If you are the sort of person who begins a fantasy novel by poring over the map at the front, then the Bodleian Library’s summer exhibition is for you. Magical Books: from the Middle Ages to Middle Earth brings together creative titbits from the fantasy writers collectively known as the Oxford Group – Alan Garner, Phillip Pullman, Susan Cooper, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, displaying them alongside the medieval sources that were their inspiration.
While the title might imply a chronological arrangement, the exhibition is in fact divided thematically. The divination section boasts fantastically complicated fortune telling devices. One caught my eye for being built into the hard cover of a do-it-yourself-divination guide from several centuries ago. Then there’s the magical creatures section, which sums up mankind’s fascination with animals from the earliest days of our existence. For Tolkien fans, there are the cave drawings that he did for his grandchildren, some beautiful watercolour landscapes from Middle Earth, and “Owlamoo”, his illustration of the evil owl that appeared in his son’s nightmares, put to paper in order to rob it of some of its terror. Illustrated manuscripts show the characteristics of various creatures from mandrakes to unicorns (for the student of magical creatures before Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was published) and there’s a quick sketch of a dufflepud by C. S. Lewis, detailing the vast use that can come from one enormous foot. The exhibition also has sections for maps, magical words and parallel universes, and a listening station to hear extracts of the fantasy novels read aloud, in some cases by their authors.
The thematic presentation is great because it gives you a sense of how ideas have been passed down and how the fantasy landscape has evolved through time. You can see the postcard that gave Tolkien the character of Gandalf, read extracts from the medieval saga of Sir Degore, knight of the round table, who undertook many adventures and then donated his name to Digory in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, and see a replica of Pullman’s alethiometer next to the intricate truth-telling implements that preceded it.
Magic, myths and monsters always seem at home in the Bodleian Library, and this exhibition is no exception. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about the creativity that Oxford has inspired, and to get a taste of what magic was to people who lived centuries ago. Entry is free and the collection is small enough to get around in an hour – highly recommended for a visit this summer.