FANTASY: REALMS OF IMAGINATION British Library Exhibition (Review)
Travelling up to London in late November to see a play by the godfather of one of my daughters (link here review here ) we timed our journey so as to neatly slot in a visit to the British Library exhibition on Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination.
The library was in the grip of a cyber-attack which had brought down their website and meant we had to pay cash for admission. We also had to wait a short while until at 3.00 pm the school parties had finished their monopolisation of the exhibition.
But that just left time to sample the wares at the Library coffee shop and see this impressive printing press outside the cloakrooms, in what is – overall a splendid modern building.
The exhibition traced the evolution of fantasy stories beginning with the earliest epics and myths, the tale of the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the many appearances of fairy queen Mab in early literature. The exhibits included, as one would expect in a library, many examples of books – some very rare editions. For example there was an 1893 tome of collected fairie stories called the Secret Commonwealth of Fairies, Fauns and Elves, which must surely have inspired Phillip Pullman in titling his sequel to La Belle Sauvage. I also hadn’t realised how Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (2015) drew on Polish folklore.
There were, however, other objects besides books, such as movie artefacts like Gandalf’s Staff from The Lord of the Rings (2001) and a Gelfling costume from The Dark Crystal (1982). The displays also charted the cross-over between books and games – including a copy of Steven Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s sally into the choose-your-own-adventure field with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) and displays other game paraphernalia such as Magic the Gathering cards, original D&D ‘starter’ sets and Warhammer miniatures. Which felt very appropriate as story-telling – once oral, then written, then cinematic, is now spilling over into the big (billion dollar) business of game playing which combines all those elements. The exhibition even included a video showing parts of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The layout of the hall itself felt a bit labyrinthine as a mix of chronological and thematic arrangements led the visitor on a twisting path through the realms of the fantastic.
One exhibit pointed out Hans Christian Andersen fondness for unhappy endings (which reminds me I must re-read The Snow Queen) – but then again Roald Dahl as a children’s author seemed to take a certain pride in having unpleasant things happen to children, well most of those who made it into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The exhibition highlighted the paradoxical connotations of heroism, with some characters going beyond flawed into down-right anti-hero. However, there are interesting questions about the nature of heroism, and indeed fantasy narratives reliance on heroes to drive the story – as Walton and Palmer have pointed out in their essay on Protagonismos (Palmer & Walton, 2021). Toby Litt has also written eloquently on the Campbell’s vision of the monomyth, embedded into literary advice by McKee in Story with the stereotypical hero’s journey (Litt, 2021). While fantasy is more multi-dimensional than that, in offering the centrality of a hero leading the narrative it does perhaps do a disservice to modern society where – to paraphrase the late great Tina Turner, “we don’t need another hero, we need co-ordinated collective action.”
Besides artefacts like early handwritten authorial drafts of works like Ursula k le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea (1966) and Diana Wynne-Jones’s The Darklord of Derkholm (1998) a genre-subverting work that surely inspired by her own The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) which we at the Hive have enjoyed toying with.
The exhibition also included some surprising anecdotal insights. For example, the illustrator of the Finnish translation of Hobbit (Tove Jansson who drew Moomin characters), conceived of Gollum as a giant troll-like lump. Seeing the image in the exhibit it was a misunderstanding that would have tested even Andy Serkis’s animation capture acting talents, as well as prompting Tolkien to amend later editions by adding “small” to descriptions of Gollum!
As the exhibition moved it shone a light on the ubiquity of fantasy. There was Tom’s Midnight Garden as an example of timeslip fantasy, a theme that Tiffani Angus has picked up in her excellent Threading the Labyrinth (2020). Under the umbrella of Portal fantasy, The Wizard of Oz claimed for the genre. I hadn’t realised that the original trot along the yellow brick road was simply the first in what became a series of 14 books – a series defined not by returning characters but (as is perhaps the nature of portal worlds) by a returning world.
The final panels paid tribute to the wider community of fantasy, including the fandoms with video snippets from various aficionados of the genre.
There was also this display of the Hugo won by Jeannette Ng in 2020, for “best related work” – which in a strikingly meta moment was for her acceptance speech from the 2019 WorldCon in Dublin, for the prize for John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. Ng’s passionate and eloquent take-down of Campbell’s racist and fascist beliefs led to the award being renamed. On the one hand seeing an event which I witnessed in person commemorated in an exhibit like this might make one feel old, on the other hand it emphasises what a vibrant constantly evolving field fantastic literature is, being informed by and offering fierce challenge to contemporary society.
My only regret with this exhibition was being unable to attend the associated evening talk delivered by Neil Gaiman on Why we Need Fantasy, but for those who can there are other events in the Library’s Programme as well as a well-stocked bookshop section full of fantastic memorabilia, gifts and books! Visit while you can!
The exhibition runs until 25 February 2024.