Review: Avilion by Robert Holdstock

Well, part of the reason I got into the Locke Lamora readalong was to get me reading again, and thus far it seems to have worked. I recently finished a copy of Avilion – in actual fact a pre-publication proof copy, which I was lucky enough to win in one of  Anne Lyle‘s regular giveaways. Reading it was something of an experience, but I was surprised how fast I learnt to tune out the obvious typographical errors and unexpected outbursts of Courier New.

Robert Holdstock is an author I consider a major influence on me, in that he’s one of the writers whose style and worldview captures something very fundamental about how I see writing within my personal world. I first discovered his Ryhope Wood series as a teenager, and devoured the first two books (Mythago Wood and Lavondyss) as soon as I could lay hands on them. Lavondyss is the standout, in my mind – it’s visceral and powerful, and the shamanic preoccupation with masks as a magic that changes the wearer’s perception of the world is both fascinating, and a link into a mentality that’s long been lost or marginalised in Western culture. There’s an echo of Alan Garner in Holdstock’s thinking somewhere, the sort of ancient/modern fusion of thought I saw in Strandloper.

Avilion, then, is chronologically the third in the core timeline of the Ryhope Wood books, but in terms of its plot is (according to Wikipedia, at any rate) actually set between Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. It’s the first of the series that I’ve read as an adult, and I’m simultaneously convinced I need ro re-read Lavondyss, and wary of being disappointed if I read it through the mask of age I wear now.

As a reading experience, I found it flowed along with the same half-conscious dream-logic as all the Ryhope books; connections between events within Ryhope Wood are mystical and instinctual, not logical and clear. The wood itself is a character in the series, a vast and alien mind which seems to work on the same inexorable logic as the human subconscious. In Ryhope Wood, that which is most needed finds a way to become real in the form of mythagos, people brought to life by the imaginer’s mind as incarnations of a mythical archetype. But the wood has its own ideas, much like the alien planet in Solaris – and the results are rarely what the imaginer expected. In Avilion, the main character Steven spends most of the book in a slowly crumbling relationship with his mythago wife, who begins to suffer an identity crisis over the fact she may have been (re)created by her husband’s murderous brother, not by the man who gave up his life in the real world to wait for her return. Her daughter sets out to reach Avilion, the heart of the Wood itself, in the hope of changing the fate laid out for her family – but ultimately, the wood has its own agency. One of the aspect I found most endearing was Steven’s very logical and rational mind – his hopes for the future were entirely reasonable throughout, and almost always at odds with what his life inside the wood would eventually provide. I found it an affectionate comment on the typical masculine mind, which by nature or nurture is often divorced from its own more instinctive side.

Most of the book is seen through the eyes of Steven’s half-mythago son Jack, whose perspective goes hand in hand with his own mythago nature or “green” side, Haunter. Haunter’s viewpoint is eerie and complete, more so to my mind than the moments in which we’re in the point of view of Jack’s sister, who is more in touch with her mythago side than Jack. Some of those moments ring almost false in that they render the forest both facile and alien, a little too close to the magic-reason of a child – whereas in Jack and Steven’s mindsets the forest’s ominous power is amplified by its half-understood aura of purpose and will. Ultimately, Jack chooses to give up Haunter to save a life – and in that choice I see a similar theme of the male mind as defined by the conflict between rationality and instinct (“red” versus “green” as Jack’s family term it), and the ultimate inevitability of being subsumed by the rational, distancing mind.

The other major moment of synergy for me in this read was the point at which Jack meets the Iaelven, stinking and terrifying creatures clearly based on the archetype of the faerie child-stealer; the way the Iaelven are drawn has an alarming amount in common with the “elves” I created in my unfinished NaNo novel, who were called elves by the humans living alongside them because they were terrifying, and lived in the woods. Holdstock’s take on the archetype is more visceral and owes less to Native American shamanism than mine, but it’s always disconcerting to see the process of simultaneous creation in action. It’s never clear in the book whether the Iaelven are real beings  with a separate existence within the wood, or mythagos created by Steven’s family’s minds, which have come to take on a life of their own in the tale, and even in the history of their tale. This strange circularity of purpose, the ritualised acting-out of stories in the dim quest towards some unrecognised goal, is both characteristic of Holdstock and so strongly reminiscent of what I understand about human psychology that I couldn’t help adopting it as part of my own philosophy of story when I first read him –  I prefer my own stories to be driven a little more logically than Holdstock’s tend to be, but I always return to that quality of myth-like universality as a test of whether the story I’ve made will really speak to people who aren’t like me.

Overall, then, I found Avilion another lyrical, illogical, enchanting window into a world and a type of world which I very personally enjoy. I suspect that rereading these novels over time will be a pleasure; they have a plasticity to their stories that allows for a wide range of different conclusions about their real meaning, and I could see myself finding something new in them every time.

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