Religious fantasy, for a great many readers, is synonymous with Christian fantasy; more specifically, it is understood as literature overtly reproducing biblical narratives within a fantasy world, such as C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Concurrently, fantasy texts engaging with theology through non-allegorical means that challenge mainstream Christian doctrine are all too often dismissed as disingenuous, offensive or deliberately antagonistic. While this is sometimes the case, such a narrow view of religious fantasy excludes all but the least innovative texts from the genre and leaves little room for authors of other faiths. Furthermore, the dominance of texts affirming orthodoxy in religious fantasy discourse threatens to blind us to another side of belief: that radical, sometimes even heretical, literary reconfigurations of religion can also be acts of devotion.
If religious fantasy is instead allowed to encompass heterodoxy and heresy, theological subversions and expressions of misotheism, then the affordances of religious fantasy expand far beyond the didacticism popularly attributed to it. Understood in these terms, religious fantasy can be used: to affirm one’s identity and spiritual worth in opposition to official doctrines which may deny it, as a tool of protest against unjust systems of power, to explore complex spiritual responses to historical instances of religious complicity in atrocities, or to express lived spiritual experiences which do not conform to orthodox teachings.
This online conference, supported by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow, aims to explore the wide ranging affordances of heterodoxy and heresy in fantasy texts across a wide range of faiths. We welcome 20-minute papers from postgraduate students and early career researchers working in any area of fantasy or theology. These papers might address, but are not limited to, the following topics:
Queer, feminist and womanist theology in fantasy
Non-Western, post-colonial or anti-colonial heresies and fantasy
Misotheism, ‘New’ Atheism and Death of God theology in fantasy
Fantasy and interreligious dialogue
The affordances of fantasy in theologies of protest
New Media’s interactions with fantasy and theology, and how this might differ from traditional media
Please submit a 300 word abstract and a short bio (maximum 150 words) to Dissenting.Beliefs@gmail.com with the subject line ‘Abstract Submission’ by 31st August. Only applications from graduate students and early career researchers will be considered for this conference. We are particularly keen to highlight the contributions of underrepresented authors within the fantasy genre at this conference, therefore we will also not be accepting submissions on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman.
This event will take place online on 11th December 2021 and will be made accessible to the public via both zoom and the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic’s YouTube channel.
The emerging field of “animal studies” shifts critical thought away from an assumption of human supremacy and instead explores the web of interdependence that enmeshes humans with all other forms of life (Crane 2015: 1). As Anna Tsing puts it, “Human nature is an interspecies relationship” (2012: 144). But these conceptions are not new. Susan Crane writes, “The people of medieval Britain lived in daily contact with domestic and wild animals. Forest and wasteland loomed over settlements, and even city streets teemed with all kinds of creatures” (2012: 1).
The medieval animal is explored in a number of recent monographs, e.g. Animals in the Middle Ages by Nona C. Flores (2000), The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., by Joyce E. Salisbury (2010), Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain by Susan Crane (2012), and Medieval Pets by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (2021), among others. Animals mattered to J.R.R. Tolkien, too, and his writings frequently engage with medieval conceptions of the interspecies relationships between humans and non-human animals. A few examples include Farmer Giles and his dog, Garm, Gandalf and Shadowfax, and bestiary animals Fastitocalon, the Oliphaunt, and dragons. Lists of animals found in Middle-earth are available online (e.g. here and here).
We welcome proposals for this paper session on “Tolkien and the Medieval Animal.” Interdisciplinary topics are welcome, and scholars might engage with a number of diverse fields, such as anthropology, art history, biology, communication, geography, history, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. Panelists may also employ various theoretical perspectives.
Contemporary trends in Young Adult fantasy literature demonstrate a close relationship between young adult stories and a global medieval settings. Young Adult fantasies often use medieval settings to position arguments around identity, race, culture, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, violence, environmentalism, technology, folklore, and magic. We want to open a conversation about the turn toward a Global Middle Ages in Young Adult fantasy and its opportunities and challenges for new voices, groups, cultures, and readers.
Since the days of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, settings for fantasy novels have largely been modelled upon the medieval North: the British Isles and Scandinavia. In the last decade, a wave of emerging voices in the field of Young Adult fantasy have turned to the rich variety of cultural models, mythologies, and folklore traditions of the “Global Middle Ages,” that is pre-modern Africa, Asia, the Americas, Austronesia, even eastern and southern Europe. Among this wave of authors who write on global medievalism are Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, P. Djèlí Clark, Hafsah Faizal, Julie Kagawa, Nnedi Okrafor, Rebecca Roanhorse, Nghi Vo, Neon Yang, and many others.
