Robert Holdstock’s The Bone Forest

cover, The Bone ForestRobert Holdstock is best known for his sprawling Ryhope Wood series, which encompasses, most readers think, four complex novels: Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, The Hollowing, and Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn. Of course they are some of the finest writing in the English langage, but as Richard Dansky noted in his review of them:

The Ryhope Wood cycle is, like most fantasy, about heroes. However, it’s not the suitably heroic deeds, gussied up and put on display, that the Ryhope books concern themselves with. Rather, they explore something deeper: the process by which heroic myths are made, the stories that underpin them, the ways in which they change and grow over time, and how the creators of those myths fit into their own stories. There is no linear flow to Ryhope. Each book is strongly tied to both the previous and the next one in the cycle, and each book turns in on itself so that it is a narrative moebius loop. Start any place in the series and you’re on solid footing. Conversely, a reader will never unravel all of any given book’s intricacies without absorbing the rest of the series as well.

But what if hardly anyone has read the actual beginning of this series? What if that tale has been effectively lost?

Which it has been in an odd sort of manner. ‘The Bone Forest’, the title story of this collection, is the true beginning to the Ryhope Wood series, Well, sort of. Dansky’s correct in calling the entire affair ‘a narrative moebius loop’ as time loops onto itself in a way that makes saying what happened and when bloody near impossible. Like the song cycle that it echoes, Jethro Tull’s Songs from The Wood, it’s almost impossible to say if it has a beginning or an end. Does the narrator in Tull’s ‘Fire At Midnight’ at the end of Songs From The Wood go upstairs to bed with his wife or does he start the cycle all over again?

Narrative cycles, be they written, spoken, or sung, by their very nature do not allow for true beginnings or ending. The tragedy that is the preordained fate of all who enter Ryhope Wood has no ending. So where does the ongoing tragedy that is these families’ entanglement with Ryhope Wood, particularly the Huxleys, start? Is there an explanation for Christian Huxley’s thorough destruction as a human being by Ryhope Wood itself? In Mythago Wood he begins as a more or less decent chap who’s obsessed with the Wood. He disappears into Ryhope Wood for a scant few months to later emerge, aged by years, as a violent and unpleasant being.

Although it was published after Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, The Bone Forest tells the tale of what happens to the parents of the characters in Mythago Wood. (Did you know that the Jim Henson Company had a film option on Mythago Wood? A pity it won’t get made as Holdstock’s Web site says the Henson Studio no longer has the film rights.) So do you need to read this novella before tacking the rest of the Ryhope Wood series? Yes. But it is essential to read first Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, as otherwise the events here will make no sense at all. Ideally, this eighty-two page piece would have been published separately, or added to Lavondyss itself. Burying it in a collection does an injustice to it!

All I’ll tell about ‘The Bone Forest’ tale itself is it describes the original explorations of Edward Wynne-Jones and George Huxley into the secretive nature of Ryhope Wood. It is set at a time (if time itself can be said to be a linear process in any meaningful sense in a place where the past is never dead) when Christian and Stephen Huxley, the central characters of Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, are still children. (The children in this series are, for the most part, the only innocents here.) The primary difference with the events depicted in the novels is that there’s a sense that the events are somewhat less chaotic here; for example, the real time that George Huxley spends in the wood is never more than a couple of days – in the novels the forays into Ryhope Wood quickly become months or years long. Neither of the protagonists here are on journeys downward into the spiral of madness that most adventurers in the Wood will come to. I won’t say it’s a cheerier read than the later material, but fate seems less of a player here.

The other tales here are interesting in their own right. ‘Scarrowfell’ appears to be based on the Christian mythos; its setting is a village that would fit nicely alongside the villages of John Berger’s Once in Europa trilogy. The ending was certainly not what I expected! ‘Thorn’, also set in a village lost in time itself, demonstrates what happens when those who safeguard the aforementioned Christian mythos try just a bit too hard to remove any traces of the older gods. As Jethro Tull so aptly put in their song ‘Beltaine’, ‘Have you ever stood in the April wood and called the new year in? / While the phantoms of three thousand years fly as the dead leaves spin? / There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet and a tap upon your shoulder. / And the thin wind crawls along your neck, it’s just the old gods getting older.’ If you enjoyed The Wicker Man, this tale is indeed as tasty as the pint of Dragon’s Breath XXXX Stout that you ordered in Green Man Pub!

Sadly, it’s long out of print. You can – for a price fairly dear – purchase it online, but I’d love to see it released as a chapbook by Midwinters Night Publishing, our publishing endeavor, as it certainly deserves it!

(Grafton Books UK, 1991)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I also do the Birthdays for Mike Glyer’s, the foremost SFF fandom site.

My current audiobook is Alasdair Reynolds’ Machine Vendetta. I’m watching my way though all nine seasons of the Suits law series.

My music listening as always leans heavily towards trad Celtic and Nordic music.

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