A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical Tales

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.


Beautiful Books: The Dark Is Rising

Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965)

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (1973)

Susan Cooper, Greenwitch (1974)

Susan Cooper, The Grey King (1975)

Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree (1976)



There are very few living authors who have not just one title, but an entire series of books given the Folio Society treatment. So when I learned that the Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, was available in beautiful new Folio editions, I was thrilled! And I was not disappointed in my investment: these are lovely books in every way.

The juxtaposition of the strange and the everyday is what I believe gives the sequence its distinctive appeal. In spare yet vivid prose, Cooper evokes the details of a specific place and way of life — whether a Cornish fishing village, a small Buckinghamshire town, or a Welsh sheep farm—with utter conviction, and then with equal conviction opens our eyes to the mythological depths that underlie every mundane moment: the great battle between the Light and the Dark. Introduced already in Over Sea, Under Stone, but handled with increasing mastery as the sequence progresses, it’s a mix that I found completely enchanting as a ten-year-old, and still do today.

The sequence is a masterpiece of atmosphere, with scenes that are creepy, homely, sordid, domestic, heartbreakingly lovely, and  uncanny by turns. When we have glimpses of ancient myth and folklore (Wayland Smith, Herne the Hunter–even Arthur himself), they remain appropriately veiled and mysterious, as the deep past must always be to us, caught as we are in the cage of modernity. This is one of the touches that Cooper gets just right.

When Cooper’s own inventions are interpolated, as in Greenwitch, they are equally evocative and haunting — true in a deep archetypal sense, if not in actual fact. She reveals in her preface to the Folio edition that the Greenwitch — an image that has for centuries been made and thrown into the sea by the women of a Cornish village — is her own creation and no such custom exists in this precise form. This does not prevent readers from writing to her or even journeying to Cornwall in search of the “real” Greenwitch. (Note that these prefaces by the author contain many such fascinating details, but should be skipped by any first-time reader who wants to avoid spoilers.)

Crafting an ending to such an epic is difficult. Having lived through so much with these characters, suffering and striving with them, it’s hard not to feel betrayed when we are returned to our everyday lives, no more to join the transcendent circle of the Light. But the experience has changed us, and lives within, and thus can never truly end. This is the mark of a superior work of fiction, to my mind.

The Folio editions have spines bound in buckram, a different jewel-toned color for each book, with Modigliani paper sides each printed with a complementary design by the artist, Laura Carlin. Each book also includes eight full-color illustrations printed on the heavy, textured Modigliani paper. The books are a good size for holding in the hand, and typeset in the slightly jagged, antique-looking typeface Elysium, which is nevertheless eminently readable. As with all Folio books, they come accompanied by a protective slipcase, in this case dark gray to match the endpapers of each volume.

The illustrations, done in rich, glowing colors without sharp lines, occasionally jar against my personal inner images, especially in the depiction of the figures, which sometimes have strange proportions or odd expressions. In general, though, I find them a fine complement to the text. Because they are not too narrowly representational, they evoke a mood rather than making a photographic record, leaving room for ambiguity and mystery. Like the stories themselves, they have beauty without sentimentality, a sustaining faith in light and love that nevertheless can look clear-eyed at darkness and cruelty. That is what I prize about the Dark Is Rising sequence, and I’m glad that these marvelous books have been put into a form that is worthy of their content.