We want to reveal not only cultures which have previously been silenced, but also groups which have been silenced, including women, the enslaved, indigenous peoples, queer, or disabled groups.
Paper abstracts are currently being sought for the following Tolkien sessions for the Leeds International Medieval Congress, to be held at the University of Leeds on 4-7 July 2022. These sessions are organised by Dr Andrew Higgins and sponsored by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow. The special thematic strand of the conference will be “Borders” which is reflected in several of the suggested sessions.
Paper submissions are being sought for the following sessions:
Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches
This session can accommodate thematic topics on, and new approaches to, Tolkien’s medievalism, ranging from source studies and theoretical readings, to comparative studies of Tolkien’s and others’ works.
Tolkien and Medieval Poets: A Session in Memory of Richard C. West
This session is in memory of medievalist and distinguished Tolkien scholar who we sadly lost in 2020: Richard C. West. Richard wrote some of the most important and influential early scholarship on Tolkien including his seminal 1975 essay ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings’ which demonstrated how the narrative interlace structure used by medieval authors influenced Tolkien’s work. In memory of Richard’s scholarship papers in this session will explore the influence and impact of works of medieval poetry and poets on the creative thought, process, and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Crossing Borders in Middle-earth
This will be the first session to directly address the special thematic strand of the conference. Papers in this session can explore any aspects of borders in Tolkien’s works in the broadest sense of the term. We welcome explorations of geographical, conceptual, political, linguistic and other borders in Middle-earth studies.
Borders between Life and Death in Tolkien’s Legendarium
In the second session related to the thematic strand of the conference we are looking for papers that explore themes around metaphysical borders and liminal spaces between life and death in Tolkien’s works and their influences.
Family Ties: The Limits of Kinship in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
In his vast and complex life-long world-building Tolkien put a great focus in his narrative and para-textual work on developing networks of relationships between different races, languages and families, as in the case of the genealogies found in The Silmarillion and in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. These networks of various forms of kinship create their own borders between the many peoples of Middle-earth. This session welcomes papers that will explore the many different types of kinship networks Tolkien establishes in his legendarium and how they work within his rich secondary world.
Orientation, Transgression, and Crossing Borders of Middle-earth
Papers in this session will explore broader topics around different types of less evident borders found in Tolkien’s creative thought and writing. They can include orientations and borders that are encountered and crossed (or not) in various types of social interactions and relationships in Tolkien’s legendarium including social, linguistic, racial and sexual.
Tolkien as a Gateway to Interdisciplinary Teaching: A Roundtable
For our 2022 Roundtable we would like to hear from teachers who have used the works of Tolkien to introduce and engage students with new fields of study and disciplines. How have you used the works of Tolkien as a gateway for students to explore and become passionate about other areas of study?
Please submit a paper title and abstract by 31 August 2021 to Dr. Andrew Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Thank you to so many of you who joined us for our journey to Narnia with Katherine Langrish last week! We are delighted to share a report on this event by School of Education PhD student Anita Lawrence. Anita tweets at @lawrea.
Sometimes when we are engrossed in the study of literature, especially that written for children, it’s easy to forget who the target audience is. Sometimes we need to step back from the application of reading theories, from the search for authorial intent and read a book again through the eyes of our childhood selves. And that’s exactly what the children’s author, Katherine Langrish has done with her evocative new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe. Her journey through Narnia as an adult reader in conversation with her nine year old self was the topic of her talk for the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic – a journey along with which the international audience was whisked away at breathtaking speed as we revisited the books which have had such a profound impact on children’s reading, and children’s literature over the last 70 years.
Katherine described how her book came about following a series of blogs on fantasy, fairytales and folklore (steelthistles.blogspot.com) when, upon sharing the Narnian Chronicles with her own children, she found they weren’t as keen on them as she remembered herself being. Harry Potter, it seems, had taken over from the world of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter. In order to try and find out why, Katherine revisited the books to see how they had changed when reading with an adult eye. What did she remember of them from her childhood, and what new revelations would they hold for the grown up reader?
Exposure to Narnia evokes strong memories in many readers – Katherine spoke of the tangible recall of “bristly armchairs” when reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. My memory of my first encounter with Narnia is listening to my mum reading it aloud to me – the books lend themselves to reading aloud beautifully and I know exactly where I was sitting and how it felt during those precious read-aloud times. I’ve read the books aloud to countless classes since then, even holding whole school story sessions to read The Magician’s Nephew to children aged 4 to 11 and I hope they remember not only the story but also the visceral sensations of the hall floor, and the swoosh of local traffic and the smells coming from the canteen as we shared the magic of the book together. Because the thing about Narnia is that we desperately want it to be real. For the nine year old Katherine, there was no option for it not to be real. “You’re meant to feel that way,” explained her mum, when the young reader expressed her belief that Narnia had to exist.
