Celtika: Book One of The Merlin Codex by Robert Holdstock

Earthlight, 2001, 350pp, 12.99
reviewed in Foundation 81, Spring 2001

It is now just 20 years since Robert Holdstock first ventured into Ryhope Wood. That labyrinthine forest whose ever more convoluted pathways revealed ever more simplified 'myth imagoes', the coarse, crude, brutal archetypes from which the familiar figures of myth have grown, was a liberation for Holdstock. Mythago Wood and its sequels didn't just provide a seemingly endless source of inspiration, but also prompted, particularly in Lavondyss and The Hollowing, writing of a very high quality indeed. This was stunning stuff: rich, daring, challenging, it stood as a vicious yet haunting retort to the vacuous prettiness of so much modern fantasy. Here, we were told, our imagination sprang from the darkest corners of our being, and from a primal age where life was indeed nasty, brutish and short.

Yet for all it freed Holdstock, Ryhope Wood was also a trap. Every time he turned around and tried to write anything outside the sequence, as with Ancient Echoes or Merlin's Wood, he seemed to produce something that was strangely unconvincing or something that was Mythago Wood in all but name. Now, at last, it seems he has managed to escape from Ryhope and its environs. Not completely, I suspect he is now doomed to carry avatars of mythago wood with him as much as the sanitised figures of myth carry within them the rough original who survives in the wood, but enough to give this new sequence a tough and original feel.

The result is fantasy that is as intelligent and as muscular as anything Holdstock has written, though I have yet to be convinced that it is completely successful. What he has done is take an event of historical record, the Celtic invasion of Greece and the sacking of the temple at Delphi in 278BC, and woven into this story mythic figures from different times and different cultures. There is a dissonance in this set up that Holdstock never quite overcomes, though individual characters are vividly drawn and the story is tightly constructed and unfailingly involving.

The narrator, as the overall sequence title suggests, is Merlin, though the milieu is hardly the one with which he is normally associated. These events, for instance, take place 700 years or more before Arthur (though many of the familiar aspects of the Merlin story have their avatars here, including a bewitching Nimue - here called Niiv, who may be Merlin's descendent to complicate matters still further - and another character who seems to be rather obviously filling the role of Uther Pendragon). But then, this Merlin is one of the last of a strange family of immortals who have ceaselessly tramped the pathways of the world since before the dawn of time. In one incarnation, for instance, he was Antiokus who sailed with Jason in the Argo - and that event is precisely placed in time, 700 years before the events of the novel. In the primal neverland of Ryhope Wood it is quite conceivable that Jason and Merlin, or at least some original versions of them stripped of the sophistications of later retellings, might meet and interact, but that is a world in which history has no grip. Here, the hold of history is carefully spelled out, as if Holdstock is thus delineating the difference between the two worlds.

Yet here, too, we are asked to accept that Merlin and Jason might meet and interact within the realistic progress of history, and not just in the distant past but now. For while Jason is not immortal like Merlin, neither is he dead. For the last 700 years he has lain interred within Argo beneath the frozen waters of a Finnish lake. What a Greek hero, and one from the solidity of history not the ambiguity of myth, is doing in a lake in Finland is never explained and, coming right at the beginning of the novel, is one of the things most likely to overthrow our suspension of disbelief in this extraordinary concoction.

In the dead of winter Merlin travels through primal Finnish woodland where primitive gods and spirits are very much alive. In this first section of the novel Holdstock seems to be deliberately evoking memories of Ryhope Wood, but here, except perhaps in Merlin himself, there is none of the rawness of the mythagos, nor, again with the possible exception of Merlin, is there the knowing modern viewpoint. One of the genuine strengths of this book is the way Holdstock has succeeded in thinking himself into the mindset of his Celtic characters with their beliefs and rituals, notions of manhood and honour, shaping their every act. This wood is a sacred landscape, and at its heart is a lake where people from all over the Celtic world gather to enact rituals of their own. Merlin's own ritualistic reason for being here is to resurrect Jason and the Argo, for he has information which will help Jason complete the quest for whose purpose he has resisted the peace of death: Merlin knows that Jason's children are alive.

When Merlin, as Antiokus, travelled with Jason on the Argo they witnessed the witch, Medea, sacrifice the two sons she had had by Jason. Now Merlin has learnt that Medea did not actually kill the boys, but sent them through time to a place that happens to be Britain at this moment. And now he must wake Jason and help to reunite him with his sons. What Merlin does not know is that Medea is his sister, another of his family of travellers through time. So she, too, is here casting her baleful spell upon proceedings.

Thus Holdstock has found a new way to distort the conventions of myth, bringing figures from one mythological landscape into another. Jason is revived, the Argo is rebuilt, and a new crew of Argonauts is recruited from among the various Celtic peoples at the lake (including among their number the shamaness Niiv and the British war leader Urtha). They sail first to Britain, a land half of which is literally given over to the shadow realm of the dead. One of Jason's sons may be in exile in this realm, but before they might seek him out they have to deal first with the fact that Urtha's realm has been devastated, his family murdered, his loyal lieutenants have apparently turned traitor and fled. The complex Celtic web of honour and obligation means that their own quest now takes second place to helping Urtha exact the revenge he perforce must seek. This entails a magical voyage up the Rhine and down the Danube, joining, unintentionally, the Celtic invasion force that has been gathered to sack Delphi. And it is in the landscape of Greece, within a lifetime of Alexander, that Merlin rather than Jason must come face to face with his past.

This is but Book One of a sequence of unknown length. There is a dramatic climax to the novel, but nothing is resolved. Subsequent volumes will presumably take Merlin into the land of the dead, recount his entrapment by Niiv and probably his involvement with the progeny of Urtha; whether they will also bring the story as far forward as Arthur, as this might imply (for if not, why identify the central figure as Merlin?), is impossible to tell. There is clearly a lot of mythological ground that might be covered, therefore. If the Mythago Wood sequence did nothing else it showed what a wide open playing field Holdstock had to work with if he stripped myth down to its bare essentials; in this new sequence he seems to be out to demonstrate that the same is true if he brings myths together in unlikely conjunctions with history. Certainly he has a good story to tell and fascinating characters with which to tell it - the uneasy mix of loyalty and distrust that exists between Merlin and Jason is one of the convincing human details that makes this novel work as well as it does. Yet the one thing I feel he still must do is make this strange collision of history and myth cohere, and only if he does that will what looks like a very good fantasy sequence turn into a really successful one.