The Strange Houses of William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts

Fantasy is the literature of the impossible; fiction that deals in strange events, uniquely gifted people and bizarre or wonderful beasts that never existed and never could exist. Its impossibility marks it out as fiction, decisively turning its back on the real to take the path of visions, dreams and nightmares. Yet fantasy also aspires to bring the impossible into the sphere of material reality, through every artistic device at its disposal. No writer more vividly illustrates this aspiration than William Morris. Interior designer, poet, printer, craftsman, author of neo-medieval romances, political activist, purveyor of stained glass windows, he embodied the desire to bring an idealized past that never existed into material existence as the first step towards a better future. This desire to realize or make real the fantastic was his legacy to the fantasy tradition; and another of his legacies was his passion for strange houses, which in his hands became powerful political spaces where past, present and future intersect to work magical changes on the householders. Morris’s influence on actual houses, from the level of town planning to that of wallpaper, is widely accepted.[1] But his late romances give us a sense of what he wanted his houses to do – of the way he hoped they might change the world, like stained glass windows that effect real changes of colour in the landscapes we see through them. I’d like here to consider what his houses have to tell us about his dreams, as a prelude to thinking more about the place of houses in the fantasy tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Houses were much on people’s minds in the nineteenth century. The question of how to accommodate the industrial working classes, of how to make towns and cities capable of housing a healthy population, preoccupied politicians of all stamps, since the consequences of failing to do so were likely to be as devastating for the ruling classes as for unskilled labourers. Successive acts of parliament sought to impose better standards of construction and infrastructure on builders. Towns began to be planned instead of growing haphazardly. As a result, Victorian houses and streets were always changing. The suburbs expanded exponentially, as row upon row of identical terraced houses sprang up on the peripheries of London and Manchester and tenement blocks imposed an orderly grid system on the hills near Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Coal dust turned the new facades soot-black within a year of their construction. People moved into these houses in their thousands, abandoning rural communities in quest of work. The dispersal of those rural communities, with the corresponding sense that the past was being lost for ever as the people who remembered songs and stories were scattered abroad, led to the urge to commemorate the past through an accumulation of curiosities and knickknacks.  The houses people lived in became indexes both of social transformation and of resistance to change; dynamic cultural hubs, whose occupants expressed their sense of loss, their present needs and their hopes for a better future by means of the things they gathered round them.

John Tenniel, Alice in the White Rabbit’s House

The various forms of pre-fantastic fiction acknowledge the house as the focal point for radical change. The most popular collection of fairy tales was the aptly-named Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which a fisherman’s hovel gets turned into a palace and a cottage made from bread and cakes gets consumed by children who are soon in danger of being consumed themselves. Children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Mopsa the Fairy and The Cuckoo Clock take the house as the starting or end point for bizarre adventures among unheard-of creatures, quite different from the birds and beasts of oral tradition.Neo-Gothic narratives in the first half of the century are full of the ruins of buildings left over from the past, while by the century’s end they feature mysterious urban residences haunted by ancient vampires, long-dead ghosts, and immortal demonic women seeking a place for themselves among the streets of the modern metropolis.And at the end of the century, too, William Morris developed what could be called the romance of housing: a series of neo-medieval romances which take as their subject the quest for a place to settle down, tracing the epic journeys of their protagonists through a succession of buildings and towns as they search for the perfect combination of location, occupation and community that will permit them to live well.

For Morris the domestic house was a political space, and its function as an interface between the person and the world made any contribution to its improvement a political act. This is why his great utopia, News from Nowhere (1890), begins with the Victorian time-traveller, William Guest, observing how houses have changed in the future society to which he finds his way, taking this as the principal proof of humanity’s progress over the last two hundred years. It also explains why News from Nowhere contains a number of embarrassing pronouncements on the subject of women and housekeeping (‘don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a woman to manage a house skillfully,’ an elderly utopian mansplains to the troubled Guest).[2] As an advocate of women’s suffrage Morris might have been expected to support the campaign to liberate women from bondage to housework, but if the house is the most significant unit in Morris’s utopia – the hub of skilled labour once industrial factories have been abolished – then the economics of the household is ‘deserving of respect’ (p. 94), as the utopian points out, on a level at least as elevated as any other occupation in the community. And the romances that followed News from Nowhere make a good case for the centrality of housekeeping to the sociopolitical wellbeing of any well-organized commonwealth.

Morris was as concerned with interior design and furnishings of houses as he was with the buildings themselves. His late essay on ‘Gothic Architecture’ (1893)[3] extends the definition of architecture to encompass everything that contributes to a householder’s practical and aesthetic needs:

A true architectural work […] is a building duly provided with all necessary furniture, decorated with all due ornament, according to the use, quality, and dignity of the building, from mere mouldings or abstract lines, to the great epical works of sculpture and painting, which, except as decorations of the nobler form of such buildings, cannot be produced at all. So looked on, a work of architecture is a harmonious co-operative work of art, inclusive of all the serious arts. (p. 331)

For Morris, the ‘due ornament’ of buildings is as ‘necessary’ as household furniture, and both form part of the collective work of art which is a house, which itself fulfils a function within the larger community as a form of expression as well as an essential residential unit. The details of the house and its contents articulate the kind of work that has gone into them, in the best examples expressing ‘the happy exercise of the energies of the most useful part of [a society’s] population’ (p. 331), and so passing judgment on that society as a whole. In addition, the house makes nonsense both of the notion of hierarchy in art and of the myth of the artist as a solitary genius. Each work of art in the domestic space, from walls and windows to cabinets and carpets, must necessarily complement all the other works of art that fulfill equally necessary functions around it – just as the structure of the building must accommodate the unique features of the landscape in which it is set. This series of relationships between each element of the all-inclusive Morrisian ‘architecture’ should ideally be what Morris calls ‘organic’ (pp. 332 and 337) – that is, flexibly responsive to the particular demands of their geographical and social context. He sees the Gothic arch as the supreme example of organicism, combining as it does beauty with functionality in such a way as to make it as decorative as it is robust. Classical architecture is, for Morris, no more than a slight advance on the child’s crude edifices of brick piled on brick; it pays no attention to location and obeys strict codes of practice laid down by pedants with scant regard for circumstance. Gothic architecture, by contrast, responds to the land in its mimicry of the shapes of trees and rock formations, and embraces the meticulous efforts of individual craftspeople, whose seamless fusion of decoration and purpose speak of the ‘freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operative harmony which made the freedom possible’ (p. 339). This expression of freedom means that for Morris Gothic architecture is always in dialogue with both a flawed but intelligent past and a better future. It’s as modern as it is medieval, and anticipates the moment when the need for mass produced materials will be superseded by a recognition of the greater need for dignified labour and respect for the environment.

A similar passion for what Morris calls the harmonious architectural unit, whereby every detail complements the structure of the whole, underlies his founding of the Kelmscott Press, itself named after Morris’s famous house in the Cotswolds, Kelmscott Manor. The press dedicated itself to producing the kind of lovely books that would grace the modern Gothic house as Morris conceived it. Morris’s ‘Note on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press’[4] testifies to his care in choosing the best handmade paper, designing the most legible fonts, and considering the perfect layout of print and pictures on the page, each of which involved a careful study of the best practice as Morris saw it, along with a historical study of the material conditions which made that practice possible. The contents of each book were chosen with equal care, and while the most famous products of the press reprinted medieval texts from what Morris considered the golden age of Gothic art – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – it was inevitable that a number of books should also house his romantic visions of an alternativeGothic past; a fourteenth century that never was, which points towards a desirable future in which society as a whole would become, in effect, a ‘harmonious architectural unit’. The most detailed of these romances of housing is The Water of the Wondrous Isles(1897), which can be read, like all his fiction from The House of the Wolfings(1889) onwards, as an extended meditation on the politics of domestic architecture.[5]

The story is simple enough. It tells of a young girl named Birdalone who is stolen from her mother by a witch and raised in a house on the edge of a wood as the witch’s slave. She escapes in a magic boat and sets out across the Water of the title, a vast freshwater lake dotted with mysterious ‘wonder isles’ full of enchanted buildings, where men and women exist in a condition of permanent stasis, frozen in time like forgotten works of art. At the other side she finds herself in a more conventional country, a land of castles, fields and towns where magic is not widely practised, but where crafts of all kinds are held in high esteem. After many twists and turns she finds a place to settle down – suitably enough, in the very town from which she was stolen as an infant. Here she becomes part of what is in effect a neo-medieval utopian community, an island of socio-political sanity in a sea of historical violence and oppression.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia

The simplicity of the plot, however, is deceptive. For one thing, this is a chivalric romance with a woman at the heart of it; if you like, the first work of high fantasy written for adults with a female lead. And the woman in question is highly unusual. Birdalone, whose name points both to her solitary state and to the desire for flocking together with others of her kind as birds do, is equally adept in the arts of the domestic worker, the agricultural labourer, the craftswoman and the hunter. She is beautiful, as the heroine of a romance must always be, but she is also strong, capable of swimming out to the little ‘eyots’ or rocky islands near the lakeshore where she lives, of running faster than most men, and of shooting with a bow as well as any trained archer. Her education in domesticity and agriculture at the hands of the witch is complemented by an alternative education in what Morris calls ‘wisdom’ – which includes magic and dressmaking – delivered secretly by a woman called Habundia, a faery ‘wood-wife’ who is effectively the tutelary spirit of the forest beside which the witch’s cottage stands. This intimacy with the wood’s guardian means that Birdalone is at home among the trees in a way that the witch can never be. Her house, in other words, extends well beyond the enclosing walls of her mistress’s dwelling, taking in all the different terrains and elements that make up the remote environment to which she has been abducted, and giving her an intimate practical knowledge of all the different processes that make life possible.

Edward Burne Jones, Frontispiece to The Wood Beyond the World

Morris describes the location where the child Birdalone grows up in meticulous detail, and in doing so helps us understand what makes his protagonist different from the men and women she meets on her travels. The proximity of the witch’s house to the woods and the lake, where Birdalone runs and swims when the witch does not need her, explains the unique combination of qualities she possesses. Raised to be a slave, Birdalone refuses to have her education curtailed by the limited expectations of what a slave must know in order to be useful. Raised a woman, she possesses the courage, practical skill and energetic adventurousness associated in a phallocentric culture with masculinity. Raised ‘wild’ thanks to her love of the woods and her ignorance of social conventions (she describes herself repeatedly as a ‘wild woman’ in the course of the book), she is also capable of civilizing wild things through her beauty, which is to a great extent a function of her intelligence and her social gifts of kindness and courtesy. Birdalone is in effect a miniature utopia in herself, capable of everything traditionally expected of a man or woman of any class, the ideal inhabitant of the ideal house; and the function of the romance is to find an ideal house for her to live in.

Most of Morris’s late romances have a there-and-back-again structure which anticipates the organizing principle of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895) opens and closes in the forest city of Oakenrealm; The Well at the World’s End (1896) begins and ends in the ‘High House’ of Upmeads; The Sundering Flood (1897) in a more modest house at a place called Wethermel, next to a river that can’t be crossed. As we have seen, The Water of the Wondrous Isles is no exception. It begins in a dilapidated house at the edge of Utterhay, from which Birdalone is stolen; loiters for a time at the witch’s house; then passes on from house to house, from castle to town to city, before revisiting all these locations on its way back to the witch’s cottage, and then to Utterhay where it started. This process of return in fantasy fiction is often read as a conservative gesture, an expression of the middle-class desire for restoration of the status quo, but for Morris it serves a very different function. Birdalone’s return to the witch’s house sees her transformed by her adventures, an expert in many different models of cohabitation, and the added power this transformation lends her gives rise to a radical domestic transformation. The witch has died while she was away, and on her return the witch’s house – formerly known as the House of Captivity – is repurposed as the House of Love, since Birdalone brings home to it the man she has chosen for her mate. With his help she makes it a sanctuary of mutual desire and collaborative labour, dispelling the miasma of oppression which had clung to it throughout her early years.

Her eventual return to the town of Utterhay, where she started out, is equally transformative. She arrives there in the company of what Morris calls a ‘fellowship’ – resonant word for lovers of Tolkien. This is a group of equals, men and women, whom she has met on her travels and effectively rescued from a condition of stasis and segregation: the women from captivity to the witch’s sister on one of the ‘wonder isles’ in the mysterious lake; the men from a state of constant warfare with aggressive neighbours in the women’s absence. So large a fellowship cannot live in a place as small as the House of Love – they need a town to live in, with all the crafts, trades, friendships, entertainments and protective alliances it can provide. But they bring to the town what they learned in the witch’s cottage, above all the kind of wisdom Birdalone taught them there: an aptitude for combining things, activities and people which are traditionally considered to inhabit separate spheres.

Edward Burne Jones, Love Among the Ruins

The man she brought to the House of Love was a knight, whose usual home is a castle rather than a cottage, and whose usual mode is one of command. Birdalone found him in a state of despair, living insane and alone in the woods after having lost her, as he thought, for ever. She domesticated and civilized him, making him the worthy inhabitant of a miniature collaborative civitas or society and healing him both psychologically and physically in the process. And she also brought the faery wood-wife to the House on one occasion. Uneasy in human dwellings, drawing all her power from the natural world and profoundly at odds with human hierarchies, Habundia found herself shrinking to diminutive size as she stepped through the door, but Birdalone’s affection for her restored her to adult proportions, and in the process suggested that the wood-wife’s connection with the wilderness had been domesticated too: naturalized, one might say, to this particular human habitation, and thus shown to be compatible with living in houses everywhere if properly respected and embraced. The wood-wife does not go on to live in Utterhay like the rest of Birdalone’s fellowship; but she remains an integral part of the company, maintaining links with them through regular meetings in the woods throughout the year, and affirming as a result the new organic connection between the town and its environment.

