shot at by a Robin Hood figure, and keeps the arrow in his study to remind him of the wood's power. And time in the wood doesn't run at the same rate as in the outside world. George Huxley's journal contains accounts of month-long journeys, from which he has returned to find that only a few days have passed.

As Steven learns more of his father's adventures in the wildwood, the wood reaches out for him: oak saplings spring up between the edge of the wood and his house, and by the opening of the second book in the sequence, Lavondyss (1988), the house is entirely within the wood, with an oak tree growing through the desk at which both Huxleys wrote.

Mythago Wood is primarily a fantasy, although it has scientific elements. Huxley and his friend (Edward Wynne-Jones: call it synchronicity!) experiment with electrical devices to hasten the formation of mythagos from their minds. In the later books there are indications that more sophisticated instruments are being used both to encourage, and to repel, the mythagos. Holdstock's 'myth images' and myth genesis are firmly rooted in psychology and anthropology. Hexwood, on the other hand, states its science-fictional setting with the very first sentence: 'The letter was in Earth script, unhandily scrawled in blobby blue ballpoint'.

In Hexwood, entering Banners Wood means leaving the mundane world. Strange things happen to Ann, and Mordion, and Hume, within the boundaries of the wood. Ann's 'voices' tell her when she's been in the wood, and for how long: this generally doesn't equate with her perception of passing time, and often she seems to forget whole episodes. Hume, who is introduced as a young child, doesn't age reliably: it's as though, when Ann enters the wood, she steps into another time.

Eventually Ann realises that she has been the subject of a device called the Bannus, which has been playing through scenes - alternate possibilities - to achieve its required outcome. Hence the time distortion, the sense of deja vu, and the trend that Mordion identifies: 'The Bannus tended to send Ann along at important moments'. Ann is present when Mordion first awakes: for most of his magical experiments: and for Hume's first sight of the Arthurian Castle, where fame and fortune can be found, and an ailing king must be healed.

The Bannus manipulates 'theta-space' fields to run its cast - composed of the aristocracy of Homeworld, the present, corrupt Reigners, and the inhabitants of Hexwood Farm Estate - through a variety of scenes which draw heavily on myth and magic. Where Holdstock delves deep into the subconscious to depict prehistoric ritual and magic, Jones uses Arthurian myth, leavened with folklore and fairy-tale symbolism. Holdstock's The Hollowing draws on the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight (and Gawain turns out to be the villain: Nature, in the aspect of the Green Knight, is the hero). Jones transmogrifies the Fisher King, with his unhealable wound, into a nervous and hypochondriac Reigner Two, who has made a nasty bruise an excuse not to marry the malevolent Reigner Three - Morgan La Trey.

The Bannus is, to some extent, a teaching machine. It also transforms its cast into their true selves. In an echo of Mythago Wood, trees spring up along Wood Street as the Bannus transforms Reigner One, stealthily and without any fuss, into a dragon. But is the Bannus to blame? It isn't the only thing manipulating time and myth in /Hexwood/. The Wood itself is working on the people within its sphere - sometimes co-operating with the Bannus, sometimes not. For example, the Wood effectively imprisons the Bannus, along with assorted luminaries from Homeworld, until Mordion resolves the conflict between machine and nature.

The Bannus is resentful of the fact that, over the centuries of its imprisonment, its theta-space has merged with that of the Wood: the fact that the wood is called Banners Wood is an early indication of this. The Bannus can't control or communicate with the wood at all: it can only learn by trial and error what is allowed. In this, Banners Wood is like Holdstock's Ryhope Wood: it can't be manipulated. But it is a less malevolent wood. Mordion, in his role as magician, has learnt to work with the Wood: in return, the Wood gives him 'special treatment', because he can help it achieve its own desires. When the Bannus gives Morgan La Trey the formula for a poison to destroy Mordion (and does it really want him dead?) the Wood transforms him into a dragon instead of letting him die. It's only in this form, after all, that he can defeat Reigner One.

It is Mordion, in the end, who works out what Banners Wood wants: its own permanent theta-space, 'so that it can be the great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans'. Ryhope Wood functions by raising 'demons of the mind' against what it perceives as human invasion: Banners Wood is a gentler place, which needs humans to attain its full potential. Once it has persuaded Mordion to give it what it wants, there are mythagos all around: Robin Hood, twig-people, a dragon and a unicorn, all glimpsed through the trees as legends are supposed to be.

Banners Wood and Ryhope Wood are two different places. While Hexwood probably has a higher body count than any other of Jones' novels, there isn't the sheer nastiness and violence of primeval myth that is so dominant in Holdstock's proto-mythologising.

Ryhope Wood is called 'the wildwood': it's a place of violent death, of Ice Age winters and slow starvation. This is the wood of nightmares, where wolves prey on small children and every path curves back on itself.

By contrast, Banners Wood is the fairytale enchanted forest: there are wolves, and a terrible winter, but they are not unconquerable. Besides, the Bannus - like the magical cauldron of Celtic myth - provides whatever is asked of it. Mordion is struck by the beauty and peace of the wood: for him, it is a healing experience rather than the agonising catharsis of Huxley's journey into the wildwood.

Most importantly, perhaps, the way out of Banners Wood is relatively simple to find. Hume and Mordion go hungry in the terrible winter - but only until Mordion realises that he can buy food in the shops on Wood Street. Ryhope Wood holds onto those who come within its bounds: Tallis has to undergo a terrifying series of transformations before she can regain the edge of the wood, and the human world, and other characters never come out at all.

The Bannus gives people a chance to explore their own natures, and learn to accept responsibility for their own actions and the less pleasant aspects of their personalities. In this, Hexwood works well as a rite-of-passage novel: although all of the main characters are past adolescence, they still have much to learn about themselves. In Ann's case, at least, this is achieved by a temporary return to childhood. (Paradoxically, it is as an adolescent that her feelings for Mordion change from a girlish crush to love.) Only then is she able to assume her role in the adult world.

Ryhope Wood forces those who enter to examine their primal natures - and if they don't succeed, they will be lost for ever. In contrast to the romance and happy ending of Hexwood, all three of Holdstock's 'Mythago' novels fail to achieve resolution. (Mythago Wood and The Hollowing end with a man waiting, in the wildwood, for a woman to return. Lavondyss ends with a time loop: it's all going to happen again, just as unhappily …) There are recurrent themes of losing a child, and of the conflict between father and son - both more 'adult' psychological crises than the rites of passage in Hexwood.

The two novels both depict the forest as a sentient thing, a device for translating subconscious hopes and fears into real symbols. (In Hexwood, it's actually the Bannus that does most of this, through a conscious manipulation of character and plot not unlike the writer's.) Both Hexwood and the 'Mythago' sequence examine essential phases of human life, by embodying archetypes to lead and challenge the protagonists. In a sense, Hexwood is 'Mythago Wood for children': the conflicts and changes it examines are those which every child must confront before achieving maturity. Equally, Mythago Wood is Hexwood for adults: a darker and nastier place, with less youthful optimism, but still the Enchanted Forest.