Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Holdstock, Robert P

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(1948-2009) UK writer who gained an MSc in medical zoology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1971 and spent the next three years in medical research. During this period he published his first story, "Pauper's Plot", for New Worlds in 1968, and was moderately prolific in the form before 1976, when he turned to full-time writing; most of these early shorts are assembled in In the Valley of the Statues (coll 1982).

For the next decade, his writing career was twofold. Under his own name he wrote three sf novels of some merit: Eye Among the Blind (1976), Earthwind (1977) and Where Time Winds Blow (1981). Rather more interestingly, in fantasy terms, RH wrote a number of novels under various names, most hurried commercial efforts but almost all so exuberantly full of action that they seem almost libidinous with release. Those written as by Ken Blake (a house name) have no fantasy interest. As Robert Black he wrote two film ties, Legend of the Werewolf * (1976) and The Satanists * (1977). As Richard Kirk (another house name) he contributed to the Raven sequence of Sword and Sorcery tales, writing Swordsmistress of Chaos (1978) with Angus Wells, A Time of Ghosts (1978) and Lords of the Shadows (1979). As Chris Carlsen he wrote the Berserker series – Shadow of the Wolf (1977), The Bull Chief (1977) and The Horned Warrior (1979) – in the second volume of which his constantly reborn Eternal Champion hero (see Michael Moorcock) comes to life in 5th-century Ireland, where he assists Arthur so vigorously that Arthur is impelled to kill him.

The most important of these pseudonymous works is the Dark-Fantasy Night Hunter sequence, written as Robert Faulcon: The Stalking (1983) and The Talisman (1983), both assembled as The Stalking (omni 1987), The Ghost Dance (1984) and The Shrine (1984), both assembled as The Ghost Dance (omni 1987), and The Hexing (1984) and The Labyrinth (1987), both assembled as The Hexing (omni 1988). It is here that RH first made significant use of plots in which sons or fathers, having been sundered from one another, must attempt to reunite. In this case the protagonist's wife and son have been abducted by Satanists and he must become a deadly master of the arts of Magic in order to recapture them; it takes him all six novels to complete this, the process coming to a climax in the eponymous Labyrinth of the final volume.

During this period RH wrote one similar tale, Necromancer (1978), which appeared under his own name; but the two strands of his career did not properly converge until he began to publish the Ryhope Wood sequence: Mythago Wood (1984), Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region (1988), The Hollowing (1993) and Merlin's Wood (coll of linked stories 1994), plus the title story of The Bone Forest (coll 1991). The sequence as a whole is a central contribution to late-20th-century fantasy, and is almost embarrassingly dense with fantasy tropes. The narrative energy is throughout very considerable, and there is ever a sense that RH has fixedly not allowed the underlying rigour of his conception to slide into the easy solutions of Genre Fantasy. Ryhope Wood as a whole makes play with the motifs of Celtic Fantasy and never shrinks from what may be that subgenre's central element: the unflinching hardness of the ordeal-choked, Metamorphosis-ridden Secondary World it depicts. The world depicted in Ryhope Wood is similarly hard; the Night Journeys into metamorphosis that its various protagonists undergo are cruel, are devastating to those protagonists and to those who have lost them, and do not lead back to daylight.

The basic premise unfolds rapidly enough in Mythago Wood, which won the 1986 World Fantasy Award. Ryhope Wood, in the English county of Herefordshire, is from the outside a 3-mile-square fenced-in rural woodland; but any person who passes into its shade travels Into the Woods and finds themselves within a primeval, impossibly intricate Labyrinth of Trees – for Ryhope Wood is larger inside than out (see Little Big); as one penetrates further, Time itself opens downwards (see Time Abyss). Moreover, the further one penetrates the more inevitable is one's encounter with a Mythago – one of the metamorphic figures that tend to attack those who attempt to invade the Polder and that take their essence from the collective unconscious of the British people. The mythagoes wear the Masks of various Heroes and other darker persons whose lives, real or imagined, have been central to the Matter of Britain. Some are relatively human – the Robin Hood and Arthur mythagoes, for instance, recognizably represent the acceptable face of Story – but the Green Man is more distressingly chthonic and the even more primeval wodewose (a primal creature from the Stone Age called Urscumug, various versions of whom appear furtively throughout the sequence) is even less amenable to anthropological surmise.