William Morris, Strawberry Thief

Between Birdalone’s departure from the witch’s House of Captivity and her return to what is now the House of Love, she visits a range of houses which articulate in different ways the conditions of their inhabitants. The witch’s boat brings her first to the house of the witch’s despotic sister on the Isle of Increase Unsought: a magnificent structure ‘nobly builded’ (p. 82), which incorporates a prison called the Wailing Tower where Birdalone is jailed for a while before being freed by three female slaves. Birdalone calls this structure the House of Death, and its unsound social foundations are later confirmed when it collapses as soon as its owner has been deprived of her magic powers. The Isle of the Young and the Old is inhabited only by children and one old man, and its once magnificent house is now ‘ruined and broken’ (p. 124), bereft of the solicitous care of strong and intelligent men and women. The Isle of Queens contains a ‘great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery’ (p. 131); but this house holds only women, and the women are as motionless and breathless as statues, so that this building too could be called a House of Death. The same name would apply to the ‘castle, white, high, and hugely builded’ (p. 136) that stands on the Isle of the Kings, which is full of the motionless bodies of ‘all-armed men’ (p. 138). Each of these buildings speaks of a society that segregates genders and generations, unable to achieve the organic synchrony of elements which is the objective of Morris’s ideal architecture. The final wondrous isle she visits is the Isle of Nothing, which expresses the barrenness of such segregation; Birdalone is nearly stranded there in permanent solitude, with nowhere to go that suits her needs as a free woman.

With the help of the wood-wife’s magic, Birdalone escapes from the Isle of Nothing and finds her way to more promising regions on the mainland. Here too, however, the segregation of genders is practised, with devastating consequences for the communities that practise it. The Castle of the Quest, which is the first place she comes to after her voyage across the Water, is a functional building designed by the three knights who loved and lost the three female slaves befriended by Birdalone on the Isle of Increase Unsought. It is ‘brand-new, and […] fair enough builded, part of stone and lime, part of framed work’ (p. 147), but it is out of bounds to women, and its situation is precarious, since its occupants are in constant conflict with the rapacious men of a nearby fortress called the Red Hold. Birdalone’s arrival triggers the end of segregation, first by providing the Castle of the Quest with its first female guest, then by setting its owners on the path to the Isle of Increase Unsought where their lovers are slaves. And while they are away she also begins the process of ending the conflict between the men of the Castle and the men of the Red Hold.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

In each house she visits on her adventures she serves as a catalyst, breaking the tyranny of stasis and initiating a process of new growth.On being kidnapped, for example, by the henchman of the Red Hold’s ‘tyrant’, Birdalone has such an effect on her captor that he decides to take her to a secret house of his own where he hopes his violent master will never find them. The house is barely even a building – merely a ‘bower builded of turf and thatched with reed’ (p. 251), constructed, he tells her, ‘with mine own hands’ (p. 253) – but it embodies his better nature, since he has always retreated to it at times ‘when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not’ (p. 254). On this occasion Birdalone’s company helps him prevail against evil; after staying with her there for two days, sustained by the sense of sharing the place he built with his own labour for the first time in his life, he agrees to take her home to the Castle of the Quest, and is only prevented from doing so by his death at the hands of his tyrannical master. Birdalone’s civilizing influence combines with the influence of his natural surroundings and the house he himself constructed in a potent fusion that finally fulfils that latent potential in Sir Thomas, turning him from banditry to a commitment to fellowship or mutual support, though at the cost of his life.

The combination of ingredients that enable Birdalone to heal Sir Thomas is exquisitely invoked in Morris’s account of their time together in the bower, hunting, eating, talking and engaging in crafts, in a kind of sensuous utopian ecosystem caught in time between periods of conflict:

So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue-flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body. (pp. 260-1)

The organic interweaving of diverse ingredients represented here – company, food, deft manual or mental activity – is repeated time and again in other houses Birdalone visits: in the prison-chamber on the Isle of Increase Unsought, where Birdalone and her fellow inmates sit down to eat and talk while keeping a sharp ear open for the arrival of their captor, the witch’s sister; in the garden of the Castle of the Quest, where Birdalone first tells her story to the Knights who built it; in the forest cave which the faery wood-wife calls her ‘house’. In each case the concept of an ideal dwelling place is briefly invoked by the beauty of the location, which serves both as an oasis of calm and conversation and as a trigger for action, the sort of action that takes Birdalone and her friends or fellows closer to the ideal domicile they hope to construct by the end of their narrative. In many cases old houses are repurposed as part of the journey towards this utopian future. The Red Hold, for instance, becomes a possession of the Knights of the Quest after the defeat of its master, while the buildings on the ‘Wonder Isles’ of the enchanted Water have each been requisitioned by new inhabitants when Birdalone visits them for a second time on her journey back to Utterhay. The most radical repurposing is that of the witch’s house, the House of Captivity, which is rebranded as the House of Love. Each of these repurposed houses can be read as a blueprint for, or a stage in, the organic planning and construction over time of the ‘good and fair castle’ at Utterhay where Birdalone eventually makes her home.

The process of making a home for Birdalone is complemented in the romance by the process of providing that home with its most significant furnishings: the clothes its occupant will wear, the housing of the body. Birdalone begins her life as an abductee in the witch’s cottage wearing rags, her garments an index of the older woman’s neglect:

Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her. (p. 18)

William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, The Flora Tapestry

As she grows to adulthood Birdalone becomes ashamed of her rags and sets about making good clothing for herself: first a pair of embroidered deerskin brogues, then a green gown decorated with roses, lilies and ‘a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other’ (p. 21), in token of her organic connection to the wilds. Meanwhile her body is subjected to radically different treatments by the witch and the faery wood-wife. The wood-wife is the first to describe Birdalone’s physical appearance to her in detail, confirming her beauty both as an essentially socialattribute and as a work of exquisite craftsmanship on the part of God – or of the artist William Morris: ‘Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to do a master-work and did no less. Great was the deftness of thy imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness’ (p. 25). The social aspect of Birdalone’s beauty is reinforced by the fact that the wood-wife magically takes on the young woman’s appearance, providing her with company, in the form of a double, and a co-conspirator against the witch who is in effect another self – Cicero’s famous definition of the perfect friend. The witch, meanwhile, treats Birdalone’s bodily beauty as an investment, a means of gaining power over the men who will be attracted to it; and she asserts her ownership of this investment by briefly transforming the girl into a deer, as punishment for a display of independence. In response, the wood-wife gives Birdalone renewed ownership of her own appearance by providing her with a ring of invisibility – a means of disappearing from the gaze of hostile eyes – with whose help she learns the secret of the witch’s boat.  Not long afterwards Birdalone escapes in the boat, but not before the witch has stolen from her both the ring and her clothes. In token of her liberation from slavery and of her new birth, so to speak, through the symbolic medium of water, Birdalone sets out on her adventures naked as a baby, and must find clothes of her own as well as a home in the course of her quest.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of many portraits of Jane Morris

Birdalone’s next set of garments are symbolic of her first entry into a community. Naked she arrives at the Isle of Increase Unsought, where she is enslaved again by the witch’s sister; and the three slave women she meets here invest her with clothes of their own before helping her escape for a second time. The garments they provide are not just decorative coverings, however – they are also messages to their knightly lovers. Each has a story woven into it, so to speak, having been given to its owner by her fiancé, and Birdalone learns the narrative behind each item when she meets the bereft young men at the Castle of the Quest. At the Castle, too, she is provided with jewels and alternative garments to replace the borrowed items, and her first entrance wearing her newly-made aparrel marks the end of the second part of her adventure:

She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient golden ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon. (p. 186)

The carefully listed garments here identify her as an integral part of the story of the three knights of the Castle of the Quest and their respective ladies. From a ragged slave and naked wanderer she has been transformed into the embodiment of fellowship, of collective enterprise and collaborative workmanship; and Morris’s craftsman’s eye for the technical details of her apparel (a cote-hardie welted with gold, gold shoes of window-work) invites the reader to recognize the way it speaks to her new condition, as a participant in and beneficiary of a community of ‘carefulness’ (to use the wood-wife’s word) – in other words of mutual support and affection.

Birdalone undergoes several more changes of costume as the romance goes on – most notably into two successive suits of armour, the first provided by herself (a light hauberk covered by a surcoat, a sallet or light helmet and long boots of deer-leather, p. 396), the second by the faery wood-wife (‘helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like’, p. 517). The second of these warlike ensembles is identical to the outfit supplied by the wood-wife to Birdalone’s lover, Arthur, and her physical strength in bearing ‘such light gear’ in the final battle to rid the woods of brigands helps to underline her equality with men at that late stage in Morris’s narrative.

The most significant new garment she gets, however, is the richest and most conventionally feminine of all: a dress presented to her by the faery wood-wife Habundia, fashioned from the ‘web of the Faery’, whose shifting colours seem to summarize the difficulty, variety, strangeness and frequent beauty of her experiences over the book’s 500-odd pages:

And therewith she laid on Birdalone’s outstretched arms the raiment she had brought with her, and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. (pp. 463-4)

It is this set of clothes, here summarized in one exuberant, breathless sentence, that ‘abashes’ the ‘captain of the porte’ of Utterhay when the fellowship approaches his gates in the penultimate chapter, convincing him that ‘he had to do with folk of the Faery’ (p. 545). The ‘gleaming-glittering’ web or fabric of the gown, then, could also be said to symbolize the dynamic web of comradeship based on collaborative action of which Birdalone has become the central emblem. And it brings us back to the question of impossibility in Morris’s late fantastic fiction.

William Morris, Blackthorn

It’s often said that magic is only peripheral to Morris’s romances, and that their author’s heart and soul is more invested in crafts, communities and personal courage than in manifestations of the supernatural. It would be better to say, I think, that magic is organically woven into these final books of his – made of the same whole cloth. Its operation seems so much a natural part of Morris’s narratives that one hardly notices when it is happening; or rather, he makes little distinction between events where magic is at work and events where the behaviour or work of ordinary human beings has an effect like magic. The difference between the embroidered gown Birdalone fashions for herself, for instance, and the ‘gleaming-glittering’ gown Habundia gives her, is one of degree rather than substance. Both are made of beautiful fabric, both are sumptuously decorated with exquisite handiwork, both offset the personality of the garment’s wearer. They symbolize different things – in the first case Birdalone’s independence and skill, in spite of enslavement, in the second Birdalone’s bond with her Faery mentor – but both are equally remarkable, the former perhaps more so than the latter, since the preservation of independence and the acquisition of skill under such conditions is more of a miracle than the collective capacity of the Faeries to produce fine craftsmanship.  In the same way, Birdalone’s bodily beauty seems no less magical in its effects than the acts of magic by which it is obscured. Her transformation by the witch into a ‘milk-white hind’ gives her a shape that perfectly represents what the witch wants her to be, but the witch also feels constrained to make her new form a beautiful one, since beauty of mind and body is the essence of what makes Birdalone herself.   For the same transgression the witch also threatens to make Birdalone invisible in a very particular way, making her ‘wander about seen by none but me’ (p. 45), and thus underscoring the witch’s possession of Birdalone’s special form of loveliness. In the following chapter, the wood-wife offers Birdalone a different gift of invisibility, which differs from the witch’s in its emphasis on Birdalone’s agency – Birdalone herself can choose when to use it, and can be seen (when she turns invisible) by no one at all, not even the wood-wife (p. 50). In this way she restores to Birdalone a sense of her own identity as distinct from and independent of her mistress’s power. In both cases, however, it’s Birdalone’s personal qualities which make it worthwhile exerting power over her, and which remain unaffected – indeed, are enhanced – by the magic worked on her. The power of magic in effect intensifies her power, making the reader increasingly aware as the tale goes on of her effect on others, which is all the more remarkable given that Morris is concerned to stress at every point that Birdalone is not a frequent user of magic, despite her education in the wood-wife’s knowledge.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Magic, then, in Morris’s work, is a way of intensifying the personality of the user; the way it is used provides an index to the user’s desires and values. In the process it also provides a means for Morris to emphasize how power works at its best and worst, since magic is raw power. When used by the unscrupulous it demonstrates the effects of tyrannical power on its victims, which is to bereave them of their personal powers. The witch’s transformation of Birdalone into a milk white hind robs her of the capacity to think and speak, while the magic powers of the Tyrant of the Red Hold puts Sir Thomas to sleep, replicating the effects of the mysterious magic that binds the noblemen and ladies on the Isles of Kings and Queens in a deathly sleep, the residents of the Isle of the Old and Young in perpetual childishness.  Well used, on the other hand, magic invests people and things which have often been held in low esteem – friendship between women, items of clothing or personal jewellery, keepsakes, houses – with an efficacy that asserts their centrality to human experience. The wood-wife’s magic, for instance, strengthens her bonds with Birdalone, whether it is invested in a gown, a ring or a lock of her hair. It reinforces the qualities in Birdalone which attract the wood-wife to her, as we’ve seen with the ring of invisibility and the glittering-gleaming gown. And it leads her out of the states of entrapment to which she is so often subjected: for instance, when Habundia sends her image to Birdalone to lead her out of an imprisoning fog on the Island of Nothing, or when she supplies her friends with faery guides to lead them away from and back to the forest. Magic entraps, encloses and curtails, or else it liberates, comforts and affirms; but in every case the person who works it, and the person on whom it is worked, find their identities painted in bolder colours by its operations, much as the personality of the sitter is enhanced by the process of having their portrait painted.

