A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical Tales

Posted April 11, 2014 by Lory in reviews / 4 Comments

Larrington and Purkiss, eds., Magical Tales (2013)

My one visit to Oxford was long ago as an 18-year-old on a choir tour of England. Our chaperones normally kept a pretty tight rein on us, but for some reason this time they actually let us roam around by ourselves for a while. I was in literary heaven. I visited Blackwell’s bookstore, found “Alice’s Shop” (the model for the sheep’s shop in Through the Looking Glass), and ended up at the Bodleian Library which had a wonderful exhibition of children’s books from the Opie collection. It was truly a magical day for a bookaholic teenager, and I still remember it fondly.

Last year I found out that the Bodleian was having another exhibition that sorely tempted me to fly across the Atlantic once more. Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth featured artifacts related to the work of some of my favorite authors, including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Alan Garner, known as the “Oxford School” for their ties to the university. Along with ancient scrolls and manuscripts from the Bodleian collection that are known or presumed to have inspired their work, there were artifacts from the authors themselves, such as Lewis’s hand-drawn map of Narnia, Tolkien’s dust jacket design for The Two Towers, and a set of replicas of the Six Signs of Power made for Susan Cooper.

Alas, I wasn’t able to make it in person, but the Bodleian did put up images of many of the exhibited item on their website, which you can still view here. They also produced a companion book called Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children’s Books, which I promptly purchased. It is a lovely high-quality paperback, about 7 inches square, with a nice, heavy wraparound cover (I love these because I can use them instead of a bookmrak), excellent layout and typography, and beautifully reproduced full-color images. So just as a physical object, the book is certainly a success.

Content-wise, the book contains five academic essays. The first is a general consideration of “magical books,” which can refer both to ancient books of spells and alchemy and to modern fantasy literature about magical happenings. The next three essays take on three areas of influence and inspiration for children’s writers, particularly those of the “Oxford School”: Northern mythology, the Middle Ages, and Arthurian legend. The final essay looks at the book itself as a magical, transforming object, in the form of early movable books for children. With a generally readable, engaging style, each essay gives a decent overview of its respective topic. Sometimes I wished for a bit more depth, as the essays tend to briefly survey a lot of books without going much into any one of them, but there isn’t really space for that in this small, heavily illustrated book. (Note that those illustrations include some drawn from the Bodleian exhibition, but not all; it’s not a “catalogue” of the exhibition. The map, dust jacket, and replica signs mentioned above, for example, are not included.)

So, for some armchair traveling into the sources of my favorite magical books, Magical Tales was a great investment, and a lot cheaper than a plane ticket. If you share my love of these fantasy classics, you might want to take a look at it too.

A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical TalesMagical Tales by Caroline Larrington (ed.), Diane Purkiss (ed.)
Published by Bodleian Library in 2013
Format: Paperback from Personal Collection

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4 responses to “A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical Tales

  1. I'm sorry I missed this exhibition too, especially as I wouldn't have had to hop over the Pond as you would have done, but this book sounds like a good consolation prize so I'll look out for it.

    Fantasy writers I'd like to see an exhibition of? Joan Aiken of course, though Lizza does a good job of making original materials available online; and I would like sometime to visit Sussex where she lived and set many short stories (and where I was born and resided — for the first six months of my life). Ursula Le Guin too (again her online site has lots of great but sometimes tantalising material). Edith Nesbit, naturally, and of course DWJ. All women writers, I note — there must be something about how they all invest where they live with a sense of the magical rather than creating a world de novo or ex nihilo as so many male writers do. Though of course there are exceptions, Alan Garner for example.

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