The books are explored not in order of their publication, but according to their ‘internal chronology’. Katherine explained how this approach helped to create a coherent approach. It isn’t without its problems, however, as she explained – Lewis’s eclectic take on events leaves gaps which the adult reader on revisiting can see clearly, where events and characters don’t always relate to the subsequent back story. But reading them in order of how the story unfolds made narrative sense.
Katherine talked about Lewis’s distinctive voice, explaining how his voice remains the same regardless of his audience, be they child, literary critic or Christian apologist. She suggested that he read with a child’s directness and that this influenced the way in which he wrote – was he an ardent reader of children’s books as an adult, she mused? – and compared his directness of approach to that of the medieval writer. Medieval literature, she suggested, has the same candour. It can be subtle and nuanced, but at its heart, it aims to tell a story with colour. Narnia is like that, she said.
The specialness of Narnia as a place was apparent throughout Katherine’s talk. She described the sense of longing for Narnia which forms a thread through all the books, even though the reader knows little of the history of the land at all. Lewis provides glimpses of a great and long history but little in the way of detail. And when Narnia is restored, the children are sent away leaving the land as something almost too slippery to grasp. Narnia remains on the edge of our understanding and experience; a place to be visited and to be desired, but, perhaps, not to be known. And that brings us to Aslan. The terrifying, beautiful, all-knowing, all-seeing lion who frightens us with his roars and his fearsome power, and yet into whose mane every reader wants to snuggle as Lucy and Susan did before his sacrifice at the Stone Table. Katherine talked about how Aslan’s character changes throughout the Chronicles – the lion incarnate in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; remote in The Horse and His Boy; his late appearance in Prince Caspian as a faith character; his manifestation as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; as remote, good but absent lawgiver and redeemer in The Silver Chair; and finally, in The Last Battle appearing only at the very end on the Day of Judgement. Katherine explained how she wished she could have spent more time exploring the changing character of Aslan in her book. But would the nine year old Katherine have seen Aslan changing? Perhaps not. Perhaps for a child, Aslan will always be the soft, protective, frightening but just creature that you want to hold and stroke and feel. Perhaps for the grown up, Aslan is necessarily more remote.
In exploring Lewis’s inspiration, Katherine spoke about his childhood in Ireland and the Irish imagery and scenery that comes through in the stories. There are clear influences from numerous classic texts, not least of which include Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the stories of St. Brendan. His Irish roots are reflected through the storytelling, and the sense of longing which is apparent throughout the Chronicles. But there are well-documented problems with the books – the racist undertones and the accusation that his stories are sexist amongst them. Katherine refuted the latter, describing feisty girls who hold their own just as much as the boys, and suggesting that writers envisaged their readers as either boys or girls and that the reader mentally shifted gender in the reading and read as a boy or a girl accordingly. The mental gymnastics of the child reader, accepting and internalising worlds and stories and realities which, as boring, rational adults we sometimes struggle with, are celebrated and, I would suggest, yearned for, in Katherine’s work.
The many questions from participants about influences, television and film adaptations, maps, food and imagery (there’s a whole blog to be written on the architectural aspect of the books with their passageways, attics, labyrinths and doorways!) showed just how ingrained the Chronicles of Narnia are in our rememberings of childhood readings of fantasy. As adults, we still yearn to explore all those aspects of Narnia which entranced us as children. Perhaps, suggested Katherine, writers for children are particularly skilled at preserving the child within? And whilst she acknowledged that we don’t get more than a fraction of the story on first reading of Narnia, somehow Lewis has managed to create a world which enables us as adults to return to its Chronicles and find new things which resonate not only with our adult selves but the child we preserve within. In wrapping up the session, Katherine suggested she would find it easy to go on talking about Narnia into the night. I suspect many of the audience would have willingly continued with her.
It’s impossible to put into a short blog the entire world of Narnia. Katherine has made an exceptional job of re-exploring that world in her book. What would the child Katherine make of the book, asked one audience member? She would definitely disagree with some bits, admitted Katherine! And therein lies Narnia’s, and Lewis’s power. We come at the books and the world of Narnia in multiple different ways as we grow older, as experiences change us and our view of our world. For my children, aspiring to be Harry Potter has coloured and influenced their world view – I’m sure my youngest still expects a letter to arrive from Hogwarts at any moment apologising for the delay in summoning him to school. For my children, being magical like Harry has been something to aspire to, to yearn for throughout their childhoods. For me, growing up with Narnia, it was the very fact that Lucy and her siblings were so utterly normal that made me want to be with them. Magical things happened to them – and so maybe they could happen to me as well. It’s been many years, but I remain hopeful. As Katherine explained, Lewis built on the Platonic view that, if you desire and believe in something enough, it must exist. And with that in mind, I’m off to explore the back of the wardrobe in the attic.