The operation of magic in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is most beautifully demonstrated, perhaps, in the episode where the wood-wife enters the house of the witch at Birdalone’s invitation (Chapter XXI, pp. 468-71). Before entering it for the first and only time in the book, Habundia asks Birdalone if she knows anything about the method of the house’s construction: ‘belike [the witch] buried some human being at one of its four corners. Tell me, fair child, sawest thou ever here at night-tide the shape of a youngling crowned with a garland straying about the house?’ (p. 469). On Birdalone’s affirming that she has never seen any such ghostly apparition, the wood-wife suggests that ‘maybe thou hast hallowed it with the wisdom and love of thee’, and adds that the materials from which the house has been constructed are natural and local, thus linking it with the wood which is Habundia’s home: ‘it is all builded of trees and the grass of the earth; and thou art free to use them by my leave’ (p. 469). Habundia then enters the house and shrinks to the height of a very young child – infantilized, it would seem, by the lingering influence of the witch’s impulse to tyranny. But shortly afterwards the affection of Birdalone magically restores her to full size, in token of her power of ‘hallowing’ what was diminished and curtailed, and they go on to eat and drink together ‘a simple meal of bread and cheese and wood-berries, and […] milk withal’ (p. 470, a kind of communion supper in celebration of their equal power, their wholesome friendship. The meal consists both of the fruits of Birdalone’s labour – bread and cheese – and the fruits of the wood-wife’s wilderness, and forms one of the series of companionable meals in times of tribulation that punctuate the narrative from beginning to end.

The analogy with communion brings us to another function of magic in Morris’s work, which is to serve as a substitute for religion. Morris’s new Middle Ages are striking for one glaring absence – the lack in them of a powerful Christian church, the terrestrial aspect of the celestial House of God. There are priests in them – albeit very few in comparison with the religious orders of the real medieval period, as the briefest glance at the cast-list of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will demonstrate; but these priests have little to say about the God they serve, and the only priest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, a man called Leonard, worships Birdalone far more intensely than he does any heavenly deity. His worship of her recalls the various points in Morris’s work where a woman takes on the role of goddess: the Lady and the Maid, for instance, in The Wood Beyond the World, who are worshipped as divine by the pagan Bear people, or the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, who is seen by some as a goddess, by others as a demonic sorceress. Such forms of personal idolatry are always represented as problematic in the romances, although they also always elicit the narrator’s sympathy (like Sir Philip Sidney he seems to share his characters’ tendency to idolize his heroines).  Leonard in The Water of the Wondrous Islesends his life as a solitary hermit living near the Castle of the Quest where he first met Birdalone; the last we see of him is standing on the shore as Birdalone speeds away from him in her magic boat, the holy man ‘staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears’ till she vanishes from sight (p. 412). The authority of God’s House is replaced in Morris’s work by the various kinds of influence exerted by a succession of secular houses, just as the power of a centralized monarchy is replaced by a succession of local leaders – soldiers, merchants, craftspeople – who use these houses as their headquarters.  The removal of the central powers of church and state is what allows Birdalone to take her place in the narrative as the ideal householder, the lynchpin of the fellowship of co-habitants which transforms Utterhay in the end into a model dwelling-place.

Kelmscott Manor

William Morris repurposed houses throughout his career: most famously Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds and Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, London. In his late romances he repurposed the literary houses of the Middle Ages to accommodate his dreams of a fairer time to come. His own fictional houses were repurposed in their turn, most famously by Tolkien; and a concentration on the houses in Tolkien’s fiction may help us understand how the there-and-back-again structure of The Lord of the Rings involves the repurposing of the celebrated underground houses of the Shire as a quasi-socialist utopia along the lines of Morris’s. Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring takes him through a series of houses as various as the residences Birdalone visits: from his hobbit hole at Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, from the Last Homely House at Rivendell to Galadriel’s woodland home, Lothlorien, a hideout in Ithilien, an Orcish stronghold in Mordor, and the splendid city of Minas Tirith, newly restored to the rule of an unusually democratic king.As with Birdalone, Frodo’s eventual return to Bag End gives him a new appreciation for the quasi-socialist, organic space of the Shire, whose landscape is restored and improved, after the physical and political ravages wrought on it by Saruman, with the help of the wood-wife Galadriel – who thereby becomes permanently linked with the fellowship of humans and hobbits which protects the Shire from the depredations of malicious outside forces. This transformed Shire seems to throw off the shackles of the class system that identified Frodo as Sam’s Master; by the end of the narrative it’s Sam who’s the elected master or Mayor of his home country.Later still, Sam’s mastery of the narrative of the Ring – embodied in his possession of the collectively-written Red Book, which contains the story as begun by Bilbo and continued by his nephew – gets handed on to his daughter, as if in belated recognition of the role of women in the processes of making history. The Red Book itself is a work of craftsmanship – incorporating calligraphy, cartography, illustration, linguistic and historical scholarship, verse-making – which evokes the richly designed volumes of the Kelmscott Press. Viewed in terms of his inheritance from Morris, Tolkien’s there-and-back-again structure looks far less conservative than it is often made out to be. It’s Gothic, yes, but Gothic repurposed for the twentieth century, a form of Gothic whose location in a deep past that never existed holds out hope for a possible future restructuring of old spaces and structures to the mutual benefit of all their inhabitants.Add to it Morris’s radical reinvention of women’s roles in such a future, as articulated in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and you have a future that still looks well worth having, from the perspective of the twenty-first century.

The Brothers Hildebrandt, Bilbo at Rivendell

NOTES

[1] See Gordon E. Cherry, ‘The Town Planning Movement and the Late Victorian City’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 4, No. 2, The Victorian City (1979), pp. 306-319

[2] William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1993, rev. 1998), p. 94.

[3] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 329-48.

[4] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 385-90.

[5] References to The Water of the Wondrous Isles are taken from my copy of the 1909 edition (New York, London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.).

What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do?

[This is the final post dedicated to the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the second part of the afternoon workshop at that event (for the first part see here), which responded to the question given above, with the aim of incorporating the group’s responses into our plans for a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow.  The post ends with a list of participants in the Symposium, to whom much thanks on behalf of the core Fantasy team at Glasgow: Dimitra Fimi, Rob Maslen, Matt Sangster and Rhys Williams.]

Dimitra opens the second part of the afternoon workshop

Once again the workshop divided itself into several small groups. Once again each group chose a different way to record its findings, through different coloured inks or different kinds of lists (though the mind-map technique fell out of use). This time the notes were briefer, and the bulk of the responses came in the form of single words or short phrases, which looked like headings or cues for more extended deliberation and debate. Many of the ideas in those lists were repeated several times, and of those not repeated, many could readily be subsumed under similar themes.

Among the most frequently repeated ideas was the notion of establishing a ‘good, user-friendly website’, which would enable us to share resources on an Open Access basis, as well as to advertise events and explain our purpose and history in an organized way. Such a website, someone pointed out in the discussion that followed the workshop, would necessitate a decent IT infrastructure and dedicated administrative support.  One group suggested that the website be interactive, like the website for Archaeology Scotland; and the same group urged us to make the most of our Scottish location, drawing visitors to the website into the historical and cultural web of the Scottish fantastic, and pointing up the intimate link between fantasy and the Scottish landscape. This might be best achieved, the group suggested, through one of the projects mentioned at the workshop: a Fantasy Map of Scotland, which would assign specific fantasy texts to specific locations and so transform the process of moving from place to place into an exercise in traversing fantastic history. The website could host the Fantasy Map of Scotland and any blogs, podcasts or Open Access publications we chose to maintain. It could also tie into another project mentioned by several groups: an online journal, embracing creative fiction and non-fiction as well as academic writing (though I persist in thinking of academic writing too as creative at its best). And some groups felt the website might serve as a kind of virtual library, providing visitors with free e-copies of primary texts, criticism and theory, the last two categories perhaps being embedded in an annual anthology of the year’s best essays on fantasy and the fantastic.

For two groups in particular this prospective annual anthology would embody the notion of ‘expertise’ in fantasy, of a kind that doesn’t exist in such concentrated form elsewhere. A concentration of experts, these groups suggested, would enable the Centre to ‘lead on critical conversation’, demonstrating its sensitivity to what’s happening globally by (for instance) reporting on significant conferences or shadowing the major fantasy awards. (I think here of the way Adam Roberts has for many years offered us his own idiosyncratic and often scintillating reviews of contenders for the major SF prizes in successive blogs.) All groups agreed that the Centre’s expertise should be in creative work as well as academic writing and research; and its active engagement with the creative community, some suggested, could be ensured through (for instance) curating art exhibitions, commissioning new works, setting up writer-in-residence programmes, or staging short story competitions with attractive prizes. The latter suggestion could well have been stimulated by the tremendous success of the recent competition mounted by Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane as part of the University of Glasgow’s Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Another area in which the Centre’s expertise might prove invaluable is education. Several groups suggested that we could organize visits to schools to discuss fantasy with students and teachers, taking a lead from the School of Education, whose MEd students already undertake placements at schools throughout Scotland, while several of them are simultaneously auditing Fantasy MLitt courses and participating in events. Education in technology was also mentioned as a priority; and our experts could offer themselves as mentors for creative writers as well as for scholars. The group that suggested this, however, ended on a note of caution. Mentorship, they warned, should ‘avoid didactic connotations’, concentrating on encouragement and practical support rather than prescriptive guidance. Expertise shouldn’t entail arrogance, in other words, and the proposed anthologies should clearly signal the Centre’s eagerness to learn from communities well beyond conventional academic circles: in particular the global community of fantasy fandom and the under-represented but crucial body of independent scholars.

It’s already becoming clear, I think, that all the groups saw the Centre as a means of enabling crossover activities and events, designed to draw together the academy, fantasy’s fan base and the creative and artistic communities. The idea of crossover extended itself for several groups to embrace other kinds of inclusivity and collaboration. One kind of inclusion involved literary genres. The Centre should dedicate itself, all agreed, to discussing and practising every form of fantasy: children’s and young adult, folk and fairy tales, theatre, oral storytelling, poetry, song lyrics, ballads printed and performed; and all these forms and more should be studied in all the world’s languages (translated where necessary) as well as in English. Another kind of inclusion involved academic interdisciplinarity. We should dedicate ourselves to asserting fantasy’s relevance to other disciplines, from philosophy, medicine, history and comparative literature to the sciences, theology, anthropology, geography and classical studies. We should have a focus on fantasy in multiple medias as well as on the migration of fantasy narratives and concepts from one medium to another: music, art, film, radio, plays, TV, comics and videogames; and the Centre should seek to create a space for the development of all these things in practice, not just as subjects for scholarly debate and analysis.

One group in particular saw inclusivity as a political process. This group’s first thoughts addressed the question of access. If we aim to be really inclusive, it reasoned, we need to make it possible for students to study at Glasgow whether or not they can afford the fees, wherever in the world they happen to come from. This means implementing a system of scholarships, or lowering tuition fees for deserving cases. The same group urged us to ensure that fewer straight white men ran things, in and beyond the Centre, and that fewer straight white men were represented on the syllabus; their rallying cry was ‘decolonize and diversify’. Unsurprisingly, this was also one of the groups that urged us to cultivate community engagement and activism, asking ourselves ‘how can our research into the unreal impact the real’? One means of extending our community might be to liaise with other Centres, such as the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, or with good outside partners beyond the academy. Arts Emergency was mentioned, with its mission of helping young people overcome barriers to participation in higher education and the creative or cultural industries. So were the Glasgow Women’s Library, the Mitchell Library, the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust in Dumfries, and the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, directed by Malcolm Knight and located in Glasgow’s Maryhill. We should collaborate, others suggested, with major festivals, such as Aye Write!, Celtic Connections, Cymera, the Edinburgh Fringe and Scotland Loves Anime. To be fair, many such collaborations are already taking place, but having an identity as a Centre (and better still, a budget to play with) would give our participation essential visibility, and enable us to consolidate and prolong our relationship with these organizations and festivals.

A huge number of events were suggested. Someone suggested an event with food in fantasy as its theme, and I had a vision of ponies serving a vegetarian meal mostly made up of bread and honey while walking around on their hind hooves (I was thinking of The Hobbit); or a recipe book offering fantasy-loving chefs the chance to experiment with different kinds of stew (again, see the entry ‘stew’ in Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land). Other events included storytelling, in schools and elsewhere, for therapeutic as well as pedagogic purposes; a story-reading and recording service, aimed at people who have trouble reading on the page; collaborating with museums and galleries (especially Glasgow’s own Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery) in putting on exhibitions of fantasy artifacts and artworks – the latter with a special focus on local artists; collaboratively developing a computer game; performances, including ballads, theatre, dance, opera, song (the AHRC-funded Modern Fairies project was mentioned as a successful model for collaboration with musicians and other artists, while an amateur theatre group of our own might bring fantasy plays to the community); monthly literary social gatherings, of the kind that already takes place in Edinburgh; a speaker series (which again we already have – though it could be better and more widely advertised, and take place on a more ambitious scale); more one-day symposiums like this one, each with a specific focus; and plentiful field trips. There was a particular preference in the case of field trips for walking, since many fantasy narratives (notably Tolkien) have walking at their heart. Dee Heddon’s ongoing series of projects on the relationship between walking and literature was mentioned, and I might also have draw attention to James Loxley’s explorations of literary walking at the University of Edinburgh. As I’ve already mentioned, several groups wanted us to establish a close connection with the landscape, which walking would serve well. The Centre should take people out of the University estate, they argued, freeing the practice and study of fantasy from the office and the classroom and connecting it with hills, buildings, woods, rivers, lochs, boglands and shorelines. The Fantasy Map of Scotland would work well in conjunction with walking; could the two be fused? Of course they could; it needs only time, imagination, hard work and a little money.

