Saturday, 17 August 2013

Magical Books at the Bodleian Library Oxford

Mr Tumnus and friend, perhaps,
in front of the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
In Oxford, the Bodleian Library's free exhibition until 27th October features modern children's fantasy writers and the books and manuscripts which inspired and influenced them. This post is the article I wrote for the newsletter of Writers in Oxford - we were allowed a preview of some of the exhibits back in March. I urge you to visit if you're in Oxford this summer, especially if you're a fan of Tolkien, Lewis or Philip Pullman! (I wish I had some more images but I haven't been able to track down the shots I took that day and exhibition images on the Bodleian's website are protected by copyright!)


Spring 2013. Freezing. The White Witch rules. On Twitter, someone pleads ‘People of Oxford, stop eating the Turkish Delight!’ Twelve Writers in Oxford members gather in Narnian temperatures at the Radcliffe Science Library. Adjusting to the tropical conditions inside, we’re conducted down to a small room, lit harshly, where we’re privileged to view a choice selection of Magical Manuscripts, which will form part of an exhibition at the Bodleian from May 23rd.

On display are original works by fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Alan Garner alongside texts which inspired them. ‘Marvels of the East’, from the 12th century, illustrates fabulous beasts and a perky-looking man with his face looking out from in his chest. Then there’s a 15th century necromantic manuscript, full of spells, conjurations and ‘experimental true experiences of angels’; an early 17th century miscellany with instructions on ‘how to see by thy self in a cristall stone’, with circular charms to help you avoid death by sword and poison, sealed with ‘Abracalabra’; and a gorgeous picture of jousting knights in ‘The Romance of Gyron le Courtois’ from the late 15th century.

It’s fascinating how the modern writers drew on this sort of material. We see a notebook where C.S. Lewis wrote about Digory Kirke’s boyhood: how neat his writing was, how uncorrected. The three pages of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, by contrast, are exuberant, with spikily graceful writing and many scorings-out, yet precisely dated to the 20th March 1965. Garner, we’re told, drew on Arthurian myth and consulted the Rawlinson necromantic manuscript mentioned above.

Finally, Tolkien. I was lucky enough, many years ago, to read the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings at Marquette University in America, so I was familiar with his process of composition, feeling his way from ‘Hobbit Mark II’ to a richer epic tale, and his habit of drawing pictures to bring his imagined world into focus. The exhibition includes Tolkien’s mock-ups of pages from The Book of Mazarbul, carefully distressed with pipe-smoke, their edges burnt like the manuscript of Beowulf. A sketch of Shelob’s lair sits beside the script in pencil overlaid with ink, describing that episode.

Everyone is struck by Tolkien’s watercolours, executed in poster paint in the 1930s, some of them familiar from published editions, but here more vibrant, a blend of the na├»ve and the intricately precise. Bilbo bowing before the red-gold dragon on his hoard of treasure, Rivendell in spring green with tiers of flowing water and blossomy branches, rather like a Japanese painting, and best of all, an eagle among the mountain peaks, looking out over cloud, snow and ice-blue sky. A picture like a breath of the North Wind blowing – the very wind that is still blowing when we leave the library. The White Witch hasn’t given up her rule yet.

And here's the link to my blogpost about an earlier exhibition, Shelley's Ghost:

In other news: well, there's no news, as yet, about the Macmillan Write Now Prize - I'm on the shortlist of four and I think the announcement of the winner is due at the end of the month, but can't guarantee it. On tenterhooks!

I've just taught a summer school held by the university at Exeter College - the college both Tolkien and Pullman attended. I was teaching in the Morris Room - so really, there's no getting away from literary connections in this city!

My novel The Chase is available on Kindle, Kobo, and as a paperback. I'm currently working on an anthology of short stories and a historical novel, set in the 19th century. 

In the next few days I'll be announcing Fictionfire workshops and an exciting day course for the autumn/winter season!