Magical Books ~ From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth

SwordinthestoneAs most of you know, I spent a great deal of my working life studying and teaching children’s literature and amongst my favourite genre was fantasy literature, especially that which came out of a close understanding on the part of the authors of the myths and magical world of Europe’s past.  I don’t know how I would have got on with the current vampiric cult because to be honest I don’t think much of it is that well written, but its predecessors, sited firmly in legends of Britain and Scandinavia, not only told a good story but told it well.  Imagine then, my delight when Oxford’s Bodleian Library announced this year’s summer exhibition, Magical Books ~ From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth, which is centred around the works of a number of those fantasy authors who have, to a greater or lesser degree, a link with the city of Oxford.

The exhibition has two main strands.  The first is a celebration of the stories told by five great writers of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries and the second an examination of those works from the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period which inspired them.

The authors concerned are J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman each of whom drew at least part of their inspiration from primary sources relating to the magical past of our islands that are to be found in the Bodleian collection.  Tolkien and Lewis are too well known to need any introduction and I would imagine that most of you are familiar with Pullman’s work as well.  However, Garner and Cooper may not be so familiar.

Alan Garner sets many of his books in the Cheshire countryside in and around Alderley Edge, where he grew up and still lives.  His first two novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, written in the 1950s, were joined last year by Boneland which completed the trilogy and brought the story into the present day.  Garner draws on many of the features familiar to readers of Tolkien, not necessarily because of Tolkien but because they were both working with similar northern mythological sources.  However, he also taps the legends of both England and Wales.  There are elements related to the Arthur stories and his fourth novel, The Owl Service,  is clearly linked to the tales collected in the Welsh Mabinogion.  

Cooper’s wonderful quintet of books, published collectively under the title of the second, The Dark is Rising, draws even more extensively on the Arthur myth and on the promise contained within that story that whenever the country is threatened Arthur will rise again and come to the rescue.  280px-Cadair_Idris_wide_viewCooper has written other works but nothing has ever come near to the power contained within these five novels.  I am still unable to drive past Cader Idris without a shiver of pure terror in expectation of the forces of evil controlled by The Grey King.

The Bodleian show brings together many exhibits associated with these five authors and the works that have made them famous. There are original maps and illustrations from The Lord of the Rings, and Narnia, hand written drafts of the works of Garner, Cooper and Pullman and recreations of Lyra’s alethiometer and the six signs used to defeat the evil manifest in The Dark is Rising.  

Interwoven with these are the artefacts taken from the Bodleian collection that were the sources for many of the magical ideas in these authors works; often the very books that we know the writers consulted.  There are compilations of spells, medieval bestiaries and even a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio open at the first scene of Macbeth.  There are magical objects including a seventeenth century copy of the ‘Holy Table’ that John Dee used to talk with angels.  To walk round this exhibition is to remember that it is not that long since the people of these islands really did believe that they were surrounded by magical beings who could influence their lives for good or evil.

The exhibition runs until October 27th and I know that I am going to have to find the time to go back and immerse myself in the worlds recreated here a second time.  However, if you do manage to get there yourself, be warned. The first thing I wanted to do as I left the Bodleian was walk straight into Blackwells, buy copies of all the fantasy books and lock myself away for a couple of weeks to re-read them.

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15 thoughts on “Magical Books ~ From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth

  1. Living just a few miles outside Oxford, I shall be heading for the Bodleian to see this exhibition as soon as I can. Susan Cooper is the only one of those authors I’ve never read, although an omnibus edition of her The Dark is Rising series has sat in my bookcase for ages. So, maybe I should read the first couple of installments before visiting.

    1. You can have no idea how much I envy you having the pleasure of reading Susan Cooper for the first time. The three central books are the best and they are really great pieces of children’s literature. Whatever you do avoid the film like poison. I hope you enjoy the exhibition.

  2. That sounds like a marvelous exhibition! Wish I could visit it too! And I wonder if there’s something in the air what with the New York public Library also holding an exhibition on children’s literature! But I’m glad for all this attention–at least it gives me new authors to try out .

    Oh and Hi Miss Alex! A long-time lurker, first time commenter. 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you’ve come out into the open. It’s always nice to make a new friend. I think in general children’s literature is getting more attention than it used to. I noticed this morning that the Bodleian podcast has made the first of the associated lecture available so you can enjoy some of the wonders.

    1. I have always thought that many books written for children deserve far greater attention as real works of literature then they receive. The ones in this exhibition are perfect examples of that.

  3. I loved both Garner and Cooper as a child/teenager (and of course Tolkien and Lewis too). Thinking about it, I loved fantasy back then, though I rarely read any now – I feel most fantasy has become about fighting dressed up now (though given how little I’ve read, I may be being completely unfair). But these authors created marvellously thoughtful and imaginative worlds rooted in myth and legend. I didn’t get on with Pullman though. Maybe I’m too old…

    1. I think the great age of children’s fantasy has passed. Certainly at the moment we seem to be stuck with everything vampiric. However, if you want a list of others to try I can certainly send you one. The Pullman is interesting. The first two books are excellent, but the third (which took him far longer to write) doesn’t quite work and we’ve had nothing substantial from him since. Do you know his Sally Lockhart books which predate the Lyra novels? The third, Tiger in the Well, is very good indeed.

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