A financial motif emerged from the discussions of several groups. As well as the notion of providing scholarships or fee-waivers for needy students, it was pointed out that events always require a great deal of labour and that it’s all too easy to assume this will be freely offered by enthusiastic volunteers. One way to tackle this would be to establish paid internship programmes (as well as a squadron of ‘paid flying monkey minions’ for the Centre’s director, one group recommended). Another group said simply that the Centre should have its own ‘budget code’, though where the budget itself would come from wasn’t mentioned in the notes. In the open discussion that followed the workshop it was suggested that likely sources of funding might include sponsorship, bequests and crowdfunding. This explains the importance of the budget code; without it donations and award applications would be impossible, just as without Centre status accountability for any donations would be hard to ensure.

A budget would certainly be required for the accumulation of resources mentioned by several groups. Among these resources were books, of course – or rather, fantasy artifacts in general. A programme of strategic collecting needs to be implemented, bringing in novels, short stories, plays and theatrical recordings, films and film scripts, games, illustrations and other artworks and comics – as well as research materials of different kinds, ideally on the scale of the SF Foundation in Liverpool. Another resource mentioned several times was a dedicated physical space, including a community building or area for PGR students, a ‘children’s corner’, and a safe space or ‘sandpit’ (a real one, maybe?) in which to talk and engage in creative play. Two suggested resources I particularly appreciated were a shrine to Terry Pratchett and a monumental statue in honour of N K Jemisin, both presumably intended to function as a focus for meditation or secular worship. The chief resource, some groups insisted, would be a suitable team of fantasy specialists, and in this as in other things we’ve made a good start, with the appointments of Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams and Matt Sangster in the last three years.

After the end of the second workshop a discussion ensued, during which a spokesperson from each group reported on the group’s responses to the question ‘What should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do?’. Inevitably the discussion built on the groups’ conclusions, as if in response to the invitation implied by those lists of cues or headings. Some comments have been worked into my account of the groups’ annotations; but a few didn’t seem to fall into any of the categories I’ve identified, and several of these are well worth considering. It was suggested that the Centre should be outward-facing, but should have research at its heart (including the practice-based research of creative work). At the same time, however, it should cultivate enjoyment as its most crucial guiding principle (and I think this ties in with the widespread agreement among the delegates that fantasy is all about play). It should maintain contact with former Glasgow fantasy students as far as possible – in part to find out what becomes of graduates who choose to specialize in fantasy and the fantastic; what role does this concentration play in the career paths or ways of living they choose? This feeds into another suggestion, that we implement workshops aimed at career development for graduates working in the field (this is in fact something we’ve been thinking about for some time, and now that the MLitt programme has been running for almost four years we have some useful data to work with). Looking at the other end of the education process, it was pointed out that a stress on fantasy for children and young people might help to nurture new generations of scholars, writers and readers. Someone suggested we consider pooling our resources and teaching specialisms with other universities – again something we’ve been exploring; and someone else that we strengthen our support for international students, especially in Europe now that Brexit threatens to change our relationship with our European neighbours drastically. One of the best suggestions, I thought, was that we implement an award for the best work on fantasy by an independent scholar. Given the formidable contribution to both Fantasy and Science Fiction Studies of independent scholars like John Clute I can think of no field that owes more to that neglected but heroic vanguard of thinkers, and I’d love to find a way to put this award in place.

This is a highly ambitious list of desiderata; a list that smacks, some might say, of utopianism, in its original sense of a place that exists nowhere, a fantasy world which is finally impossible to bring into existence in the world we really inhabit. Each suggestion, however, came from the invited guests at the Symposium. Each was conceived in a mind or in a group of minds working together; so each already exists as a concept, and concepts (however bizarre or fanciful) have a way of transferring themselves from one medium to another, of stimulating action. One of the final contributions to the discussion was from Rhys Williams, who asked us to consider a further question on top of the ones that had structured the Symposium: how do you get involved? It’s a good question because it elicits many possible answers, most of which imply some specific action. What are the mechanics, the practical processes of involvement in building a Centre, and how do these processes differ depending on the conditions that affect each individual or group of people in the fantasy community (geography, economics, time, health and energy levels, skills, gender or sexuality, culture, socio-political point of view)? How do you get involved? One way is by taking part in this discussion, perhaps through comments on this blog post or through emails to one of its organizers (Dimitra Fimi, Matt Sangster, Rhys Williams or myself). But there will be kinds and methods of involvement none of us has yet thought of, in the Symposium or elsewhere.

We look forward to discovering them, with your help.

Terri delivers the keynote

List of Participants in the Glasgow Symposium for Fantasy and the Fantastic

Dimitra Fimi
Rob Maslen
Rhys Williams
Matt Sangster
Dahlia Porter
Noel Chidwick
Ben Colburn
Philip Tonner
Mariana Rios Maldonado
Fraser Dallachy
Cailean McBride
Francesca Tristan Barbini
Sally Gales
Geraldine Parsons
Theo Van Heijnsbergen
Juliette Irretier
Maureen Farrell
Matthew Creasy
Shelby Judge
Ben Holden
Christopher Lynch
Tony Pollard
Saeko Yazaki
Taylor Driggers
Myfanwy Rodman
Ruth Booth
Katarina O’Dette
Jen Porath
Dale Knickerbocker
Aslı Bülbül Candaş
Brian Attebery
Anna Vaninskaya
Neil Williamson
Laura Martin
Timothy Peacock
Kate Mathis
Lizanne Henderson
Dauvit Broun
Marita Arvaniti
Oliver Rendle
Elizabeth Dulemba
Alice Jenkins
Terri Windling
Hal Duncan

[All photographs of the Symposium by Olly Rendle]

What Does Fantasy Do?

[This is the penultimate post reflecting on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the thoughts of the afternoon workshop at that event, and together with the final post (forthcoming in a few days) points the way forward to the formation of a Glasgow Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. At the same time this particular post can stand on its own as a consideration of fantasy as a catalyst for action. Thanks to all the remarkable people whose thoughts fed into it.]

Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi in action

The Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic was conceived by my colleague Dimitra Fimi as a way of taking the first steps towards establishing a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. That would seem to be a clear statement of its objectives; but the terms I’ve just used deserve to be unpicked, and the desire itself, the desire to establish a Centre, needs to be explained. It’s not so easy to define fantasy, as many commentators have found. For me the word means the kind of fiction, the kind of films and paintings, music and TV shows and theatre and opera, even the kind of architecture I’m drawn to. I know it when I see it. I can feel its pull from inside the covers of a book I’ve picked off the shelves of a second-hand bookshop as I flick through the pages and spot some reference to magic, or an apparition, or a metamorphosis, or a country – preferably a world – that doesn’t exist. But not everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that all the things I’ve just listed are definitive of fantasy, and if we are to have a discussion on the topic, a conversation across disciplines and practices and cultures and art forms, we need to know what we’re talking about, have some sense that it is more or less the same thing.

A Centre, too, is an uncertain concept. Many Centres have no physical location at all (though a Centre for Fantasy should surely be located somewhere: in a forest or an abandoned building or on a threshold of some kind – a doorway, a railway tunnel, a piece of furniture – since place nearly always plays a crucial role in fantastic works of art). I know what I mean when I say ‘Centre’: it’s a term that pulls things to it much as fantasy pulls me, attracting people and funding and activities and resources; a term that insists on the existence of a community, however scattered and diverse, with a common objective, who will come together physically or virtually from time to time to share their knowledge, their experiences, their ‘arts’ (in the widest and most inventive sense of the word). But what a Centre is varies widely, even in the context of the University of Glasgow, and there is an astonishingly wide range of models for the way it might function and the things it might make happen.

To understand what a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might be and do, then, it was clearly necessary to hear from the community that could potentially make it up. So Dimitra applied to Arts Lab – the organization responsible for supporting research and researchers in the College of Arts at Glasgow – and obtained funding to bring together a representative cross-section of such a community: writers, artists, ecologists, IT experts, scientists, students, fans, academics from many disciplines, editors, publishers, activists, educators, theatre people, musicians, circus performers, witches, talking animals and mythical beasts of all stripes and hues. She invited them to a day-long meeting in the recently refurbished Kelvin Hall. And she asked them questions related to the ones I’ve just been asking: What does Fantasy do? How does it work? What should a Fantasy Centre do? But the format of the Symposium affected the delegates’ answers, so I should start by explaining what the format was.

Noel Chidwick Presents

In the morning, attendees who wished to speak (not all of them did) were asked to introduce themselves in a series of ten-minute presentations – so-called ‘lightning talks’ summing up their fantasy-related activities – so that everyone would know who they were dealing with. Then came lunch and mingling; and in the afternoon a workshop in two parts, one addressing the questions of what fantasy does and how it does it, the other considering the potential functions of our putative Centre. The day ended with a talk from one of the most significant thinkers and activists on the part of fantasy: the writer, artist, musician, editor, performer, mentor and catalyst Terri Windling. After all, who better than a polymath to bring together the concerns of the diverse community which met that day? Who better than this inspirational orator to send us out into the world determined to act on what we’d been discussing?

And afterwards? What would happen next? That’s where we are now: at the stage of drafting the application to the University of Glasgow for Centre status. But before we set about that task in earnest we thought it important to leave some record of what happened that day. We began that record with a series of blog posts from individual attendees – representative samples of what was said in the ‘lightning’ talks that morning (the first is here). And now comes a summary of the two-part afternoon workshop – a trickier thing altogether, since all we have to go on are the sometimes cryptic notes taken by volunteers from each of the smaller groups who discussed each topic in a huddled knot before sharing their findings with the Symposium at large.

How to convert these notes into something more or less coherent? Or is coherence precisely what we should avoid: a trap that seeks to impose shape and unity on something dynamic, rendering it lifeless, inauthentic, ineffectual? ‘We murder to dissect’, said Wordsworth, a saying that joins itself in my mind with Keats’s ‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold Philosophy?’ and Pope’s ‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’ as three fine expressions of resistance to analysis (though the last is more about expending excessive effort on a thing of no consequence, which is equally applicable to a discussion of the fantastic). But analysis is what I do – making coherent and logical narratives as best I can out of knotty, perplexing or fragmentary texts – and I choose here to reduce the notes to a continuous story, risking as I do so falsifying the meaning of the note-takers, but also hoping to turn them into something of a blueprint for action.

Action, after all, was at the heart of the questions we asked at the workshop. We asked the delegates not ‘what is fantasy?’ but ‘what does it do, what is it for?’ and afterwards, ‘how does it do what it does?’ – all of which presuppose the concept’s essential dynamism, its continuous reinvention of itself and redirection of its energies. As I’ve indicated above, each workshop of forty-odd people was divided into groups of varying sizes, each with a designated annotator. Each annotator chose to record the group’s deliberations in a different way; with a mind map, placing the questions in the centre of the page with ideas raying outwards from them at the end of sinuously curving arrows; with neat lists of mostly single words running down the page from top to bottom; using bullet points or numbers and more or less complete sentences; with scattered phrases or terms peppering the paper, as darts pepper holes across a dartboard. They also used different inks – black, blue, red, green – and I found myself wondering if this was significant. The choice of layout certainly affected the way I read the notes, and this suggests it may have reflected different approaches to the discussion.

The first list I’m looking at now, for instance, made up of mostly single words, suggests that fantasy is for the following:

entertainment
escapism
imagination
sense of wonder and beauty
inspiration for creative skills
role modeling
food (tastier)
recovery

My favourite entry here is ‘food – tastier’, a phrase that invokes the central role played by eating in fantasy narratives while heaping shame on the head of writers who can think of nothing more palatable than ‘stew’ to serve their characters (see Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land for the lashings of ‘stew’ that get consumed in the less inventive fantasy fictions).

The final term, meanwhile, ‘recovery’, summons up Tolkien’s notion (as expressed in his famous Essay on Fairy Stories) that fantasy helps us to regain the sense of encountering things for the very first time and giving them names. For him, recovery takes us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; seeing the world afresh, discovering its contents, tasting them, so to speak, with an unjaded palate (which takes us back to food); and these experiences are linked to the genre’s invocation of a ‘sense of wonder and beauty’, one of the other entries in the list. ‘Wonder’ is, for me, a little different from recovery, because it doesn’t involve naming or even recognition. It’s the state of astonishment, of the temporary suspension of one’s intellectual assumptions and linguistic faculties in favour of raw emotion and intense curiosity, with which one encounters something wholly unexpected or utterly absorbing – something that takes one out of oneself; the moment before one attempts to categorize, name, or explain the thing encountered (though one can sometimes think, I believe, in a state of wonder). ‘Escapism’ could be said to be the impulse that leads one to seek out a state of wonder in the first place. It’s a turning away from everyday stresses, perplexities and dullnesses, and has often been seen as a way of evading responsibility – though Tolkien saw it as a liberation from oppression, a freeing of one’s mind from entrapments of various kinds, from presuppositions and rooted prejudices, from limiting narratives about the world and about oneself and one’s narrow range of socially prescribed obligations and duties. The phrase ‘role modeling’ was perhaps the most unusual entry in the list, for me; it made me think of how fantasy can provide alternative roles for readers to imagine their way into, to be inspired by, and I like the implication of diversity in the term, the suggestion that there are many more roles available to make models of besides that of Joseph Campbell’s monomythical male hero. A role model, too, implies action, even as a sense of wonder reminds us of the moment before action is taken, or as recovery gifts us with the possibility of thinking afresh about the terms on which we’ll base our actions. Given that fantasy is often said to be about retelling familiar stories, these terms insist that the process of making them new is the thing that matters; and as a quester after fantasy and the fantastic I have to concur. I have no interest in fantasies that simply retread old paths; there has to be something new about them, on the level of language or style, or on the level of concept, form or plot.

