As 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. Cooper 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.