FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO MIDDLE-EARTH
This was the title of an exhibition that ran from 23 May to 27 October 2013 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Recently, I had the opportunity to pay it a visit.
The exhibition centred on some of the foremost modern exponents of fantasy literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman. There was also a nod in the direction of J.K. Rowling since the Bodleian was a location used in some of the Harry Potter films. Artwork, notebooks and manuscripts were displayed, drawn from the Library’s unique holding of these authors’ papers.
Though slightly surprised at how small the exhibition was, I was certainly not disappointed in the exhibits. It was a rare privilege to see such things as Tolkien’s original sketch of the death of Smaug, an illustration familiar for so many years from the cover of my paperback copy of The Hobbit; to note with amazement Alan Garner’s calligraphic notebooks, wondering the while whether they were first drafts or fair copies; and to gaze on the many rare and historical books, manuscripts and artefacts which all had relevance to the modern authors whose lives and works were featured.
The exhibition leaflet carried a quotation from Philip Pullman: ‘Oxford, where the real and the unreal jostle in the streets…’
Curiously enough, the evening before visiting the exhibition I was persuaded to begin reading a loaned copy of his Northern Lights, not having previously read the His Dark Materials trilogy. To my surprise (though I should stress I got no further that evening than page 71) I was strongly reminded of two books by Kingsley Amis – both very different from Pullman, and different from each other. The one was The Alteration, itself almost a work of fantasy in that it imagines an England in which the Reformation never occurred; and the other was Jake’s Thing, a riotous sexual comedy partly set in Oxford.
The Alteration begins in Coverley (‘…pronounced … “Cowley” after the old fashion’) and Headington and has a familiar yet strange, slightly off-centre, use of English, idiom, custom and setting. And Jake’s Thing, whose accounts of Jake’s irritated attempts to grapple with modern life, modern students and modern students at Oxford are equally if not more hilarious than those of his lacklustre attempts to grapple with his wife, sprang irresistibly to mind at the first sight of the tourists, cameras in hand, swarming around the Bodleian.
But when I looked up at the famous Oxford skyline, I remembered something else: The Notion Club Papers by J.R.R. Tolkien. The best place to find this is in Vol. 9 of The History of Middle-earth edited by Christopher Tolkien. Essentially, this is Tolkien once more turning to the story of the drowning of Numenor which so haunted him. The story forces its way into the present via the researches and minds of a group of Oxford academics, two of whom are effectively reincarnations of Numenoreans caught in the downfall. I defy anyone to read the passage where one of the group looks out of his window in Oxford shortly before a terrible storm and sees ‘Great wings of shadow… over the town’, only to have one of the latter-day Numenoreans begin raving about eagles, darkness and ‘wind… like the end of the world… waves… like mountains moving’ and not shiver uneasily.
Where real and unreal jostle in the streets? Yes, maybe so.
Returning briefly to the exhibition itself, there were two extensive areas of shelving devoted to works of fiction by the five featured authors and numerous others. My eye was drawn upwards over row upon row of first editions and famous names; and my mind’s eye saw The North Beyond displayed there too… well, no harm in dreaming. Then I thought: no harm in asking! So I enquired whether it would be possible for some of my new flyers for The North Beyond to be displayed at the reception desk and to my incredulous delight, the answer was yes! Having been received personally with the most courteous interest and my flyers with enthusiasm, I was sped on my way with encouragement and good luck wishes ringing in my ears, in a whirl of delight at my small share of space with such august predecessors.
Real and unreal jostling in the streets? Without doubt, on that particular day.