At the same time, in the answers provided by this first group in response to the second question, ‘What is fantasy for?’, the past loomed large:

Provide history
Rewrite history
Representation
Explore fears/hopes/desires
Take you on a journey
Suspended reality

‘Provide history’ and ‘Rewrite history’ head the list, followed by ‘Representation’ – perhaps an extension of the concept of role models, though with greater stress on what role models might be used to do – that is, to represent people and ideas which have not been adequately represented elsewhere or by other means. Then come ‘Explore fears/hopes/desires’, ‘Take you on a journey’, both of which insist on physical or metaphorical movement through time and space; while the final category, ‘Suspended reality’, seems to pick up on many people’s central assumption about fantasy: that it takes place in an environment where the ‘real’ world and its rules are being in some way held in abeyance. This might take us back to the way history was described in those first two entries, as something that needs to be ‘provided’, suggesting that it has not yet been ‘provided’ in the way that fantasy provides it; an idea which is reinforced by the second entry in the list, the statement that fantasy rewrites history, offers a different version of it, perhaps from a new perspective or with a different emphasis, which gives it a new trajectory or shape. Each of the entries on this list implies that fantasy deals with our world even as it alters it. Reality cannot be suspended without drawing attention to the reality or rules that have been set aside; history cannot be rewritten without invoking the familiar history from which it diverges. Fantasy is firmly rooted in the here and now even as it turns away to reimagine the past or take us to non-existent places.

The same group went on to indicate how fantasy achieves these things, and again the annotator chose to record the group’s findings in the form of a list. Again some of the entries entail familiar concepts, others less familiar ones:

uncanny valley
experiment
address fundamental questions of human existence
moral quandary
transcend experience (lack of restriction by ‘normal’ rules)

viewing reality from outside

The phrase ‘uncanny valley’ refers to an idea first advanced by Masahiro Mori concerning a series of robots which are designed to resemble human beings to an ever increasing degree. The closer the resemblance between machine and human being, the more positive the human reaction to the machine becomes – that is, up to a certain point, when the closeness of the resemblance suddenly becomes unsettling and the human begins to find the robot deeply repulsive. This experience of revulsion continues until the robot is redesigned to resemble humans more closely still, when at a certain point human responses to the machine start to become more positive again. The period of revulsion at the robot’s imperfect duplication of human appearance is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, and explanations of the emotional response it provokes range from the idea that we find certain levels of resemblance threatening to our sense of identity, either as a person or as a species, to the association of ‘wrongness’ in a person’s looks with disease and the risk of infection. Once you know what uncanny valley is and where it lies, its position at the head of the list of answers to the question how does fantasy do what it does makes perfect sense. The ‘experiment’ which comes next on the list might involve various tests of the responses of writer and reader to imitations of the familiar world, with its ‘“normal” rules’ and authorized history, which vary from it to one degree or another, generating emotions that range from wonder and delight to fear and loathing, and underlining or generating the ‘moral quandaries’ or ‘fundamental questions’ which arise from, or are focused by, the variations they introduce (what would the possession of magic powers, for instance, do to an individual’s personality? How might the presence of those magic powers affect the structure of a community?). Each variation, once it becomes to some degree ‘naturalized’ to the writer or reader in the course of the narrative, can briefly give them the sense of viewing the real world ‘from outside’ as they emerge from the different world they’ve visited, and hence either of recovering that real world, in Tolkien’s sense, or of transforming it; this, at least, is what the final entry on the list suggests to me. It’s more complicated than making the other familiar, since fantasy often depends on retaining the sense of strangeness and newness from beginning to end; and it’s more complicated than estranging us from the world we live in, since fantasy also often depends on retaining that sense of nostalgic familiarity with which everyday scenes and actions are invested, even while sounding a note of otherness (the faery Note that haunts Nathaniel Chanticleer in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the horns of Elfland heard by C S Lewis and W B Yeats). The list helps mark out the complications in each of its individual entries by juxtaposing them with other entries that affect or modify familiar concepts by their presence nearby.

Other groups came up with different ideas of what fantasy does and how it does it. The group whose thoughts were annotated in the form of a mind-map, for instance, seemed concerned to avoid the sort of hierarchy of importance that a list can imply; and accordingly it chose to resist being pinned down in terms of definitions and assumptions. For this group, one of fantasy’s functions was to ‘Make us ask: “what is fantasy?” and engage with “genre” as a concept’, and so to ‘engage with history/traditions/categorizations of fantasy’. These processes of self-contemplation are dynamic and continuous, so that the ‘inability to define [or delimit] fantasy is fantasy’, since the fantastic resists the state of closure or inertia which definition entails. The Mind Map Group also introduced a new concept which is only partly analogous to the notion of ‘experiment’ mentioned by the Group of Lists: that fantasy plays. The term ‘play’ implies trying things out in a light-hearted way, without overmuch concern for consequences; there may well be rules involved but these can be set aside or changed at the player’s whim. No one takes play excessively seriously, which means that it can turn attention to serous things without getting bogged down by them or by a single attitude to them. Play is always flexible, transformative, lighthearted – or better still, light (and I’m thinking here of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Essays for the Next Millennium). These are qualities which the upholders of rules can sometimes find threatening, even dreadful – and play can go too far, turn sour, go bad, a possibility which is also often explored in fantastic narratives.

The Mind Map Group also insisted on the interactive nature of the act of reading fantasy. ‘Cultural differences influence reception’, it asserted, so that (for instance) what seems impossible to readers in the Netherlands might seem entirely possible for those in Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland or Japan. For this group, in fact, fantasy dissolves hard and fast distinctions or ‘boundaries’ of all kinds: between possibility and impossibility, reality and unreality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the self and the other. At the same time, fantasy needs internal coherence; it ‘has to be real enough to immerse you. Fantastic worlds have RULES’, which enable them to test out ‘magic systems/social systems’ (and does the slash imply that magic systems are always a way of exploring social systems?). Asking how fantasy performs all these feats seems for this group to have elicited just one core idea – ‘Using fantastic mythos to do these things (e.g. dragons)’ – though this may well be because I’m misreading the mind-map.

Another group that used lists – though much messier ones, and expressed in terms of sentences or phrases rather than single terms – came up with more new concepts. Asked what fantasy does, the Messy Group replied, like the Group of Lists, that it’s an ‘exploratory tool’; and they added that while it can ‘reinforce the symbolism of mythology’ it can also engage ‘in salvage/détournement/appropriation (of past/myth/fairy tale/story etc.)’. So far so familiar. But for this group, one of fantasy’s primary functions is to ‘make communities’, through music and theatre (or like music and theatre, which are mostly communal activities). Another is to ‘enable the reader to live vicariously’ and hence potentially to ‘transform the reader’. The notion of transformation pointed the Messy Group towards another of fantasy’s functions, that of self-care – another meaning of ‘recovery’; and this was followed by a more sinister transformation: ‘sometimes you need spoons to make shivs’. For me this repurposing of a domestic tool suggested that the ordinary and everyday can provide the means for unexpected, violent action – perhaps as a way of escaping from prison (one of the functions Tolkien assigns to fairy stories in his famous essay) – and my thoughts turned to Michael de Larrabeiti’s YA fantasy series about class warfare in the 70s and 80s, The Borribles, whose protagonists often use shivs. But next on the list came a reference to ‘spoon theory,’ which gave the spoons a rather different significance. Spoon theory is a disability metaphor which refers to the ‘reduced amount of mental and physical energy available for activities of living and productive tasks as a result of disability or chronic illness’ (I’m adapting the Wikipedia entry). Spoons here are a way of metaphorically measuring that reduced amount of energy: each person is allotted only so many spoons in any given day, whose number will only be replenished when that person recharges, so to speak, by taking a rest, and as the group went on to indicate ‘there are only so many spoons to go around’ (and there’s a class connotation in this phrase: some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, with the result that others are born with almost no spoons at all). In this way the group brought representations of class struggle, illness and disability into the discussion of fantasy’s functions. If fantasy is about transformation, and transformations are achieved through power, to emphasize the unequal distribution of power in your fantasy narrative can turn the fantasy genre itself into a tool for real social or political change. That’s something I’ll be pondering for quite some time, I think.

The Messy Group showed a special interest in the second question asked of the workshop: how does fantasy do things. As they responded to it the entries in their list got terser, though no less messy, at least in the way they were written down. Fantasy ‘changes the modality of sentences’ to achieve its effects (someone mentioned Samuel R Delany at this stage, and I thought of Delany’s statement that he is ‘forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing’). Fantasy, they went on, uses hesitation/deliberation, tricksterism, play, genre crunching, different media, ‘displacement to elsewhens’, and ‘nostalgic/archaic desiring’, which was for this group a way of ‘tracing origins’, taking things ‘back to their roots’. As an arsenal of literary tools to support its potential political applications that’s pretty formidable, though other groups added to it considerably, as we shall see.

A fourth group, whose note-taker favoured a red pen, chose to focus on the question of what fantasy does which can’t be done by other modes or mediums. ‘Why would someone use fantasy to do these things?’, the Red Pen Group inquired, and concluded that there might be different reasons for different audiences (and for different writers and artists too, of course). The answers grouped together under this heading included the notion that fantasy engages in ‘Historical thinking that isn’t history’, which ‘allows a kind of reflection that isn’t otherwise accessible’; that it ‘allows us to step outside to see in’; and that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world [about] history, gender, society’. In addition, fantasy ‘softens the grip of our rational minds, reconnecting with our bodies and imaginations and the irrational’; and offers ‘Consolation (distraction?) for impotence’, in politics and elsewhere. Most of these things, of course, could also be said of other genres.  Other responses to the question of fantasy’s function offered by the Red Pen Group seemed more fantasy-specific. Among these were that it ‘reflects the structure of the world by abstracting away from inessentials’ – as realism does not; that it is iconogenic and mythopoeic, generating new raw material for our imagination to work on; and that it engages in a practice called ‘farfetching’ which involves ‘integrating distant or disparate ideas’ – a process that picks up on its interest in genre-crunching, as mentioned by one of the other groups, but also implies a great deal more. On reflection, these activities too are not unique to fantasy, apart perhaps from mythopoeia, the making of myths. Does this mean that nothing is, I wonder? If so, does it matter? I’ve sometimes thought that fantasy does what all fiction does, but more intensely, in a more exaggerated and self-aware fashion, since it calls attention to its status as fiction through the manifest impossibilities it peddles. Interestingly, however, neither this group nor any other had recourse to the term ‘impossible’ in their answers – though the idea that fantasy ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’ comes interestingly close.

Looking through the responses from other groups adds further new responses to the question of what fantasy does. The group whose notes were peppered across the page (the Pepper Group, I’ll call them) proposed that fantasy is for ‘nothing and therefore everything’ – a phrase which I’d suggest comes very close to stating exactly what makes fantasy different, since the term ‘fantasy’ is so often used to refer to something so detached from reality that it has no value, and things of no value can do a great deal without being noticed (see under ‘play’ above). The Pepper Group also noted that fantasy ‘unites different storytelling traditions’, which is something a little different from genre crunching. I’m reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart at the moment, which combines stories from European ‘Celtic’ cultures with stories from the cultures of the aboriginal peoples of North America, and this seems perfectly to illustrate the group’s perceptions, as does Tolkien’s fusion of Finnish and Old English material, or Lewis’s combination of Northern European and Mediterranean mythology. The question of the purpose of these combinations of different storytelling traditions, of what they do, is well worth asking; in the case of de Lint it’s to draw attention to the sometimes violent clash of cultures which is at the core of 1980s Canadian society, but as the Red Pen Group suggested there will be different answers in different contexts. The same group suggested that fantasy ‘brings dreams to life’ – which was implied by the Red Pen Group, though not explicitly stated – and that it is fundamentally intermedial, transferring its subject matter from one vehicle to another – from literature to video, comic, painting, game and song – just as Erasmus once said of the expert rhetorician, who ‘pours’ the same subject matter from one stylistic receptacle to the next, from verse to prose, from public speech to private letter to reported conversation between friends. The Pepper Group also suggested that fantasy is rhizomatic, meaning that it connects things in a non-hierarchical way – a philosophy better suited to representation by a mind-map or a peppering technique, perhaps, than by orderly lists. I’d be curious to test this notion of the rhizome or root-system as an organizational principle for fantasy at my leisure; it seems to me to apply quite well to the formal techniques of Terry Pratchett, or George R R Martin, or Ellen Kushner, each of whom uses multiple points of view to build their worlds with, though it may apply to other fantasy texts in ways I’ve not thought of (Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao suddenly comes to mind, a book that has no central character, not even the impresario of the title, but which structures itself around visits by different people to the various tents of Dr Lao’s cavalcade; or Ursula Le Guin’s utopian miscellany Always Coming Home).

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3

The group that recorded its findings in bright green ink added ‘mental acrobatics’ to the notion of play, and confirmed fantasy’s interest in intertextuality and metafiction by aligning it with ‘postmodernism and stuff’. But the Green Ink Group also introduced the new idea of the absences or lacunae in fantasy narratives. Fantasy, the group suggested, supplies its consumers with unfinished landscapes, leaving ‘gaps’ in them that we’re not necessarily expected to fill. This led the group to the phrase explored by Marita Arvaniti in her recent blog post: ‘fantasy exists badly’. I wonder if this means that the holes or gaps in fantasy narratives – the logical leaps and glaring omissions with which they’re filled – make it essential for their readers to use their own active imaginations to make up for what’s left out? If so, then the statement that we’re not necessarily expected to ‘fill’ those gaps stands out in sharp relief. We notice and condone them, we assume that there’s something that explains them or occupies that space, but filling in lacunae implies a methodical response which is precisely the reverse of what many readers want from the fantastic. One could call these readers’ refusal to engage in the filling-in process a preference for mystification, ignorance or deliberate self-deception; but one could equally call it a willingness not to let speculation be held back by petty details, and a corresponding affection for radical difference and epic transformations, things that can only be achieved by setting aside the question of exactly how those transformations might be brought about. I’m reminded here of John Martin’s giant paintings of impossible scenes, whose different parts are cut loose from each other by vast abysses implied through patches of obscurity, or by juxtapositions in each picture of scenes on radically different scales whose relationship to one another is only ever implied, not made clear on the canvas. The disengagement of the various sections of each painting from one another is precisely what makes them so disorienting, so exhilarating to look at. I apologize to the group if this is not what they had in mind, but let my response to the phrase ‘fantasy exists badly’ stand as an indication – through the gap or lacuna it represents – of the fruitfulness of the concept.

