Bodleian Library, Oxford (admission free)
23 May – 27 October 2013
The publicity leaflet accompanying this year's Bodleian summer exhibition features a quotation from Philip Pullman, the well-known children's writer, to the effect that Oxford is a place where ‘the real and the unreal jostle in the streets’. Well, maybe; they probably do everywhere, come to that. But there are certainly some implausible juxtapositions going on at the moment in the Bodleian Library exhibition space. The meat of the show is a selection of manuscripts (some of them very obviously fair copies) and sketches by Mr Pullman himself and by other writers in the ‘fantasy’ idiom, of whom the most notable are J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; but these items are joined by what feels a slightly random assortment of ‘real’ grimoires, bestiaries, herbals, and early works on palm-reading, alchemy, astrology, and witch-hunting. Oxford: where antiquarianism and genre fiction jostle in the streets.
This would be fine, and useful, if the relationship between the two blocks of material were a more interesting one—if these mediaeval and early modern documents were in any meaningful sense the sources of the ‘fantasy’ genre, or if they answered the same requirements among their readers, or if they had anything very much in common beyond ‘magic’. But it isn’t self-evident that they do. Sir J.G. Frazer wrote that ‘homoeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same’: and, by that token, the curators of this show are magicians indeed.
The resemblances aren’t even all that compelling. ‘Magic’, after all, is a vague and flexible term, and the organizers could have profitably spent more time deciding what they mean by it. Of course Tolkien and Lewis did draw on pre-existing traditions: but the traditions they drew on were not particularly the ones most emphasized in this exhibition (ritual magic, the occult sciences). Tolkien's debts are most apparent to mediaeval epic and romance (not just Arthuriana, which does make some appearance here, but other literature in Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, and the Celtic languages); Lewis owes more to fairytales and science fiction, stiffened here and there with his characteristic Christian message. These sources are largely unrepresented in this exhibition. Now it could be argued that this is no great problem, because Tolkien's admirers read him for what he does with his source material rather than for the source material itself—and also because subsequent developments in ‘swords and sorcery’ writing have shown that his colossal and forensic learning was basically superfluous, that an adequate pseudo-mediaeval world can be confected quite happily without the light shed by perverted philological science. But a verse romance or two would still have been more to the point than another nameless Renaissance conjuring book.
There are also some curious omissions, even in the exhibition's own terms. The caption to a set of exhibits dealing with a modern retelling of the Blodeuwedd story refers to the Middle Welsh Red Book of Hergest as an original source—but discreetly fails to mention that the Red Book itself belongs to Jesus College, and is kept in the Bodleian Library. Is it conceivable that the organizers asked to borrow it and were turned down? Oxford: where librarians jostle in the streets?
There is, of course, no reason why the Bodleian should not try to appeal to people who visit Oxford because their favourite ‘fantasy’ writer lived here. Nor, naturally, do the organizers need to apologize for ruthlessly confining their list of modern authors to ones whose manuscripts they have been able to obtain. Enough people in Oxford already trade on the—frankly exiguous—link to the Harry Potter series; nothing is lost by not mentioning it again. In fact, it feels slightly odd when Borges (himself an extremely eminent writer in a different fantasy tradition) is dragged in for a quote to illustrate yet more Tolkien exhibits.
But it's not actually enormously clear whom the exhibition is aimed at. Visitors who are young enough to enjoy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will probably find the black-letter mediaeval manuscripts somewhat underwhelming; and people who might be interested to see Elias Ashmole's own copy of his 1652 alchemical compilation, the Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, will not necessarily be impressed at how much cabinet space is given over to Narnia. Oxford: where children and historians of science jostle in the streets...
In reality, however, both sets of visitors will be succumbing to the same temptation: the lure of attributing some mystical significance to a physical object just because the author once held it and touched it. And this, too, is essentially a ‘magical’ response. The remark by Frazer that I quoted above is incomplete; in full, it reads: ‘Homoeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same; contagious magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact.’ Done differently, this exhibition could have used the illusion of ‘contagious magic’ to bring in the crowds, and then shown them something more interesting. It could even have helped to illuminate the background and the appeal of ‘fantasy’ fiction in modern society. Instead, it indulges the very ‘mistakes’ that Frazer identifies: in this sense, and this sense only, it is a genuinely magical show.