This interview was originally conducted for Robert Holdstock’s own website to coincide with the publication of Celtika in 2000. I had intended to publish it on my site in this slightly revised version for a while. Now hearing the terrible news of Robert’s death (29 November 2009) I have decided to put this short interview online as a tribute to one of the very finest fantasy writers the UK has ever produced. Rob Holdstock was simply one of the best. RIP.
Gary Dalkin – 30 November 2009
Above is the cover of the British Science Fiction Association Special Edition publication Into The Woods: Robert Holdstock Remembered, published in tribute to the author.
In Celtika, the first volume of The Merlin Codex, Robert Holdstock tells a complex adventure entwining Jason and Medea into the story of Merlin. And in telling the story from Merlin’s point of view, the novel reads like the other side of the Mythago Wood cycle, which shows encounters with mythological figures from the perspective of modern people. Celtika begins in the frozen lands of far northern Finland with, as Holdstock says, Merlin being “the total outsider.” It is the territory of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.
Robert Holdstock: I do hope that this book makes some of the mythologies clear. In The Hollowing and Mythago Wood the view point characters are outsiders looking at this brave, brand new world. A very strange world. In the Mythago cycle they are looking at worlds inside the wood. In Celtika it is an outsider really looking at the human aspect of the world that he’s known for thousands and thousands of years but has never interacted with and now he’s beginning to interact with it.
Gary Dalkin: In Lavondyss you introduced ten masks. Merlin encounters them at the start of Celtika…
Robert Holdstock: I created ten masks of different states of being and of seeing. It’s a very shamanic form, though I try to avoid using the word shaman. Merlin is part of the whole mythology that I am creating around those ten masks. Each one allows him to experience the world in a different way. So he can travel as a dog, as a salmon, as a bird. He can see shadows of lost and destroyed forests. He can see the past in other words. He can see it through the eyes of a woman, he can see it through the eyes of a child. One of them is seeing the world through story. So there are ten masks in Lavondyss, and as you correctly say, Merlin discovers that these are part of his past…
Gary Dalkin: Merlin is discovering his own story even as the reader does. He has forgotten much about himself and his earlier life when we first meet him at the beginning of Celtika. One unusual aspect of your novels is that they are often about stories themselves, and about people discovering forgotten stories.
Robert Holdstock: That’s certainly the case with the Mythago cycle, and in particular Lavondyss. That really is a story about the origins of story, and the discovery of forgotten realms of fantasy. Absolutely.
RH asked if I found the same thing in Celtika, and I confessed that I did, though to a lesser extend for being less familiar with the original Greek stories rather than with British legend. I noted how it fed into the very idea of the stories that the very names in the Arthurian stories resonated with me before I even knew the stories, and when I knew them, I loved them even more.
Robert Holdstock: I think that goes for most of us in this country and in France. They call it the Matter of Britain here and I’m sure they call it the Matter of Brittany in France. It’s in the blood, and something British writers can draw on. I find incredible fascination in just dipping back into the pre-Roman Celtic and Bronze Age past of Western Europe. You get these little insights into what life was like, for royalty at least. Stories from the Welsh myth, from the Mabinogion, which are clearly at the base of much of the later Arthurian myth.
Gary Dalkin: Often in interviews with authors one talks about one book, before moving on to another, but with your books we are talking much more about the themes which, although the books are separate, link them together so that they become more than the sum of the parts. The more you try to pin any one aspect down, it seems to move onto the horizon just beyond.
Robert Holdstock: I agree with that, but the important thing is that the books do stand alone. All of the Mythago books can be read for themselves. But I have worked very hard over the years to establish connections between the books so that there is a feeling of a universal mythology that I am creating drawing heavily on real mythologies but also adding my own input.
Gary Dalkin: Is there ever a temptation to go back and revise the earlier books in the light of the later ones and fix a few things to bring them all in line with each other?
Robert Holdstock: No, I don’t think so. No. They are done deals. Well, possibly some short stories that fit very closely to it. But really I don’t see the point of it actually. If you read old texts that are collections of tales sometimes you can tell that some are older than others because they are less refined than the later ones, or they are not quite so clear as the later ones. And I rather like the idea of not just an evolved mythology and an evolved set of stories, but of an evolved experience. I’m just trying to think which ones I would tamper with if I got the chance – no – too hard!
Gary Dalkin: It’s good that they have that organic feeling.
Robert Holdstock: That word ‘organic’ is a nice word. I want an organic feel to this set of stories and the echoes and the glimpses of the past, both the legendary past and the real past that I’m creating in these books. If that’s a quotable quote, quote it! I want people do buy these books, not be put off by sounding too pompous! It’s my attempt at muscular fantasy writing.