The Green Ink Group was much concerned with tensions – between formula and freedom, between new and old – as well as with fantasy’s preoccupation with allusion and cross-reference. For them, fantasy is always in ‘conversation with other books and itself and the mythosphere’, the latter phrase invoking the constantly changing common pool of stories on which narrators draw. These ideas, too, support the idea that ‘fantasy exists badly’, since they imply that it is always drawing attention to its own artifice. The Green Ink Group summed up this tendency in an invented term, ‘intermetaparatextuality’, which speaks for itself; and its list concluded with the fine observations that fantasy ‘creates immersion in the face of artifice’ – that is, that we find ourselves absorbed in it even as we get startled into noting its references to other narratives of similar kinds, or its unsettling gaps – and that fantasy thus assists at ‘the birth of the reader’. This final point highlights the fact that the Green Ink Group was almost entirely concerned with the relationship between reader and fantasy text, since the reader plays an active role in shaping fantasy through her willingness to condone absences, recognize allusions, engage in conversations with the real world, yet to be immersed or re-immersed in what she’s reading all the same. There’s a challenge here to Tolkien’s idea, as expressed in his essay on Fairy Stories, that what he calls ‘secondary belief’ involves a total imaginative commitment on the part of the reader to the world created by the writer, for as long as she’s reading. If this were true, Terry Pratchett’s books would be fantastic failures, riddled as they are with allusions to the ‘real’ world we inhabit, many in the form of footnotes or extended pastiche. Pratchett is always playfully un-immersing us, yet the reader freely re-immerses herself in his secondary world on each occasion, like a dolphin sporting in the waves. It’s the quality of lightnessthat makes this possible, and lightness is also (ironically) a quality that Tolkien possesses in abundance, and which he embodies in the lighthearted personalities of his hobbits.

The final group laid out their answers in a numbered list – I think so as to key in their responses to ‘what does fantasy do?’ to their responses to ‘how does fantasy do it?’. Time ran out, however, before they could provide all the ‘hows’. Their ‘whats’ yielded the following insights: that fantasy ‘makes visible the invisible’ (an idea that draws on the roots of the term in the Greek verb phantazein, to make visible); and that fantasy concerns itself with mirrors, windows and doors. The ‘hows’ expanded on that second idea, explaining that fantasy offers an ‘invitation to a place that’s different from where we are’, enabling us to ‘leave our troubles behind’, and that in this new place we feel able to ‘control time and space’; as a writer obviously, but perhaps also as a reader, given our capacity to manage the gaps in space, time and narrative which the writer leaves. Going back to the ‘whats’, the group claimed that fantasy ‘both feeds and feeds on our creativity’ in what it described as a ‘vicious circle’. And if this ‘what’ unsettlingly invokes the Elder Brother’s definition of evil in Milton’s Comus, something ‘self-fed and self-consumed’, bringing this group’s idea of fantasy close to horror, the last entry in their list of ‘whats’ introduced a comic element. Fantasy, the group concluded, is for ‘educating parents’, which they explained in the ‘hows’ as taking place when parents read fantasy books ‘and see the effects [of these] on their children’. One such effect is to ‘turn readers into writers’, eager to enjoy that absolute mastery over time and space available to sub-creators (as Tolkien calls them in his essay). Fantasy, the group suggested, is often the first stimulus towards making that transition, and this is not surprising given its nature as imaginative play, and hence its close alliance to the stories children tell themselves as they manoeuvre their toys or the contents of their minds.

Looking through the workshop’s responses to the questions ‘what is fantasy for?’ and ‘How does it do it’?, one thing struck me quite forcibly: that none of the groups chose to state in so many words that it is about inventing secondary worlds. The Group of Numbers came close, with their statement that it gives us entry through its imagined doors and windows to ‘a place that’s different from where we are’, while the claim by the Group of Lists that fantasy ‘transcends experience (lack of restriction by “normal” rules)’ and ‘views reality from outside’ implies an exodus from the world we live in, as does the Red Pen Group’s insistence that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’. The Mind Map Group’s statement that ‘Fantastic worlds have RULES’ asserts the existence of secondary worlds, although that group did not choose to emphasize the process of making those worlds, and their statement was in any case a ‘how’ to supplement the initial observation that fantasy ‘has to be real enough to immerse you’. For all groups in the workshop, the question of what fantasy is for was firmly rooted in the world we live in. This is inevitable, of course, from one point of view: even when fantasy is entirely set in a world quite different from our own we can never gain access to that world except by means of terms we understand, terms that enable us to compare its strange contents with familiar things, and hence bring its strangeness into the compass of the known. But our groups were strikingly insistent on fantasy’s impact on our own world, its transformative effect on that world’s human inhabitants. Our questions – what does it do, what is it for, how does it work – invited such a bias, of course; but the result was a set of observations that did what we hoped: provided the basis for a template for action. And the second part of our workshop aimed to give a focus or context for that action by asking what a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might accomplish – what transformations it could bring about, what journeys embark on, what strange fellowships and conjunctions conjure up. That will be the subject of the final blog post on the Symposium.

 

[All photos of the Symposium are by Olly Rendle]

Brian Attebery, Leverhulme Visiting Professor of Fantasy

[Today I learned that the following article has appeared in the Leverhulme Trust’s Annual Review for 2018. I thought I should make it available here, too, for the record!]

Only in recent years has fantasy emerged as a focus for serious research at university level. For decades after Tolkien revolutionized the book market in the 1960s, fantastic fiction tended to be tacked onto science fiction studies as an embarrassing afterthought, an outsize relative given to wearing vintage clothes and breaking into song at every opportunity. Then Harry Potter burst onto the scene, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies took the box office by storm, and all at once it seemed irresponsible not to pay attention to the art of the impossible. What was attracting young people in such numbers to places and beings that never existed and never could exist? What cultural and political needs did fantasy fulfil? As academics began to ask these questions with increasing urgency, they found that a major scholar had been steadily building up a theoretical framework to help answer them, from his first monograph, The Fantastic Tradition in American Literature, to his seminal book Strategies of Fantasy, which identified the genre as a ‘fuzzy set’ with Tolkien’s works at the centre and a huge variety of imaginative narratives at the peripheries. Attebery also edited the foremost journal in the field, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Thanks in large measure to Attebery, fantasy was already embedded in the academy, ready to function as a vast new lens through which to examine our past, present and future.

This year, Attebery has come as Leverhulme Visiting Professor of Fantasy to the University of Glasgow, home of the world’s first graduate programme exclusively dedicated to the fantastic. He has given us five public lectures on subjects from fairy tales to fantasy’s take on global warming. He has taken part in discussions to found a Centre for Fantasy here in Glasgow. He has visited, or plans to visit, six other universities, from Dundee to Cambridge, where he is giving further lectures and workshops. He will deliver [has delivered!] the keynote address at our annual conference, GIFCon. And he’s been talking to young researchers, preparing the ground for the construction of a growing edifice of fantasy studies on this side of the Atlantic, as he did at home. Attebery is a builder as well as an analyst of imaginative worlds, and he is in the process of transforming the academic landscape in Scotland and beyond.

Professor Attebery’s Leverhulme lectures will shortly be available online. Keep an eye on our webpage, https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/critical/research/researchareasandinitiatives/fantasy/#/pastevents,forthcomingevents,doctoralstudents, for further announcements.

From Zero to Infinity – Creating a Science Fiction Magazine in Scotland

[The sixth blog post from the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic is by Noel Chidwick, Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Editor of the Edinburgh-based magazine and hub of wider SFF activities Shoreline of Infinity (editor@shorelineofinfinity.com, www.shorelineofinfinity.com). Thanks to him for supplying a post that opens up the discussion to wider horizons…]

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is an exciting prospect, and as editor of Shoreline of Infinity SF magazine, it was a privilege to be involved in the Symposium and present our case. 

 

Why Create a Science Fiction Magazine?

I’ve been a voracious reader and occasional writer of SF and fantasy since I was knee-high to an android goblin, and I’m partial to short fiction.  

There really was only one science fiction magazine in the UK of note: Interzone. I’ve been a subscriber since it started, but when I read one issue I realised that all its story writers were from the USA.

In Scotland there had not been a science fiction magazine since Spectrum in 2003.

So where do UK science fiction writers submit their stories? Where do I get my fix of British short SF? 

Shoreline of Infinity Science Fiction magazine began as an idea in Autumn 2014 when my co-founder Mark Toner and I mulled over this question.

 We first met and became friends in the 1980s as astronomy postgrads at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, before we both moved into teaching in Further Education and building families. Since then, we have both built up a collection of skills, knowledge and interest to the point where we decided a science fiction magazine was the thing to do. Our children had moved on, we even had some time. The Nine Realms had converged.

We did some research, and we contacted a whole range of people – other SF readers, friends, writers, artists, bookshop owners – to see if our idea was worth pursuing, would anyone be interested in writing for it, reading it?

Oh yes, we were told.

We did the sums. We could fund it ourselves to get it started. We had the technical skills, so we built a website. I’ve co-edited a fanzine, a folk magazine and was a partner in a music indie press and I also taught graphic design and typesetting, so the editing was covered. Mark had become an artist and comic creator, so the artwork was covered.

What would our focus be? The title, Shoreline of Infinity, is perfect. It encapsulates exactly where the human race is: we’ve sauntered down to the beach, and now we’re peering out into the infinite and we’re wondering where the heck we go now – ideal fodder to feed the science fiction mind.

And we agreed, writers and artists must be paid. We could not pay pro rates, but we could pay something.

 

A Scottish Science Fiction Magazine? 

This was every bit as important to us. Scotland is an outward reaching country, and a warm welcoming country. I can attest to the latter: I’ve lived here happily for 38 years. 

The magazine must reflect that. We wanted writers from all over the world, both new and more well-known, and we wanted to make sure that Scottish writers were also well represented. We created a section of the magazine called SF Caledonia, where we explore the history of Scottish SF. I met up with journalist and writer Paul Cockburn, and he led me to a short SF story by John Buchan of all people. Meeting Paul over a green tea was one of the first of many meetings with a range of fascinating people who helped us on our way.

We opened for submissions in January 2015. Nothing happened for a week. Then we received our first story, Clean up on Deck Seven by Claire Simpson. We loved it. We relaxed slightly.

Over the coming weeks we received nearly two hundred submissions from all over the world – not bad for a cold start. We read every single one – including the ones set in US High Schools. We read them, waiting for SF to happen: alien abduction? Time Traveller? Zombie apocalypse? Nope. High School romance, every blooming one. We re-edited our submission webpage to read: “we want science fiction stories that are science fictional with elements of science fiction integral to the science fiction stories we want in this science fiction magazine.” It helped.

We contacted publishers who were more than obliging in sending us books for review. Charles Stross agreed to do an interview.

Our confidence grew. Mark put out a call for artists, and work began on illustrating the stories. Word got round: our Twitter and Facebook followers increased. We began to receive emails asking: can I help? Folk offered their copy editing skills. Monica Burns, a postgrad student, joined us as an artist who also had copy editing skills and an interest in historical Scottish SF – Monica was appointed as SF Caledonia editor. And along came Russell Jones, who joined us as as we were putting Issue 1 together. He helped us with story selection and editing. He was the first SF Poet I have met, and so he became Poetry Editor, and Multiverse – our SF poetry section – began in Issue 2. We found a Reviews Editor in Iain Maloney – a Scottish writer living in Japan. I ‘interviewed’ him over Skype one evening, and he was as delighted to join us as I was for him to become one of the Shoreline team.

As we approached publication day in July 2015 Russell asked what our plans were for launching Shoreline of Infinity. We hadn’t thought much about that: back room of a pub?

Russell took control. He booked a suitably atmospheric venue, Paradise Palms, and pulled in some of his performance poet chums and an actor, Debbie Cannon, to read a story from Issue 1. Mark and I play in a prog-folk band with a  catalogue of SF songs, so we provided the music. Russell decided to be an alien.

We had a great night, sold some magazines, but the main question was: when was the next event?

 In just nine months we had moved from an idea shared by a couple of friends looking for a new challenge in life, to a room full of excited SF fans wanting more.

 

Where Are We?

Shoreline of Infinity is read world wide. Although we still need to work on our readership numbers, it has attracted the award last year from the British Fantasy Society for best periodical, so we must be doing something right.

Our greatest achievement is the people who have joined us from far and wide to help us with the magazine and our other projects, and who volunteer their time and skills to help produce it.

This great bunch of folk have already created a lot under the Shoreline of Infinity umbrella. So far we have produced:

15 issues of the magazine 

2 special issues

1 anthology of Shoreline stories

 Plus: 

Multiverse, edited by Rachel Plummer and Russell Jones  – an anthology of international science fiction poetry

Republished Starfield, edited by Duncan Lunan – a collection of iconic Scottish SF stories

Also:

Event Horizon:  live monthly science fiction cabaret style events. Russell Jones directs and MCs these, and we have held Event Horizons for the Edinburgh Book Festival, Edinburgh Science Festival (twice) and for SF Conventions.  We’ve run 42 Event Horizons to date.

