Lavondyss is a quest story by Robert Holdstock about an ancient forest in England bigger than it looks from the outside. A stream runs through it which becomes a river deep inside. Not only is the the forest larger in space, but in time as well, with spaces in it extending back as far as the Ice Age.
Tallis Keeton’s older brother, Harry, has disappeared into the forest, and his family mourns him. He says goodbye only to Tallis, then a young child, and seems to be in pain. She thinks the pain is in his chest, but doesn’t understand. She wants to rescue him, but doesn’t know how.
As she grows older she becomes obsessed with the forest, which seems to act on her; she sees human figures out of the corners of her eyes, stories come to her, she discovers the real names of fields and trees, and makes masks symbolizing various states of consciousness.
The first one she makes she calls “the Hollower”, after the opener of roads (holloways) that lead from the world of the living to the world of the dead, roads which heroes walked leading to worlds where the heroes sometimes became trapped–as Harry apparently had been. She makes more masks too.
A story comes to her about a king and queen with three sons. The youngest, Scathach, is exiled to a castle made of “stone which is not stone”, and is unable to return.She finds a tree she names Strong Against the Storm, which is a hollowing place where she can have visions, where a passage can open between worlds, and there she has a vision of Scathach grievously wounded on a battlefield. Carrion birds are coming for him, and she performs a childish sort of magic to keep them away.
Her parents don’t understand. They know she’s been distracted from the ordinary world, especially when she quits school, but don’t understand what she’s trying to accomplish, and she rarely feels she can even try to explain. She does try sometimes, to her father, and he does try to understand.
She is only thirteen when she actually meets Scathach. Born in the wood, but with a father from the outside, a scientist who had been investigating and trying to understand the forest, and had eventually entered it and become the shaman of a primitive tribe, fathering two children, performing the rituals necessary for the tribe, and continuing his observations of the different peoples traveling up the river headed for Lavondyss, the heart of the great woods. Scathach speaks English and is able to explain some things to her, but urgently needs her help to return home deep in the forest. He needs her to hollow, to open a path so he can find his way home. Just when she has persuaded her father to help her Scathach persuades her to help him find his way in the forest, promising she can quickly return. She goes with him, hollows a way into the forest, but quickly becomes lost. For eight years.
Scathach’s father feels her coming. The creatures of the forest aren’t natural, though they live. They’re shaped by the powerful subconscious fantasies and problems of warriors and shamans, and the father, a shaman himself, sees things around him changing.
One of those things is the boy not really his son who was actually born from the forest and is about to change the tribe in which he lives by changing all their rituals. He is preparing for this by eating the marrow out of the bones of the tribe’s dead to get their memories and dreams. Eventually he will kill his father and eat his head, giving him even more access to powerful thoughts and dreams. He is a mythago, a sort of archetype created by the forest out of powerful images dreamed.
He tries to kill his father the shaman, and almost succeeds. Once the shaman has healed enough to travel Tallis and Scathach take him up the river as both seek Lavondyss. Scathach, as he is a warrior, must fight in the battle of Bavduin, a sort of apocalyptic battle in which hecatombs of men are killed. He hopes to find the friends he journeyed with and lost.
Tallis wants to enter Lavondyss so she can free Harry, and doesn’t know exactly how to do so. After Scathach and the shaman both leave her she enters a ruined castle she has found, one she had glimpsed before in previous hollowings. It is made of petrified wood–stone that is not stone. There time speeds up, a tree grows into her body and turns her into wood. Ages pass.
It is usually winter in the wood, but now she finds herself in extreme winter, and the family living near her are trapped in it. They didn’t realize the extremity of winter coming in time, and don’t have the food to go south, and barely have enough to survive where they are. The youngest son of the family is an artist. He finds Tallis and chisels her out of the tree, then plants her at the head of the grave of his grandmother, who has just died.
As he does so, his father comes behind him, kills him, and eats as much as he can, then runs away. The mother follows him, kills him, and returns. She and the two older boys eat the remains of the younger son to survive, then the middle son allows birds to peck his eyes out. This breaks the magic Tallis realizes she had made in trying to protect Harry. Harry is the middle son, but the loss of the son’s sight has also freed Harry. His spirit thanks Tallis and disappears, telling her he’ll soon see her again.
The wooden statue embodying her is burned, but not entirely, and from what is left she metamorphosizes eventually back into her previous body and leaves Lavondyss, realizing it is the place of events that resonated with humans and which became myths on which human behavior is founded (just as human survival is founded on ecology). Time is plastic there, as can be human, plant, and animal forms.
Returning to the tribe where she found the shaman, she finds the boy who has now killed the shaman and eaten him. She also finds Scathach, who has survived the Battle of Bavduin.
The next scene is of Tallis as an old woman still living in the forest and near death considering her life. She enjoyed her subsequent life with Scathach, though he died too soon, but still hasn’t found Harry.
Until she dozes and he comes to her. He helps her stand up and leads her to the edge of the forest where she sees her father. She has returned to the very moment she entered the forest. She hasn’t destroyed the family, and now can heal it. And though she still hasn’t found Harry, hope remains for him. And for the grandson she leaves behind in the forest, with directions for finding the old lodge where there are records of the shaman’s researches.
But just after that a scene from earlier in the novel repeats. Harry arrives at Tallis’s funeral and is grief-stricken. He cries out, as Tallis had heard him many years before, ” I’ve lost you. I’ve lost you. And now I’ve lost everything!”
From one of Tallis’s masks comes an answer in Tallis’s voice: “No, I’m here. I’ll come to you, Harry. Wait for me. Wait for me…”
In interviews Holdstock said he was deliberately working with myth in this book and others in its series. The progenitors of ancient stories are still more ancient, and the versions we know are often romanticized. Robin Hood isn’t mentioned in chronicles until 1377, but his story is probably much older, and may be related to that of King Arthur, whose story may go back as far as the Bronze Age.
Lavondyss is a sequel to Mythago Wood, in which the author set up the premise on which the stories are based, but the sequel is far superior. The premise is about the role myth plays in human life, in our subconscious minds (much larger and wiser than our individual consciousnesses). The story is both deeper and more complex, not only about questing, but about courage, determination, and loss. The end, which always makes me emotional, suggests that loss may not always be forever, and that healing is possible, in spite of loss.