Gary Dalkin: It seems like you are working ever closer towards this heartland of a story which keeps moving a stage further back…
Robert Holdstock: It is called Lavondyss. I want to get back to Lavondyss as soon as I can. It is the place where you slip away from time completely. Time has a different meaning in Lavondyss, but it is at the heart of the world and memory. I approach it through round-about ways in various stories.
Mythago Wood begins with a quote from the great British composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Vaughan-Williams wrote a Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and the heroine of Lavondyss is called Tallis, who actually meets Vaughan-Williams in the story. I suggest that much as Vaughan-Williams collected English folk music and used it as the basis for new compositions, RH does something very similar with folk tale and legend.
Robert Holdstock: I very much like Vaughan-Williams, I love Elgar, Sibelius, Delius; the composers who use elements of traditional folk music from their part of the world are always fascinating, because as you’ve just correctly said there are echoes in their music of something older. The quote from Vaughan-Williams which haunts me still, and which I used in Mythago Wood, when he first heard someone singing an ancient folksong – I’m sure a shiver went down his spine – was “here was something which I had known all my life, only I didn’t know it…” and that’s how I feel about the Arthurian tales. And many of these folk stories and legends, the resonances are so strong, when you read them you think, I sort of know this, but I hadn’t actually read it before. But it’s a familiarity, that echo of the past which is so important. And I find music very inspirational to work to, but I have to say that music is very hard to get across in a book. You can say it was a beautiful, romantic tune, but that doesn’t mean much! When you are dealing as I am in one section in the new book, The Iron Grail, with a funeral ritual in which there are bronze horns, and bronze tambura rattling, and ululation and pipes wailing and whining – I can hear it in my head and it is magical. Short of putting down a score on the page or having a CD attached to each copy of the book, you have to underplay the use of music. It’s in my head, but I wouldn’t know how to record it but I can hear it.
Gary Dalkin: On the HarperCollins web site there is an interview mentioning the possibility of a Mythago Wood film. This would be one way to realise the use of music…
Robert Holdstock: Yes, that would be great. There is a lot of music in that book that I can imagine, music which was implied being heard by my visitor to the enchanted forest. If there was a film version, I quite like the guys who wrote the music to Gladiator (Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard, Klaus Badet and Djivan Gasparyan) at the moment. But I shift and change on my favourite composers. The theme music to Gladiator is tremendous.
Gary Dalkin: We do make the books sound very serious by talking this way, but also there is a sense of fun. Is it fun to write them as well as hard work?
Robert Holdstock: Hard work is the short answer. Celtika was extremely hard work, because of bringing together the disparate mythologies and characters. The second book is equally hard work because of bring the characters back together for the next big, but much more uplifting confrontation. But fun, absolutely. If it wasn’t fun I wouldn’t do it. The ‘funnest’ book I’ve ever written was Lavondyss, because it was so involving and the exploration was so fresh and new to me. It was like the past was actually unlocking itself the more I thought about it. The funniest thing I think I’ve done I think was in Gate of Ivory. Gate of Ivory has a very tongue-in-cheek look at the warrior ethic, which was very amusing to write. But then the people I’m writing about did have a tremendous sense of fun. The Romans were very stiff, it always seems to me. But your Celtic warrior had a lot of fun as well as being quite outrageous in some of their pursuits and their delights. I’ve certainly never used a teetotal Celtic in any of my books! I don’t think they brawled quite as much as you might believe from Asterix the Gaul, but fun, a sense of tongue-in-cheek and a sense of humour is very important. I’ve tried to put some touches of humour into Celtika. An outrageous suggestion for the origin of the Gordian Knot.
And to end at the beginning, back in the frozen north of Finland where Celtika opens. Holdstock raises the problem of how you measure distance in the long northern winter, before the advent of technology.
Robert Holdstock: I though how would you measure distance in the middle of the night, and time when you have no day? The Finns measured time by sleeps. So it might be ‘Four sleeps back to the lake’. It sounds a bit corny, but I couldn’t think of any other way. My Finnish translator has just written to me – they want to publish the book in Finland – and she said, ‘actually they measured it by reindeer pisses. Reindeers piss every four hours, so every time a reindeer pisses you know you’ve gone about two miles! Gary Dalkin: It’s a pity you couldn’t have put that in the book! Robert Holdstock: I can get it into the Finnish edition, but not into the British. I asked her about a thousand questions about what it was like living in northern Finland and their mythologies, and it never occurred to me to ask ‘how often does a reindeer piss!’
Interview November 2000 © Gary Dalkin