Infinitesimals: audio dramas scripted performed and recorded  from the original stories published in Shoreline of Infinity. Infinitesimals is headed up by Jonathan Whiteside and Debbie Cannon, and supported by a wonderful cast of Edinburgh actors.

 Soundwave: our stunning new podcast, of readings, dramas, music and interviews. RJ Bayley joined us to produce and host this.

And we’re told we are one of the reasons why we have Scotland’s first sf, fantasy and horror festival of writing, Cymera, taking place in a month’s time.

Currently, we are working on building the Shoreline of Infinity Group. This is a cooperative for creatives who want to deploy Science Fiction and Fantasy to tell their stories in their chosen art forms. The idea is for them to work together to support each other’s projects either for themselves or under the banner of Shoreline of Infinity.

We began with just the idea of a quarterly SF magazine. Now we are talking on the Janice Forsyth show (okay, once) and last week we held a science fiction art exhibition at the Scottish Parliament with the aim of raising the profile of science fiction in Scotland. 

Scotland’s roots are buried deep in its history, in its mythologies and in its stories. Scotland also has its eyes on the future: not one, but two proposed spaceports. We’re finally looking beyond the shoreline of infinity.

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is proposing to combine research with reaching out to the creative community. Hopefully Shoreline of Infinity can play a part working with the Centre to help connect with the wider world.

Noel Chidwick

 

The World Gathered and the Pause that Followed

[The fifth blog post from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019 is by Jen Porath, originally from Tecumseh, Michigan, and now completing a PhD on storytelling at the University of Glasgow. The other posts in the series can be found in the category ‘Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019’.]

One definition of Fantasy is as follows: the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things. From the perspective of a storyteller this is a thrilling concept, as it brings the realm of the uncanny valley into sharp focus and brings the world of creativity along for the ride. It is our greatest tool, fantasy. It allows us to see the impossible and make it real in the realm of words, pictures, movies, and cartoons. It is both foundation and building material for all we need as creators of our worlds and has fostered and called forward a group of people who wish to see this idea of the impossible made real and grow. So, an offering from a storyteller to you, dear reader; a glimpse into the Symposium of Fantasy and the Fantastic.

The world gathered and the pause that followed hinted at magic, the wondrous, and the fantastic. Then time rolled forward, and the spell was cast as the first presenter took the stage. We were crowded into a room filled to the brim with people curious and wanting to engage, not knowing what would become of them or how they would be transformed by the end of the Symposium. But fear not, dear reader, for it was once said by J.R.R Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost”.

The assembly at the Fantasy and Fantastic Symposium consisted of Professors, Sci-Fi magazine Creators, Environmental Activists, Writers, Bards, Researchers and Students, who want to help foster, create, and share the world of Fantasy. Various cultures and backgrounds from around the globe, all gathered in Glasgow. It was a showcase for what could be accomplished if given the breathing room and a space to interact with those from within and outside of the academy. It was, from my point of view, a delight, and a warm and welcoming feeling to be embraced into this discussion so whole-heartedly.

The presentations given at the Symposium both celebrated and informed the gathering. The topics ranged from the environment to online resources to sexuality and its representation in Fantasy, giving us a brief glimpse of how the narrative in the genre has changed. If anything, this Symposium enforced the idea that the study and understanding of fantasy in academia, literature, and on a larger research scale is welcomed, and wonderfully embraced by people all over. Many were curious about a picturebook involving aliens and a cat. Nearly wordless, it was a perfect example of a storyteller’s delight.

David Weisner, Mr Wuffles!

This Symposium also connected people within the University of Glasgow. A teambuilding exercise took place after a break for lunch. The written idea of what is needed – what does fantasy mean to us, how does it act, what does it do, why is it needed – was debated in small groups. An interest in bringing new people into the fold, celebrating new authors and other branches of fantasy, was expressed. Inclusion and exchange were ideas brought up by many groups. The recognition of the need for accepting the world at large and bringing in those who are curious about fantasy was warming to hear. There is no need to hide in the shadows, lurking away from the public eye when it comes to the increasing passion to embrace the world of the fantastic. There was a general sense of needing to let others know that they are welcomed into this genre. Both students and professors had an amazing chance to exchange ideas, talk about their interests, and plan for future ideas. Our shared understanding of how to move forward with the collection of creative ideas to make something more will lead, we hope, to an archive to be drawn on for the teaching of fantasy and the fantastic.

When the sun started to set on the day, and the winds rolled low, esteemed author Terri Windling gave parting words in her Keynote speech, encouraging us to wonder, to cling to fantasy, to create and to build upon the world through our amazement at its wonders and through our embracing of its darkness. Having never outgrown the world of fantasy, Terri was able to deliver this message to us, her audience. As a storyteller myself, Terri’s words rang loud and clear. Her poise and grace, as she talked to us about what inspired her and how she became a writer, was profound.

As Jonathan Gottschall said, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories”. I firmly believe this applies to the Symposium and the future that will unfold from the collaborative creativity that came from it. And so, dear reader, what stories will you tell next? They can be fantastic, they can be sad, they can be grand, funny… whatever we wish, because we are storytellers. So, again: what stories will wetell next?

Jennifer Porath

John Bauer

In Search of Wild Stories

[This fourth blog post from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019 is by Ben Holden, a fantasy writer and blogger from the South Pennines who now lives with his wife and son in the North East of England.  Given the visual nature of what he’s written here I thought it best to keep images to a minimum.  The other posts in the series can be found in the category ‘Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019’.]

At the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, I spoke about how mass extinction and climate crisis intensify the need to open ourselves to the wild intelligence of place, allowing the rocks, rivers, winds, and wild others to speak through our stories.

In her keynote, Terri Windling spoke about this in depth, and her closing passage stuck with me.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings — and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, “magic” is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with the natural world, and our nonhuman neighbours. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

As someone with a desire to write wild stories, I have spent too many hours in the shadowlands of the Internet. I have used it as an anaesthetic for grief and fear, and all the other shadows that live in me.

Well it just won’t do. I need to have more courage. Starting today, I’m going to immerse myself in wild places. An occasional stroll in the woods has not been enough. I need to go deeper.

 

Day 1 – A Hidden Dell

There are three small rivers that run through the woods next to my house. One of these streams possesses hundreds of the moss-covered stones I love so much.

I followed the stream the other day, and found a secluded dell hidden amidst the oak, ash and birch trees, with a pool and a small waterfall.

This is the spot I’ve chosen to get to know in intimate detail. If I immerse myself in this place with enough consistency, then perhaps I’ll find some of the wild source material I’m looking for.

 

Night I – A Moonlit Pool

From high on the slope, the stream is a patch of darkness hunkered in the lesser darkness of the surrounding dell. If it wasn’t for the healthy trickle of water, then that thick vein of shadow could easily be bottomless rift.

As I get down close, things change.

In the pool’s dark surface, the moon is illuminating a procession of clouds, heading north on a steady wind. Water boatmen are gliding across the mottled cloudscape, silver lips encircling the contact points between their feet and the pool’s surface.

There’s a root digging into my chest, so I shift position, and the moon in the river is drawn out into a quivering silver scarab by the turbulence of the falling water, dimming as a veil of clouds draws over it.

When this happens, the silhouetted canopy of ash and oak pushes itself out from the dark of the sky; thousands of shifting leaves, black against the moonlit cloud-curtain.

I lie back on the ground and allow myself to relax into the moment. It feels good to be here, with the stream splashing merrily away.

At the Symposium, Dr Saeko Yazaki was telling me about how Japan is covered in shrines for Kami – nature gods – and how the many numinous pockets of the British Isles felt a little naked without any shrines. I confessed a desire to make a small shrine of my own, as a way of entering into a conversation with my local cosmos.

It is here, on this shelf of slanted rock at the top of the little waterfall, that I will make the shrine.

 

Day II – A River Shrine

In the dappled morning light, I ask the stream for permission to begin the shrine. My question feels empty, so I kneel on the soil, bow my head, and ask again, this time not with words, but with the silent language of my body’s longing to connect – to be engaged in a conversation with this ancient little river.

My rational mind tells me this is somewhat ridiculous – that the stream and its dell have no idea I’m even here. Then I remember how many billions of living organisms reside in a pinch of the soil beneath my feet. Can they feel my body’s weight, or the warmth seeping out of my hands? Can the mycelium sense my footfalls? And what do they tell the trees? Are these grasses, ferns, moss and leaves breathing in my out-breath, or are my exhalations carried away in the breeze? I don’t know what this stream and its dell knows, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I take off my boots, socks, and roll my trouser legs up. If I want to become indigenous to this land then I have to be willing to get wet.

It feels a bit rude to go shifting the river’s stones around without first getting to know them, and perhaps, strange as it sounds, asking for permission. Even if the river can’t give me a written notice to validate the rearrangement of its stones, it still feels right to ask.

I take a few deep breaths and look around at the rocks inhabiting the stream.

My eyes fall upon a curved, lichen-speckled boulder, with clumps of grass growing out of it. After spending a few minutes paying attention to the stone, I ask if it would like to be part of my little shrine.

If I were born into a culture that perceived the land as sentient, then perhaps the rock would answer me. But I’m not, and it doesn’t.

I imagine a Native American elder disapproving of my decision to lift this stone from the riverbed when it didn’t give permission. I know I’m disturbing the homes of many small creatures, including the mosses, lichen, slime moulds, beetle larvae and the bacteria that live inside the rock, but screw it. I’m avaricious, like No-Face from Spirited Away, and this is a lovely plump rock that will do nicely in the shrine. I pluck it out from the river bed and shamble over to the waterfall.

An hour later, there is flat base of stones resting on the slanting shelf of bedrock. It’s far squarer than I wanted it to be, which is a little disappointing, since curvature feels essential. I’ll have to use smaller, rounder stones on the other layers. Still, there is an opening at either end of the shrine’s foundations for water to flow through, and it feels good to at least have that.

 

Night II – River’s Voice

No moon tonight.

Everything feels thicker – the sky, the undergrowth, the air, the darkness.

My wife, Laurie, and Robin, my baby son, are both away tonight, and I’m feeling their absence.

I don’t want to do any meditation or experimental exercises – I just want to sit in the river’s company and listen.

I listen as closely as I can, and begin to realise that the river has unpronounceable phonemes. It speaks them three at a time, continually – a babbling incantation that goes on and on. Not even a Mongolian throat singer can do that.

The silver splashes, the under-gurgles and the steady trickle of water flowing through the mouth of the unfinished shrine; together, these water-notes are the river’s voice.

 

Night III

Nothing. Just the slow building of familiarity.

 

Night IV – Speaking in Movement

The river is always in motion, but since coming here I’ve been fairly static, so my work tonight is to move.

I stand up and allow the river’s voice to urge my body into a fluid little dance. Spritely water-notes spill up to me as I sway over the river, then fade, becoming deeper, more subterranean tones as the dense bank comes between me and the water.

This discovery, that simple movement can reveal hidden dimensions of the river, is a reminder that I need to get outside my comfort zone more often.

 

Day III – Shrine Making

I slip into the woods before breakfast and spend an hour building the shrine. Nothing special happens. I just move stones, and the shrine grows. It is starting to take on the curvature I wanted. One more session will do it.

 

Night V – Talking to the River

The practice of speaking out loud to a place is something I’ve tried before and never really managed to get into.

Tonight is different. Once I begin speaking, the words come tumbling out.

I confess to the river that each time I come here, I want something profound to happen – a sublime moment or insight. In speaking this thought, I realise that I’m putting too much pressure on our friendship. We’ve only been getting to know each other for the last week or so. Deep friendship will require patience and consistency.

‘What am I?’ I ask the river. ‘This creature with two legs, a beating heart, a den made of bricks, and bills to pay.’

As I stare at the tumbling stream, I’m re-minded that my body is mostly water. My body and the river’s are made of much of the same stuff! How did I forget this?

The vast community of bacteria living inside me, and the intricate constellations of human cells can all trace their lineage back to the ocean. A common home to a common ancestor I share with every single creature living in this river and its neck of the woods.

I speak these thoughts to the river, and begin to feel more at home. A sense of kinship is growing.

An hour passes, with me babbling on at great length as thoughts and ideas pour out of me, but when it comes time to leave, something strange happens.

As I climb along the slope, the river’s voice recedes, and with it, my ability to speak.

I could force it, if I really wanted to, but I’m stepping into less familiar terrain now, and to speak out loud would feel like going up to a group of strangers in a train station and pouring out my darkest secrets.

It was only inside the familiar ambit of the dell that it felt safe to speak. The tumbling, splashing eloquence of the river’s voice coaxed out my words, and now that it’s gone, I’ve fallen silent.

 

Day IV – A ‘Finished’ Shrine

I’ve been worrying that the shrine will look ugly when it’s done and will be difficult to finish, but it comes together with ease this morning.

I remove the massive round stone that was sticking out brutishly, and just about manage to lift it onto the shrine’s lid.

It looks like a head now, looking downstream, and its ‘headness’ makes the rest of the shrine look like the squat round body an ancient creature, not quite human. What would happen if I imagined myself into the body of this shrine? What would it see? What would it know? If it could stand up and walk around at night, where would it go, and why?

I want to stay and let the shrine speak, but deadlines are approaching, and I still need to type up my notes for this post, so I greet the shrine with a bow, and head back to the house.

~

My conversations with this little river are changing me.

Its voice guides me in each night and gives me solace, wild dreams, and source material for work.