If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:
The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow is inviting expressions of interest from candidates who are considering applying for a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship focusing on research projects on fantasy/the fantastic.
Given the highly competitive nature of this scheme, the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow has put in place an internal process to select, and then closely support, potential candidates to be put forward with the University of Glasgow. The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is keen to support excellent research projects on fantasy that might attract funding from the BA scheme. Therefore we are seeking to identify, at an early stage, candidates whom we would be keen to mentor. We will offer them tailored support in preparing an application for the College selection process.
The British Academy application process is in two stages: The deadline for Outline applications is anticipated to be in mid-October 2021 (date tbc by the British Academy). The deadline for the second stage (by invitation only) is usually mid-February. The College of Arts internal deadline for UofG candidates is going to be towards the end of August 2021 (date tbc by College of Arts).
If you are interested in applying with a research project that focuses on fantasy/the fantastic, please send a CV and a draft of the research proposal part of the BA application by Thursday 15th July 2021 to email@example.com.
Join us for a journey to Narnia! In her just-published book From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my Nine-Year-Old Self, celebrated children’s and young adult fantasy author Katherine Langrish has revisited her childhood reading of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series to explore what enchanted her in the books as a young reader, and ask whether they still have the power to do so. Hand in hand with her nine year-old self, Katherine traces many paths through Lewis’s thick forest of allusions not only to Christianity, but to Plato, fairy tales, myths, legends, medieval romances, renaissance poetry and indeed to other children’s books. She juxtaposes two very different ways of reading the Narnia stories: the adult, informed, rational way and the passionate childish way.
Join Katherine and the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic co-directors Dr Robert Maslen and Dr Dimitra Fimi, on Thursday 17th June at 5pm BST via Zoom webinar. Rob and Dimitra will interview Katherine about the book and all things Narnia, before giving attendees the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with Katherine.
Creative workshops have been a feature of GIFCon since the very start and this year is going to be no different! You will find the workshop abstracts below, followed by the organizer’s bios. The Eventbrite links for registration will be shared to conference attendees closer to the date. All workshops take place on Thursday, April 29th from 11:00 to 12:15.
There are, however, some important things to note about this year’s event. Unlike the panels, the workshops will not be recorded for asynchronous watching so we ask you not to register if you cannot make the time, to allow for the spaces to be filled with active participants. Spaces are limited and we expect the tickets to go reasonably quickly. With that in mind, please only register for one workshop: they all take place at the same time and while we have no doubt that some of you can triple-monitor attend all three, we believe it will be better to focus your creative energy on one.
Well, Colour Me Brown! – A Creative and Critical Workshop on Writing Spec-Fic
The Workshop will bring together issues and questions that plague the non-white, anglophone, writer of speculative fiction, with creative ideas for addressing and resolving them in our thinking and writing. The 75 minutes will be divided into 5 parts.
Part 1 Issues and Questions: A brief overview i) Language and translations ii) Local and ‘world’ mythology iii) Audience iv) Race and representation
Part 2 Language and translations: keeping it local but making it accessible
Part 3 Local and ‘world’ mythology: how to level the playing field without ghettoizing
Part 4 Audience: to whom are you writing and who is reading you?
Part 5 Race and representation: how decolonized are we really?
For a maximum of 20 participants; group work and discussions, as well as actual writing and sharing should be possible. Participants could bring along unfinished work that they would like to work on in the workshop, but this is not necessary.
Giti Chandra is currently Senior Researcher with the United Nations University in Reykjavik, and has been Associate Professor, Dept of English, at Stephen’s College, Delhi. Apart from published short stories and poetry, she is the author of The Book of Guardians Trilogy: The Fang of Summoning (Hachette: 2010), and The Bones of Stars (Hachette: 2013), and the third “The Eye of the Archer” due out in April, 2020. Sadly, nobody cares about her first book, a groundbreaking academic work on violence, but the second one is going to be a bestseller. Giti writes poetry in April, paints on Wednesdays, has a PhD from Rutgers, and feels that people would do well do learn that a cello is not an oversized violin. She lives in Reykjavik with books, a husband, two kids, a dog, and a cat.
