Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library

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.

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service manuscript, and some Owl Service plate

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.

C S Lewis’s Narnia map

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.

Ursula Le Guin’s artworks for her Earthsea books

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.

One of Mervyn Peake’s notebooks

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.

Piranesi’s Carceri

William Morris’s 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.

Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, and a Brian Froud painting for The Dark Crystal

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).

Tolkien display including an Alan Lee painting; C S Lewis’s manuscript for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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…)

Dark Crystal costumes and props

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.

The Sword & Sorcery display: Black God’s Kiss by C L Moore, Imaro by Charles Saunders, Robert E Howard’s World of Heroes

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!)

Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks

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.

Michael Palin’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail notebook

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.

Ursula Le Guin manuscript for A Wizard of Earthsea

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:

One of the Brontes’ Glass Town books

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The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.

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Modern Fantasy by C N Manlove

‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’

Modern Fantasy by C N ManloveThus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.

Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.

With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.

With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.

The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.

The Fellowship of the RingManlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.

I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and The Fantasy Literature of EnglandFrom Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.

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