A place has opened up inside me, from knowing that there is somewhere I can go which invites a conversation with my local cosmos.

I feel anchored. I’ve left the shadowlands of the Internet. I’ve spent many hours in the woods, but now I’ve finally entered them.

And they’ve entered me.

As someone with a desire to write the kind of fantasy which ignites a wild participation in the planet’s story, having tap-roots in the local cosmos feels vital, so I’ll keep going to my little shrine.

The work is just beginning.

Ben Holden

Reflections on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic

[This is the third blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first and second are here and here). It’s the second ever guest blog post on The City of Lost Books, and is written by Taylor Driggers, who is currently completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow on Becoming Psyche: Quest(ion)ing Myths of the Divine Feminine in the Desert.  Taylor’s own blog, Dancing in the Desert, can be found here.]

Kelvin Hall

Recently I attended the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic held at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on Friday, the 10th of May. I was part of a cohort of scholars, writers, industry professionals, and fans who came together with the aim of sharing ideas and discussing our hopes and plans for the Research Centre for Fantasy currently in development at the University of Glasgow. If the presentations and conversations on the day were any indicator, the centre shows some promise of being an indispensable resource, although this will crucially depend on a conscious and sustained effort for accessibility, inclusivity, and material support from the institution.

Of the 5-minute talks that comprised the symposium’s two morning sessions, I was particularly struck by Mariana Rios Maldonado’s presentation on ‘Tolkien, Ethics, and the Other’, Ruth Booth’s discussion of how fandom spaces can build relationships between creative and academic communities, and Dale Knickerbocker’s reflections on fantasy as a tool for teaching ideology. I found that the questions raised by Maldonado’s research are strikingly similar to the ones that drive my own work on fantasy and queer religious imaginaries: namely, can fantasy help us contend with difference? How does the strangeness of fantasy allow us to re-think how we relate to others as radically other and create communities based on non-competitive, non-oppositional, but nonetheless disruptive encounters? These questions implicitly informed many other presentations during the day, including Sally Gales’ discussion of how the concept of ‘dead space’—used to describe abandoned spaces where abandoned people often congregate—informs her dystopian fiction, as well as Francesca T. Barbini’s presentation on her company Luna Press’s commitment to publishing accessible SFF scholarship. Maldonado’s talk in particular stood out to me because of its nuance and its radicalism. Drawing on the work of Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas, her research applies an intersectional analytical framework to Tolkien’s common themes of heroism, evil, death, and free will in a way that deftly complicates the usual talking points about representation in Middle-earth.

J R R Tolkien

If Maldonado’s presentation provided a fruitful starting point for theorizing about fantasy’s potential for imagining more equitable communities, Booth and Knickerbocker each offered practical approaches to extending this potential to our own working and networking habits. As a fellow southerner from the American ‘Bible belt’, I resonated deeply with Knickerbocker’s exploration of fantasy as a tool for challenging oppressive ideologies in a classroom setting. As with many of his students, fantasy has been one of my primary outlets for questioning the assumptions and beliefs of the environment in which I was raised. Booth, meanwhile, drew on her experiences as both a scholar and writer of fantasy to demonstrate how fandom spaces, though by no means utopian, create exciting opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. As both these presentations showed, fantasy’s ability to foster ‘[communion] with other living things’, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-stories’, need not be confined to the private reflections of the reader; it can (and arguably should) also spill over into the public and professional lives of all who engage with fantasy texts. This is the thought that lingers in my mind the most, not only from the morning’s presentations but also from the afternoon discussion of hopes and plans for the fantasy research centre.

Perhaps relevant to my overall impressions of the event is that it occurred during a period of anxiety on my own part about whether I will be able to build a sustainable career in academia. My reflections on it in the intervening days have undoubtedly been coloured by my broader concerns about the institutional structures that govern and shape our research and teaching. To paraphrase words spoken by a colleague during the afternoon roundtable discussion, it’s all very well to speak about fantasy’s potential for inclusiveness of ‘the other’ and its ability to speak to marginal experiences. The challenge is figuring out how we will embody that notion in our professional, creative, and institutional practices. I have been fortunate during my time as a PhD student at the University of Glasgow to be working in a subject area that values and actively cultivates the study of fantasy fiction. Nonetheless, at present, access to academic resources and a research community often come with steep financial barriers of entry, contentions with national borders and immigration policies, and precarious working conditions, and this limits our discipline’s ability to put into practice what many of us preach in our work.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 2003 that in the face of capitalist exploitation and homogenisation, ‘fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense—to regain the knowledge—that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life’. It follows, then, that as writers, researchers, independent scholars, and fans of fantasy, we must also seek to live another kind of life in our everyday, primary world existence. The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow has an opportunity to imagine more equitable and sustainable ways of pursuing academic research, creative work, and public engagement, and to put structures in place to support that work. Judging by the ideas shared at the symposium, there are many reasons to be optimistic about its ability to do this. It will only happen, however, if we are honest about things as they currently stand in the academy, leverage what institutional authority or power we may have to effect change, and collaboratively come together to unbuild the walls that limit access and inclusion.

Taylor Driggers

Antonio Canova

Fantasy Exists Badly: Creating a Centre for Fantasy in Glasgow

[This is the second blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first is here). It’s also the first guest blog post on The City of Lost Books. For that reason I’m delighted that it was written by one of our graduates, Marita Arvaniti, who will be beginning a PhD with us in September this year, on Fantasy in the Theatre. Marita raises some important issues here about the economics of academia, among other things…]

What does Fantasy do? What is Fantasy for?

Those were the two main questions that we were called to answer on Friday, May 10th, in a Kelvin Hall seminar room. We were scholars, young academics, students, writers, editors, and fans, brought together by the morning’s talks and coffee breaks and now ready to tackle the second part of the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic: the Discussion.

All of us were seated around impromptu cardboard tables (“Imagine a table”, suggested Rhys Williams as we struggled to balance the cardboard on our legs and arm rests, and we did), presented with big sheets of paper and markers, and asked to think and talk creatively about fantasy and the fantastic. It was important that everyone gets to talk, that everyone has a voice, but other than that we weren’t given any guidance. At the end of the talk I sneaked a look around the room to see the many different approaches people had taken to filling out their pieces of paper. Huge blocks of text and carefully bullet pointed lists all seemed miles away from my group’s haphazard collection of thoughts and ideas, thrown slapdashedly onto the page.

Our conversation started with a joke. According to our team the thing that fantasy both does and is for was “mental acrobatics”. But the joke soon took  on a life of its own as we started to realize its potential. Fantasy makes us perform mental acrobatics every time it presents us with an impossible situation, helping our mind think and move in ways that we are not used to in our everyday life. Fantasy exercises the imagination, makes us more flexible by presenting us with unimagined possibilities that attack the perceived realities of our world that are filled with inequality and hate. Fantasy is also playful: a genre, a mode that has inspired great parodies of itself and nurtured authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Even Tolkien, who protested silliness or buffoonery, has, we decided, ‘something of a B-movie quality about him,’ and where his imitators went wrong was in ignoring that.

In the end, my favourite view of Fantasy as we discussed it is the quote that gives this blog post its title: Fantasy exists badly. It exists as a joke, as a B-movie, as a formulaic sword and sorcery novel, as an all-white, all-male club. It also exists as the antithesis to itself, an oxymoron (I’m sure no other fantasy scholar has made that comment) that was able to provide the ground for the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Kushner, N. K. Jemisin, and Kai Ashante Wilson to thrive.

Fantasy exists badly. With that in mind we moved to the second issue we were called to discuss: What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do? And this, dear reader, is where this blogpost becomes less of a paean and more of a cry.

The sad truth is that the truth is sad, to paraphrase Lemony Snickett, and in this, as in all academic conversations I take part in these days, it all boiled down to this: more funding. Paid internships, paid positions in the University for Grad students and PhDs, paid initiatives that will help us all come together and create a centre for fantasy and the fantastic in this wonderful city that a lot of us desperately want to call home. Because the ideas were there. The will was there, driving us all forward to put down suggestions ranging from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from whimsical dreams of the university providing Rob Maslen with a group of (paid) flying monkeys à la the Wicked Witch of the West to serious requests for the one thing that’s not in our power to offer: more funding.

Fantasy academia relies heavily on the force of its cult status, kept alive by the love of people willing to give up their time freely and consistently. It is, for many of us, a passion made into a career, the official endorsement we needed to keep spending our time reading books about dragons, orogenes, witches, and fairies. Sadly, we’ll do it for free.

T

This is not to say that things aren’t changing. If anything, my writing of this blogpost and taking part in that wonderful conversation in Kelvin Hall proves it. Opportunities such as this amazing Symposium would have been impossible last year, perhaps unthinkable the year before that. But as a graduate of the MLitt Fantasy course who has to watch as some of my most brilliant classmates and friends received rejections despite their brilliant proposals, and deal with my own rejection and what that means for the future of my PhD, I am worried whether that change will come fast enough to help any of us, or whether we’ll do the job that’s in front of us for free, out of a passion that might sustain the mind but will definitely not pay the rent.

Fantasy exists badly and so, for the moment, does fantasy academia. But with this Symposium came an unmistakable hope for change, and a momentum that will drive us forward, if we let it.

Marita Arvaniti

Fantasy at Glasgow: A History

Brian Froud

[Thanks to the astonishing Dimitra Fimi we had a magnificent Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic at the Kelvin Hall in early May. Speakers included Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams, Brian Attebery and Dale Knickerbocker, as well as Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press and writers, artists, academics and fantasy activists from across Scotland and beyond, all gathered together to think about what we might do with a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic here in Glasgow. Our keynote was the inspirational Terri Windling.

Here is the introductory talk I gave at the Symposium. More material from the event will be appearing on this blog in days to come. I hope these posts will give those of you who couldn’t come a sense of being part of the conversation; please join in if you feel so inclined. It won’t be ending any time soon!]

The imagination is the capacity to invoke in your mind the image or idea of something not actually present. The art of fantasy, for me, is the art of invoking the image or idea of something that never existed and never could exist. For it to be true fantasy, that denial of the possibility of the thing’s existence seems to me essential, otherwise fantasy becomes something else – religious faith, perhaps. At the same time, if it’s good fantasy it needs to make the impossible seem possible, breaking down to some extent, for a time, our understanding of the distinction between what’s true and what’s false, or between what’s reasonable and what’s clearly arrant nonsense. Fantasy is the art of lies breathed through silver, as C S Lewis put it – though he was thinking of myths at the time. It makes lies beautiful; it makes lies breathe; and that can be both a good thing and a danger to all who get caught up in it.

Annibale Carracci

What is possible changes over time, and differs between cultures. Cultures too change, making the past an alien country whose inhabitants found many things plausible which to us are completely absurd. It’s essential, then, to study fantasy historically. That’s been a driving force of my approach since I first got the chance to teach a Masters course in fantasy, as Visiting Professor at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, between January and April 2004. After that I came home and set up an Honours course at the University of Glasgow called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’. It proved at once that the appetite for fantasy was strong among undergraduates, at least; we’ve had to set a cap on numbers every year since it was founded.

Aristodemo Costoli

This appetite was noticed by my colleague Alice Jenkins, who urged me to think of setting up a Masters programme in fantasy. I was reluctant at first because of the cost in terms of workload. At the time I was the only member of staff in the English Department who admitted to an interest in fantasy on my webpage, so I would have to devise and deliver the programme more or less by myself. But I went ahead in 2015, encouraging my lovely colleagues in Creative Writing to offer a workshop suitable for Fantasy Masters students, picking out already established courses from across the university – such as the Children’s Literature courses offered by my good friends in the School of Education, Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell – as suitable options to sit alongside the two core courses I had put together.

Arthur Rackham

I also worked hard to set up events and bring speakers to the programme. Over the four years of the course’s existence these have included the following: Ben Smith and Jon Oliver, Head of Books and Commissioning Editor at Rebellion publishing. The authors Julie Bertagna, Hal Duncan, Kij Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, Christopher Priest, Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson and Neil Williamson. The academics Jennifer Attebery, Andrew Butler, Edward James, Will Slocombe and Anna Vaninskaya. Events have included two separate workshops with Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Terri Windling, under the rubric ‘Reimagining Fantasy’. An evening festival of music, light and dramatic performance, ‘Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland’, which involved around 50 volunteers – many of them past and present students from the Fantasy programme – and brought around 800 visitors to the Hunterian Museum. Our now annual GIFCon conference (Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, for those who don’t know), of which this year’s is the third instalment. And the appointment of Brian Attebery as the world’s first Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Fantasy (thanks for coming, Brian, and for speaking here today!).

Kinuko Y. Kraft

The numbers on our MLitt have been high for an Arts programme at that level; around 20 a year, over half of whom are international. Alice Jenkins, now our Head of School, has created two new posts in fantasy – the first such posts in history, I think – which brought us the talents and energies of two world-class scholars, Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi. And the programme has attracted interest from around the world, simply by virtue of being the only dedicated graduate fantasy programme in existence.

Shaun Tan

Has the time come to think of branching out? Of seeing how the art of the impossible enables us to understand the world differently? How might the impossible itself – the concept of what could never exist in the past or the present – point the way to new ways of seeing and doing things in the future? What, as Rhys is always asking us, are the affordances of fantasy?

François Schuiten

We’re meeting here today to think about the activities, the thinking and the research that might help us address these questions. And we’re also here to ask a follow-up question. What might a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do for us? What might we want it to do? We’d like to respond to these questions with your help, as representatives of many academic disciplines, many kinds of work in the world, many kinds of creativity. We’d like to begin the process of putting together what we’re calling a Manifesto for Fantasy and the Fantastic.

Welcome to Fantasy at Glasgow. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you at this symposium.

Gustave Doré