Celebrating three of Oxford's best fantasy writers, the Oxford Afterlives event at the Natural History Museum last night was packed out.
150 years after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was originally published, Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst gave a fascinating account of how each successive generation has created its own 'Wonderland' and how Alice has been adopted and adapted all over the world. The professor is a fluent and thought-provoking speaker, with plenty of eye-contact and in language accessible to even the least academic amongst the evening's mixed audience; he definitely had my vote for most entertaining and interesting speaker of the evening.
However, it was less the 'afterlives' and more his fascinating teasing out of the doubling and contradictions in the Alice stories and in the author himself that captured my imagination. He pointed out that there are multiple Alices (the real and the imagined, the kind and the spiteful, the big and the small…), that the author himself is both Dodgson and Carroll, two contradictory personalities which the author would choose to slip into and out of, and that his books are filled with double meanings, puns, twins, things being pulled apart and put back together and even the real life Dodgson's photography hobby has a duality to it that is worth exploring. Highlighting the Caterpillar's question 'Who are you?' he led us on an exploration of Alice as a story about identity as well as the creation of imaginary worlds, leading eventually to the satisfying metaphor of the internet as the rabbit hole, down which we can all escape any time we like, the www.onderland. Certainly, on the strength of his talk, I'd say his new book The Story of Alice would be definitely worth the read – (even if the print is too small...)
Next up was Stuart Lee of Merton College to talk about Tolkien and Middle Earth. The Hobbit-and-Lord-of-the-Rings fan to my right found this the most interesting part of the evening, as Lee adeptly traced the history of both radio and screen adaptations of the books from the 1950s to Peter Jackson's recent epics and highlighted the importance of the digital world to their success. With some wobbly footage of a 1970s film depicting orcs wearing sheets and Viking helmets, he pointed out a few of the challenges faced by film-makers, from the different sizes of the dwarves, hobbits, elves, orcs and trolls to the sheer epic scale of the battles. However, he said the books were a game-designer's gift, particularly since the contract that Tolkien originally signed with his publishers basically allowed anyone to do anything with the stories, the characters and any prequels or sequels. Lee recalled a conversation with Gary Gygax, originator of the Dungeons and Dragons games, who divulged that although his original creations had nothing to do with the Lord of the Rings, so many of the people who played D&D were Tolkien fans that he was eventually compelled to include all sorts of Tolkien characters. Asked about the future, Lee reminded an audience member that 'the Tolkien estate' is actually Tolkien's son and daughter and said he thought they had been pretty reasonable in defending their father's legacy given some of the ludicrous things that had been requested of them. He also gave us a nice Tolkien quote to end with: 'Of course the Lord of the Rings does not belong to me... though naturally I take a deep interest in its fortunes, as a parent would of a child'.
Last on stage was Margaret Kean, an English fellow from St Hilda's, to talk about Philip Pullman. She said some thought-provoking things about Pullman's interest in the materiality of things and of museum objects as 'objects of use' rather than dusty relics and about the practical side of art, but rather lost me after that. Apparently after the publication of His Dark Materials in 1995-2000, Pullman produced a 2007 edition with Lantern Slides remembered from his childhood. A few pictures of the slides she was talking about might have helped those of us who had only bought the first editions to 'see differently' with her. However, of course, it was particularly useful to have Philip Pullman in the audience (for some reason Tollkien and Carroll couldn't make it!...) because he was able to answer questions at the end, including giving fans in the audience a heads-up about the 40 episode adaptation of His Dark Materials which the BBC is commissioning. He sounded very satisfied with this, as he said 'There will be plenty of time and you need that to tell a long story'. Looking forward to it already.