Enter at your peril

Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth
Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth

Robert Holdstock Gate of Ivory
Voyager 1998 (as Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn 1997)

At the heart of this fantasy is the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen, but there are also echoes of other Celtic texts including The Spoils of Annwn, motifs from classical mythology and references to more recent fiction such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian Huxley, like his father before him, ventures into an ancient woodland — Ryhope Wood — peopled by figures from myth and legend and emanations from dreams and imaginations, following a personal quest born in tragic circumstances.

woodWoods and forests are places of mystery and adventure where anyone can imagine meeting Robin Hood or Tarzan or a coven of witches or a brood of dragons — Holdstock knows this and it’s this which gives his story its daydream-like quality, despite it frequently descending into nightmare. I read Holdstock’s Mythago Wood some time ago but though I missed the intervening volumes I was just as enchanted with this title, set in the same magical Celtic milieu. Despite apparent inconsistencies, the story draws you in and along with a rare sense of urgency.

An original but sympathetic approach to the Matter of Britain then, but don’t mistake it for Rachel Levy’s classic 1948 study The Gate of Horn (coincidentally published in the year of Holdstock’s birth), with which it shares similar material and which it was presumably inspired by. And don’t be put off, as I was, by his idiosyncratic transliteration of Celtic names and occasional mistakes. For example he has ‘Trwch’ for Twrch Trwyth, where twrch is Welsh for ‘hog’, the mythical beast chased by Arthur and his men over South Wales, including the hills where I live: from our garden I can see, a mile away to the north, the vast bowl-like coombe where Arthur’s sons died in combat with the giant wild boar and his offspring.

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6 thoughts on “Enter at your peril

  1. You are certainly in an area where it can come alive for you.
    I wonder if that was an error in research or a simple editing oversight? I have just edited someone else’s book already done three times (it was my own second runthrough), and the basic mistakes still there were surprising.

    1. No, he takes almost diabolical liberties with Welsh spellings particularly. It’s almost as though he — and other fantasy authors do this too, I’ve noticed — wants to claim that through his idiosyncratic spellings these personages stand outside time, that they are entities pre-existing the historical context that we usually find them in. Or something like that.

      If that’s the case it’s fair enough, but the purist in me, the pedant I suppose, is in pain when the changes seem completely and pointlessly arbitrary.

      So, no, it wasn’t a simple matter of the names getting through the word proofing process.

  2. As far as I know, Mythago Wood, 1986, was his first novel of Ryhope. One of the finest fantasies I’ve read. Several other books, set in the same world, grew a bit too ponderous. Glad to know Holdstock wrote another. I’ll have to check it out.

    1. Yes it was, Morgan, and I remember reading it in the 80s and thoroughly savouring it; and from my memory of it (I haven’t returned to it since) feel that it was better than this more recent offering.

      I’ve never particularly been attracted by reading notices of others in the series with their drawing in of mythologies from other lands and cultures — that seemed to not chime in with the sense of place that he’d conjured up with Mythago Wood and the feeling of Britain’s myths being anchored in that spot.

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