Birthday Reviews: Robert Holdstock’s “Magic Man”

Birthday Reviews: Robert Holdstock’s “Magic Man”

Cover by Alun Hood
Cover by Alun Hood

Robert Holdstock was born on August 2, 1948 and died on November 29, 2009.

He won a British Science Fiction Award (BSFA) for the original novelette “Mythago Wood” in 1981, and the novel version earned him the 1984 BSFA and the 1985 World Fantasy Award. The second book in the series, Lavondyss, won the BSFA in 1988. Holdstock’s novella “The Ragthorn” won the World Fantasy Award in 1992 and the BSFA Award the following year. He won a third BSFA in 1989 for Best Artist for the anthology Other Edens III, shared with Christopher Evans. He won a special Prix Imaginaire in 2003 for La forêt des mythagos, tome 1 and tome 2, two volumes that contained five Mythago Wood novels. The following year, he won the Prix Imaginaire for his novel Celtika. He was awarded the Karl Edward Wagner Award posthumously in 2010.

“Magic Man” was originally published in Mary Danby’s anthology Frighteners 2 in 1976 and reprinted in Danby’s 65 Great Tales of the Supernatural three years later. Holdstock included it in his collection The Bone Forest and it showed up in the reprint anthology Great Vampires and Other Horrors. The story was translated into German for an appearance in Heyne Science Fiction Magazin #5 in November 1982 and into French in 2004 for a collection of Holdstock’s works, Dans la vallée des statues et autres récits.

On the face of it, “Magic Man” seems to be a face-off between One Eye, the old man in a group of prehistoric hunters who paints images of the hunt on the walls of the shrine-cave, and He Who Carries a Red Spear, the leader of the bands hunting bands. There is clearly no love lost between the men and the situation is made worse because Red Spear’s son enjoys hanging around with One Eye and wants to learn to draw.

One Eye teaches Red Spear’s son to paint in the cave, but, while he teaches technique and discusses proper topics, he fails at the most basic level to explain to the boy the importance of painting in the shrine-cave. While some poo-poo the cave’s effectiveness, it is clear that what is painted there influences the day’s hunt, down to the number of bison the hunters capture. When the clash between Red Spear and One Eye escalates, One Eye instructs the boy to paint a scene which clearly shows that One Eye plans to murder Red Spear, which would put the entire tribe at risk.

Holdstock actually offers up a much more subtle power play that the one that he telegraphs. But one which will be even more harmful than the competition between One Eye and Red Spear, who form two of the backbones of the culture they live in. He gives impressions of their world of bison and other prey as well as the indication that grunts, presumably Neanderthals, co-exist, although not peacefully, with the hunter tribe.

Reprint reviewed in the collection The Bone Forest, by Robert Holdstock, AvoNova 1992.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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