"... how can it be that when we come alive we are not just the legend, but we know what we are as well? Is that unusual?"Avilion, Robert Holdstock's last published novel, returns to characters introduced in 1984's Mythago Wood. At the end of Mythago Wood, Steven Huxley waited at the place called Imarn Uklyss, 'where the girl came out of the fire', for the mythago Guiwenneth, his lost love. Avilion, 'a tale of blood and the green', is the story of their children Jack and Yssobel: half-human (the red), half-mythago (the green), both seeking something that is lost. For Jack it's the world of his father, the house (Oak Lodge) swallowed up by Ryhope Wood, the ghost of his grandfather George whom he believes sent Yssobel on her quest. Yssobel has ridden inwards, seeking her lost mother, her murderous uncle Christian, and Avilion itself, the heart of the mythic forest.
"No. Not unusual at all. I live in a Roman villa, surrounded by caves, fortresses, other places, and the mythagoes that inhabit them believe they're in the real world." (p. 62)
Jack finds Oak Lodge, and watches as the wood 'spits it out', receding until the house -- which only the very old believe in -- stands once more outside the wood. He meets two lads fishing, one of whom won't tell his name. He meets Julie, who is terrified by and drawn to the wood in equal measure. He summons the ghost -- the mythago -- of his grandfather, and leans over the ghost's shoulder to read as he writes. And he meets the vicar of Shadoxhurst, Caylen Reeve, who knows more about 'wood-haunters' than might be expected.
Jack's journey is tangled with an elven raid; Yssobel's becomes entwined with the Morte d'Arthur and with a young Odysseus, unwilling to accept his fate. Fate and story are two sides of the same coin (or mirror, or polished shield) and as Yssobel journeys deeper into the wood, the constraints of story are more evident.
And in stories, much is possible. Deaths can be stolen and repaid; names confer power; memory is the only immortality; time is fluid, but fate is not. "In this world we don't follow our dreams: dreams are the paths we take."
Like Lavondyss (possibly my favourite of the 'Mythago' sequence), this is a wintry book: out in the world of Shadoxhurst it may be (rainy, British) summer, but within the wood the snow lies deep and crusted. And yet, at the heart of the wood lies Avilion, lies Lavondyss, where men's spirits are no longer tied to the seasons. Perhaps Avilion is about breaking the cycle, escaping fate and myth and story.
Avilion has a feeling of resolution to it, not least in terms of family dynamics. The savage father/son conflicts of Mythago Wood are countered by the affection between Steven and Jack; siblings aren't fated to lose one another. (The mother, however, is still absent.) There's also a strong sense of homecoming; of making a home, of finding a home, of realising that a particular place is not just a gateway or a staging-post, but a home: a place of beginnings and endings.
I wish there could be more Mythago books: but Avilion -- which I found a much more satisfactory read than some of the cycle -- is a good place to end in.