Currently running at the British Library (until 25th February 2024), the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition manages to pack a lot into its four rooms. If one of its aims is to cover the breadth of fantasy as a mode of creative expression, they’ve certainly succeeded, as the exhibition covers books, film, TV, art, games (both digital and physical), as well as oddities such as Bernard Sleigh’s “Ancient Mappe of Fairyland” from 1918 (is it art, a story, a game?) which greets you as you enter.
The best thing, for me, was certainly the opportunity to see some original manuscripts. A page from Alan Garner’s Owl Service (written in red ink) was presented alongside an example of the Owl Service plate that inspired it; there was Michael Palin’s notebook in which he was working out the plot for Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and a page from C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manuscript beginning: “This book is about four children whose names are Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter” (alongside Lewis’s own map of Narnia); as well as handwritten pages from Angela Carter, Diana Wynne Jones, and E. Nesbit, among others.
My favourites among the manuscripts, though, were the ones which featured drawings. (Do any but fantasy authors create drawings as they write?) I didn’t know, for instance, that Ursula Le Guin produced illustrations (for herself, I think, rather than publication) for the Earthsea books. Alongside her manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea was a drawing of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, and a page (perhaps done in ink wash, and certainly easier to make out in a photograph) depicting Tenar’s first sight of Ged in The Tombs of Atuan.
I did know, on the other hand, that Mervyn Peake peppered his Titus Groan and Gormenghast notebooks with drawings, but it was wonderful to see them. The illustration of the Prunesquallors, for instance, was alongside a page on which Peake had written out the dialogue for a scene (with no he said/she saids). There was also a double-page drawing by G K Chesterton of characters from The Man Who Was Thursday (it turns out Chesterton can draw quite well), and Susanna Clarke’s plans of the house from Piranesi.
And speaking of Piranesi, as well as manuscripts, there were printed books on display, among the more impressive of which was an edition of Piranesi’s Carceri, which I was surprised to see showed one plate over a double page spread (I’d have thought they’d print one to a page, to avoid losing details in the fold); and a first edition of William Morris’s highly illuminated Story of the Glittering Plain.
The other thing I love to see up close are paintings, though there were only a few here. Few, but all good ones: for instance, Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke (which reminds me, one aspect of fantasy the exhibition seemed to have missed out on was music — it would have been great to have had Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” playing through one of the exhibit’s little hold-it-to-your-ear listening devices alongside the painting). What struck me about this painting, which for a long time I had as a poster on my wall, was that it was smaller than I expected — which made the level of detail all the more impressive.
Ditto for an Alan Lee original. In a display that included Gandalf’s staff from the Peter Jackson films and a page of notes from Tolkien commenting on a proposed BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, there was an Alan Lee watercolour depicting the assault on Helm’s Deep. It was, perhaps, little larger than A3, but the level of detail was incredible. Distant figures — millimetres high — were tiny but sharply outlined, and my mind boggled at the level of hand-control Lee must have (as well as the fineness of his brushes).
There were also a couple of Brian Froud pieces from The Dark Crystal, alongside a display of props from the film: costumes worn by the gelflings, along with a shard of the Dark Crystal itself. (It didn’t glow as I approached, so I guess I’m not the chosen one. Or does it mean I’m not a Skeksis? Maybe I’m glad it didn’t glow…)
There were also film loops from Pan’s Labyrinth and Princess Mononoke playing on enormous screens. Also (for some reason on a tiny screen), a scene from Xena: Warrior Princess. The Xena screen, small as it was, was right next to what was surely the most unimpressive display in the exhibit, the case dedicated to sword & sorcery.
This contained three modern paperbacks. Just that. They looked like they were social distancing. This made me wonder if, alongside exploring the breadth of fantasy as a genre (in books, films, art, games, TV), there needed to be some exploration of its sometimes overwhelming mass. An exhibit like this, tastefully showcasing the manuscripts of great works, perhaps needed to switch tack when representing something like sword & sorcery, which, to my mind, needed a case stuffed with examples of trashy-covered paperbacks: so many you’d be overwhelmed. (But perhaps it was difficult, with sword & sorcery, to find covers that would keep the exhibit schoolchild friendly!)
Similarly, with the display of D&D rulebooks, I thought they looked a bit sparse and sterile on their own, and could have done with a few polyhedral dice, dungeon floor-plans, characters sheets, pencils and so on strewn about — an element of playfulness amongst the respectfulness.
I’ve probably missed out a lot in this run-through of the exhibition’s highlights. It seemed quite well-spaced when I was walking through, but now I realise how much it packed in. There was, in addition, an area mocked up like the Red Room from Twin Peaks, scenes from computer games (including one you could play, but I wasn’t about to show up my lack of skills), a Warhammer set-up, some pretty impressive LARP costumes, ballet costumes, and more.
I’ll end, though, with an echo of the last exhibition I covered on this blog, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibit that was held at the Bodleian (five years ago, I’m shocked to see). There, I commented on the tiny-ness of some of the handwriting on display, which reached its apogee in a letter from Tolkien’s mother. That, though, is nothing compared to the tiny-ness of the Brönte siblings’ writing in their hand-made books detailing their imaginative world of Glass Town. One tiny, tiny book, filled with tiny, tiny writing defied my attempts to read it, so I have no idea how anyone actually wrote it: