We’re building sandcastles

Visiting Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library, for the Telegraph, 27 October 2023

Trees shimmer behind black gothic arches, beckoning the visitor through the British Library’s latest exhibition, an exploration of fantastic books, maps, images and imagined worlds, mixing rare editions with boardgames, autograph manuscripts, graphic novels, sketchbooks and video interviews.

Though there’s much pleasure to be had among the manuscripts (Monty Python and the Holy Grail began as a shopping list of running gags), inevitably, the paper archive gutters out at around the advent of the word processor. This upset me, though the scrawled red biroid horror that is Alan Garner’s manuscript for The Owl Service (1967) largely reconciled me to the march of progress. Past the mid-eighties, board games, role-playing games and videogames fill the gap left by the missing materiality of literary production.

Nonetheless this show advances an idea of fantasy that is primarily literary. Writers being ornery creatures, it’s a genre robust enough to resist its own cosy commodification. Gandalf’s staff and Arya Stark’s smallsword and other props are here as evidence of worldbuilding exercises that, even at Hollywood scale, are supposed to be ephemeral, vulnerable to parody and the passage of time and taste, to borrowing and, especially, these days, to the corrosive practices of ”weird” writers like M. John Harrison, N. K. Jemisin or China Mieville. The point (which was surely lost on the Amazon executives who sanctioned that flopbusting “Rings of Power” series) is that we’re building sandcastles here; and the tide is always coming in.

I’m not convinced that modern fantasy in anyway deepens or realises the potential of ancient folktales. Writers are more venal than that, and steal what they need for their own purposes. Still, the whig history this show offers — in which folk tales evolved into fairy stories, which evolved into metaphysical yarns, which have at last evolved into epic fantasies of the Game of Thrones sort — at least makes for a crystal-clear narrative, and a good excuse to rub, say, Charlotte Bronte’s spider-thin penmanship up against Ursula Le Guin’s muddy yet evocative pencil sketches, or the antic spiritual unease of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) up against the fantastical politics of Ken Liu’s “Dandelion Dynasty” books, written over a century later.

Is fantasy “escapist”? The genre enthusiasts interviewed in the thankfully brief “fandom” room at the end of the show seem to think so. Through fantasy, you can be whatever you want to be — this seems to be the idea, though it wouldn’t last you five minutes in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, or in any tale by the brothers Grimm.

Are the faeries at the bottom of the garden kind? Are the gods listening? Is that letter at the bottom of the trunk to be trusted? Are you my Mother, or my button-eyed Other Mother? Fantasy may appear infantile, but visit this exhibition and you will discover that it’s protean, which is a very different proposition. It’s reality with the skein of habit torn away, in all its wonder and horror.