The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.
Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood is a novel about visitations. These are the kind of visitations the protagonist does not expect, visitations he dreads and yet becomes increasingly fascinated with and drawn into wanting to recur. The obsessive nature of these visitations and the obsessive effects they have on characters are only partly due to the fact that Holdstock is, by his own admittance, "an obsessive character; [...] obsessed with writing, [...] obsessed with [his] ideas" (Cary 3). Rather, they stem from the nature of his subject matter: the hypnotic allure and the obscurity of the mystery encountered by the protagonists. According to the tradition established by Longinus, the obscurity and the mystery are two alternative sources of the sublime. Thus, while the most obvious readings Holdstock's novel lends itself to are Jungian, archetypal, and mythic, I propose to follow the trail of mystery and obscurity and examine Mythago Wood through the lens of the sublime.
The sublime has many faces, though. Although most theorizing on the sublime could be applied to Holdstock's novel, at least to some extent, my modest aim is to argue that the appeal of Mythago Wood derives largely from Holdstock's combined use of the four types of the sublime: the Burkean and Kantian sublime of "delightful horror," the Romantic "natural sublime," the religious sublime of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, and the Lyotardian, postmodern sublime of "the unpresentable."
In "How is a Theory of the Sublime Possible?", Guy Sircello introduces a division between experiences of the sublime, sublime discourse, and talk about the sublime. The first, he says, is the actual personal experience which "can and does occur in a large variety of personal, cultural, social, and historical contexts" (542). The second, sublime discourse, Sircello defines as "language that is or purports to be more or less immediately descriptive or expressive of sublime experience" (541). Talk about the sublime, finally, is a category comprising "reflective or analytic discourse that takes as its subject matter primarily sublime experience or sublime discourse, but also itself and other talk about the sublime." Although, as Sircello admits, the distinction is "hard to maintain very rigorously," it is useful in that it recognizes the sublime experience as distinct from its description or theorizing (541).
Although sublime experiences proper may not be limited to any particular culture or period, our modern understanding of the sublime comes from texts which represent the category "talk about the sublime" and, with the exception of Longinus's, were written in Northwestern Europe between 1672 and the 1980s. (1)
The most influential theories were those of Burke and Kant. Burke associated the sublime with danger and saw it as a sensual, "scalable" category in close relationship to that of the beautiful. Whereas the beautiful was something human in scale we are able to control, the sublime was for Burke something that overpowers, overwhelms, even threatens us. "Indeed," he asserts in a much quoted passage, "terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more latently or openly, the ruling principle of the sublime" (99). A similar dialectic of the pleasurable and horrifying can be seen in Kant, but then again Kantian sublime is not exactly Burkean. Rather than terror, Kant's focus is on what Knapp calls "a temporary failure or humiliation of the subject" (74).
After philosophers came the poets, and the nineteenth century sublime was to be the romantic one. Although they would quote Burke and Kant, Wordsworth and Coleridge--for example in "Tintern Abbey" and "Eolian Harp" respectively--championed a vision of the sublime which was neither Burkean terror nor Kantian humiliation. Rather, it was transcendental oneness: the feeling of being swept away into a larger cosmic unity. …