Bone Forest: The True Beginnings of the Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood series

Robert Holdstock’s best known for his sprawling Ryhope Wood series, which encompasses, most readers think, four complex novels: Mythago Wood, Lavondyss The Hollowing, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, and Avillion. 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? Fortunately this tale is now back in print after nearly two of being effectively lost to readers

What is true is that ‘The Bone Forest’ 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.

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 rather thorough destruction as a human being by Ryhope Wood itself? In Mythago Wood he begins as an 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 rather unpleasant being.

It was published after Mythago Wood and Lavondyss but 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, i.e. 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.

It’s now back in print in the United Kingdom but in the United States, just look for a copy of the paperback edition from 1992 which has lovely artwork by Tom Canty on the cover!

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