From faeries to forests, castles to cthulhu, and hobbits to the holy grail, the British Library takes a look at the lore of fantasy writing from the ancient to the modern day.
A space filled with atmospheric backgrounds, it’s a heady collection of a wide range of fantasy novels from the obvious to many you probably haven’t heard of. Yet, what links all of them is the fantasy narrative, sending the reader into an otherworldy landscape.
One thing that comes across is how strongly the various stories feed off each other, taking inspiration and twisting out new varients to delight the next generations of readers.
Peter Pan borrows a reference to Queen Mab, who appears in Percy Shelly’s novel from 1813, who probably borrowed her from Shakespeare, who may have borrowed her from ancient myths.
Many of these links crop up time and again in the exhibition, and there are a fair number of occasions when reading a description label of a book you’ve never heard of when you realise it was the inspiration for a much loved novel you’ve read before. I was certainly surprised to learn that there’s a long-standing tradition of a Spiderman from West Africa, who long predates the radioactive American.
There are also characters here from Poland, Arabia, Japan, and so many other countries with their own deep history of folklore tales that have been the foundation of many modern fantasy tales.
Persons of a certain age may recognise the Chinese novel Journey to the West – featuring a monk called Tripitaka, a pig-spirit, a sand demon… and a monkey. And do look at Tove Jansson’s illustrations of Gollum, which caused Tolkien to have to add a note to his books later that Gollum is small, because the Moomin artist didn’t realise and made him a giant.
Whether the message “please type!” next to the edit of a radio script of the Lord of the Rings is Tolkien accepting the edits and telling them to type them up, or the editor begging Tolkein to use a typewriter is up to you to decide.
Fantasy novels have long inspired children to play and adults to write plays, but in recent decades, there’s been the fantasy board game typified by Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. An original D&D box set will give a lot of people a bit of a lump in the throat moment, as indeed will seeing an original edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
As a collection, what makes the exhibition is the unseen threads that link the many stories that are told. It’s a mix of nostalgia for stories we love and learning how they are often modern tellings of stories we may have never known about. If wasn’t for this exhibition, that is.
I doubt many people will notice this, but the exhibition’s layout is backwards. Typically, exhibitions at the British Library run clockwise around their exhibition space, but this one is counterclockwise. A subtle nod to the distorting world of the novels within.
Adults: £16 | Concessions/Young people (18-25): £14 | Children (12-17): £8 | Members: Free
You can buy tickets on the day or in advance from here.
If you decide you like the fantasy world illustration they created to advertise the show, it’s also being sold in the gift shop alongside bottles of Dragon Tears.