The storyline of Mythago Wood, as with its successors, works as a kind of inward spiral. The narrator – a Sensible Man whose dead father had already sacrificed his life and family to the wood – returns to England after the trauma of World War II to find his brother obsessively attempting to recapture his mythago wife, who has disappeared back inside the wood. Her name is Guiwenneth (see Guinevere), and she is a kind of Goddess figure. She is dead, but the narrator's brother still plunges deeper into the woods under the conviction that she will return. Beyond Guiwenneth is the heartwood, which cannot be reached, and which may be as infinite in size as a whole Secondary World. A wind of Sehnsucht blows from the heartwood and ultimately governs the actions of most of the sequence's protagonists, who obsessively try to gain access to that "unknown region" where the human story begins to germinate and where the meaning of life is born.

In the second volume, Lavondyss, a new character, Tallis, grows up haunted by Liminal Beings who call to her from the edge of the wood, the circumference of which she obsessively traverses; there she encounters Ralph Vaughan Williams (1874-1958). Eventually, thanks to her menarche, she penetrates Ryhope's deep interior, searching inwards, through the "hollowings" she is able to create, for the heartwood; but the knot at the core of her inward search for Redemption is not so much a further Portal but a profound metamorphic Map of her own life, which she must recognize and enter as a kind of Dryad. Ultimately she transforms utterly into something partly like a mythago in Green-Man guise, partly like a map (see also Face of Glory) and partly like Ryhope itself. In a fashion perhaps best elucidated through an ambitious and through-composed fantasy novel like Lavondyss, she becomes something rich and strange.

The Hollowing backs slightly away from the harsh heart of Lavondyss but continues to take Icons from the Cauldron of Story. Babel and Gawain and Jason, as well as various Ghosts and Tricksters, make flickering appearances; there are continuing hints of the Wild Hunt; and the basic sundered family is once again central. The eponymous wood in Merlin's Wood is a smaller version of Ryhope Wood, and is sited in Brittany; here the Matter of Britain continues to hold sway (see Merlin). The Fetch (1991) and Ancient Echoes (1996), RPH's only recent novels not directly associated with Ryhope Wood, again feature families in disarray. A sense remains that RPH, having created in Ryhope a notably original structure of story through which the most taxing fantasies can be told, will continue to tell those stories. [JC]

other works: Elite: The Dark Wheel * (1984 chap), sf novella tie to a computer game; Bulman * (1984) and One of Our Pigeons Is Missing * (1984), tv novelizations; The Emerald Forest * (1985), novelizing the film by John Boorman.

as Ken Blake (house name): Cry Wolf * (1981), The Untouchables * (1982), Operation Susie * (1982) and You'll be All Right * (1982), novelizing the tv series The Professionals.

as Steven Eisler: Linking texts for 2 vols of reprinted illustrations, being Space Wars Worlds and Weapons (1979) and The Alien World (1980).

Nonfiction: Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978), Consultant Editor; Alien Landscapes (1979), Tour of the Universe: The Journey of a Lifetime – The Recorded Diaries of Leio Scott and Caroline Luranski (1980), Magician: The Lost Journals of the Magus Geoffrey Carlyle (1982), Realms of Fantasy (1983) and Lost Realms (1985), all with Malcolm Edwards (1949-    ).

as editor: Stars of Albion (anth 1979) with Christopher Priest; the Other Edens series of original anthologies, all with Christopher Evans (1951-    ), being Other Edens (anth 1987), Other Edens II (anth 1988) and Other Edens III (anth 1989).

Robert Paul Holdstock


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.