The Imaginary Library

Allen Ashley reviews the in-person exhibition “Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination” at The British Library, London, running from 27 October 2023 to 25 February 2024.

Over recent years, we Londoners have been treated to a horror-themed exhibition at Somerset House and two science fiction themed shows (at the Barbican and the Science Museum) but, to my knowledge, this is the first large-scale presentation themed around Fantasy. And it certainly doesn’t disappoint. You know how when musicians release a “Greatest Hits” collection, there’s always one or two obvious omissions? This thorough British Library showcase includes all the authors and classic works one would hope for. And, continuing the “Greatest Hits”, theme, I shall pick out some of the highlights. 

We begin with Fairy and Folk tales, which the caption says are “found at the roots of fantasy”. Often originating in oral traditions – note that the Brothers Grimm didn’t write their tales in the sense of inventing them; rather they interviewed and collated existing folk material. And they are not really for children, as we all well know. Moving on to “Faerie Worlds”, amongst the pieces on display here is an early draft of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service” (1967) – written in red ink on lined paper. Gosh, I remember when I used to do that sort of thing. Alongside this is a beautifully decorated dinner plate that furnished Garner the title. A neat answer to that perennial question of where writers get their ideas from. Of course, Garner’s story was inspired by the medieval Welsh folkloric stories “The Mabinogion” and the influence of historical tomes detailing heroes, quests, monsters and the like will be picked up later in the exhibition. 

Moving on, the information board invites us to consider Fantasy’s use of “The Dark Enchanted Forest” – a place that may offer escape or put us in peril, that may represent a literal border between the tamed world and the beginning of the wild, but also can represent the “unconscious workings of the human psyche”. When we think of woods / forests, we immediately bring to mind the Grimms’ version of the Black Forest, or Narnia, or “Mythago Wood” and a whole host of other arboreal landscapes. 

One of the (for me) jaw-dropping cabinet exhibits comes from the 1968 Royal Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty” by Tchaikovsky and consists of preserved costumes – the plush red and gold jacket worn by Rudolf Nureyev and the pink, white and sparkled tutu donned by Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora. To feel up close to those legends of their artform…

World fantasy and representation

Fantasy is endemic in world literature. In fact, I would go so far as to say Fantasy is the literature of the world, the genre that unites all humanity, all our cultures throughout history and across geographical divides. World Fantasy (for want of a better term) is recognised throughout this exhibition without the message of inclusivity and diversity being overly hammered home. Thus we find James Berry’s retelling of the Anansi-Spider/man trickster tales from West African and Caribbean culture nestled alongside an annotated manuscript page from George MacDonald’s Victorian biblical speculation “Lilith” (1895). In a display case nearby we have the “Arabian Nights” (strictly speaking, a mix of Indian, Persian and Arabian cultures) and a sixteenth century South Indian version of “Tales of Sindbad”. Of course, the Western canon continues to be well represented, with works by Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and Angela Carter. This being the British Library, we are also treated to an edition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” from c1400, its pages beautifully browned with age. Close by is a translation of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” – according to the caption, “the world’s oldest known literary text, composed nearly 4,000 years ago”. So, we are saying that the first great stories we humans ever told – and I would probably include Ancient Greek and other world culture myths in this – were fantasy. Gosh, how did we end up with the tedious Hampstead novel? 

Visual culture is well represented here with anime and also video excerpts from “Buffy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” on repeat; as well as Gandalf’s staff from the “Lord of the Rings” films (2001-3), as wielded by Sir Ian McKellen, and Arya Starks’s “Needle” sword from the “Game of Thrones” TV series. Picking up my earlier point about historical texts, we also have copies of “Beowulf”, “The Iliad” and the sixteenth century Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. The Quest, the Hero’s Journey and the Hero’s Education – classic tropes, they are all here. 

The exhibition is sponsored by Wayland Games and both tabletop and live action games equipment is on display. One cabinet has the painted figures and blue dice from “Warhammer Fantasy Battle”, originally released in 1983. This is a lot of fun to look at with one army set out on a fabric square of golden brown faux fur to represent straw. 

The British Library is very adept at obtaining and displaying authors’ original manuscripts and another treasure here is Ursula Le Guin’s 1967 notebook for “A Wizard of Earthsea”. 

Elements and world-building

The exhibition continues to pick up on the classic tropes or defining elements of Fantasy so that we have a section devoted to “Weird and Uncanny”. We are invited to consider how setting – usually invented to at least some degree – is key to our love of fantasy. Mervyn Peake’s manuscript for the decaying castle “Gormenghast” is a particular highlight here. But there are modern domains noted, too, with Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon (from “Perdido Street Station”) and M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium”. As we move onto the “Gods and Monsters” section, we take in creations by H. P. Lovecraft, N. K. Jemisin and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, as well as a huge playing card board game devised by Martin Wallace for Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”. Continuing the British Library’s rightful celebration of books, we have editions of Poe, the somewhat forgotten Lord Dunsany and G. K. Chesterton’s character sketches for “The Man Who Was Thursday”, plus an 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and a 1901 printing of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 

“Portals and Worlds” opens with John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” and encourages the visitor to consider, remember and celebrate some of the great “Gateways and Thresholds” deployed in our field, such as Alice falling down a rabbit hole or passing through a looking glass, or else the wardrobe utilised in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”. I was pleasantly reminded of one of the best sessions that I have run with my Clockhouse London Writers group where we collected and invented a huge range of portals. World-building is one of the defining features of Fantasy. Aside from places already mentioned, we have here texts such as Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516), Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) and a map of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” – from 1995, drawn under instruction by Stephen Player. Perhaps deliberately showing that the British Library can reach parts other museums just dream about, there’s a big display on the Bronte children’s invented world of “Glass Town”. What is truly astonishing is how tiny the handwriting is from 13 year old Charlotte Bronte in her tale “The Search After Happiness” (1829). I mean, I’m talking point 4 or smaller. Talk about hiding your diary from your parents! 

One of the best discoveries for me in this exhibition was a 1910 black and white silent film version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. At only 13 minutes, it still has immense charm with one actor in a cuddly, dolorous lion costume like a life-sized soft toy and with the Tin Man almost identical to the later 1939 version. If you like the work of George Melies, you’ll love this.  

We finish with a small video series of interviews with fans, many in costume. Maybe I’m not as well read as I should be because I couldn’t understand why one guy was dressed as a peanut butter sandwich! There are also some very impressive Live Action Role Play costumes. How anybody even gets into the 8 foot tall “Dryad” costume, let alone moves inside it, is beyond me. 

Overall, I have to say this was a quite encompassing exhibition with no obvious omissions. The takeaway is that Fantasy is the first genre and is today the dominant genre. At time of writing, the show runs for just a couple more weeks, so try to get to it if you can.

Fantasy: Realms of Imagination is at The British Library, London, until 25 February. Tickets here.

Meet the author

Allen Ashley has previously reviewed several museum exhibitions for “The BFS Journal”. His chapbook “Journey to the Centre of the Onion” was published by Eibonvale Press in September 2023; more details here.

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2 responses to “The Imaginary Library”

  1. Sandra Phillips avatar
    Sandra Phillips

    Allen is a great writer and as I read this review I could see it in my minds eye. He gives a clear account in each section of names of authors and their works.
    Very well done.

  2. Allen Ashley avatar

    Many thanks to Sandy for her lovely comments.