Alienation and homecoming – writing in English as a non-dominant language
This workshop is intended primarily for multilingual writers (particularly those for whom English is their non-dominant and/or not their first language) and/or non-Western English speakers, but everyone interested in the topic is encouraged to join.
The aim of the workshop is to construct a framework for non-standard English as a unique means of writing and storytelling derived from personal linguistic experience. We will discuss how speaking other languages can influence and complement writing in English. We will cover prose rhythm across languages, dialects, code-switching and code-mixing as well as cultural phenomena. The workshop will foster an inclusive atmosphere where we can become better writers and more compassionate readers.
The workshop can accommodate up to 10 participants.
Karolina Fedyk writes speculative fiction and poetry about lost histories, found families, and futures born out of resistance and resilience. Their work has been published in Fireside Fiction and Strange Horizons, among other venues, and they’re a Viable Paradise alum. Their debut novel, Skrzydła, was published in Poland last year by SQN Imaginatio. They enjoy knitting, LARP, and looking for owls and kestrels.
Small Tools, Small Games, Small Memories : A GAME Making WORKSHOP
When video games are discussed both in and outside of academia, one much-prevailing narrative that surfaces in conversation is that developing interactive pieces is almost always a huge undertaking requiring sizable teams of developers with decades of expertise and knowledge. This is certainly true to a certain subset of video game development—triple A (AAA) video game studios often employ teams made up of upwards of 1000 people, all of whom work in highly specialised fields to bring video games that sit at the height of technological achievement to the market.
This is not all there is to video game development and video game making, however. Over the years, more and more tools began to emerge that make it possible for non-experts to create interactive experiences that, while often limited in scope, are certainly not limited in their capability to enable the making of imaginative interactive pieces. “Small tools” such as Adam Le Doux’s Bitsy, which places its focus on low graphics exploration-based narrative games, and Chris Klimas’ Twine that centers choice-based text adventures;make it possible to create impactful narrative-focused games that invite makers with little to no familiarity with game development practices to the table.
This workshop is open to those who are interested in making narrative games, but are less or not at all familiar with the industry standard technology to start. Using either Bitsy or Twine, participants of the workshop will focus on finding ways to tell an interactive story centered around a memory. They will be introduced to each tool and the simplest ways to use them, and will be invited to create their own game during the workshop which they can finish or polish afterward. Finished pieces can then be published and displayed in an itch.io collection and the GIFCon website.
Participant number: 15.
Mode of delivery: Zoom or Discord are both fine, and I’ll be available for questions afterwards via email, discord and twitter.
Pre-requisites & accessibility: Both proposed game making tools are browser-based and low impact, no high-end PC specs necessary.
Fruzsina Pittner is a video game artist, digital illustrator and current PhD candidate at the University of Dundee. She is a member of BIOME Collective, a multicultural co-working and game development group, as well as the Scottish Centre for Global History; and her research projects bring together illustration, digital comics, computer games and afrocentric speculative literature to investigate the relationships between storytelling, interaction and social change.
Mapping the Impossible is a brand new open-access student journal publishing peer-reviewed research into fantasy and the fantastic. The editorial board and reviewers are composed of current students and recent graduates from institutions across the world, and we are so pleased to be opening for submissions this month. If you’d like to get involved, we are currently looking for reviewers and we would love to hear from you.
We currently have two issues lined up. Our first issue, to be published in October 2021, will be a special issue for papers submitted from this year’s GIFCon. Our second issue, to be published in March 2022, will be a general issue. We operate with a rolling submissions window, and if you’re interested in submitting to us, we would love to see your paper no matter when it’s ready! Check out our submissions page for the details and guidelines.
Mapping the Impossible has been developed specifically with early-career research into fantasy and the fantastic in mind. We exclusively publish papers by current students and recent graduates, and we define “fantasy” very broadly. Our aim is to highlight the brilliant work being done by undergraduates, postgraduates and student researchers looking into fantasy, and give them a new avenue to publication.
We are affiliated with and supported by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic along with the annual fantasy research conference GIFCon, and are generously hosted by the University of Glasgow. It’s wonderful to be a part of such a vibrant community of fantasts, and we strongly encourage checking out the Centre, GIFCon, and the University of Glasgow’s Masters in Fantasy if the research we’re publishing inspires you.
On a personal note – putting together this journal, along with my colleagues Katarina O’Dette and Emma French, has been a real work of love, and we have a lot of people to thank for helping us get it off the ground. In the first instance, we have to highlight the wonderful work being done over at our sister publication, Press Start, who are publishing early career research in Game Studies and were the inspiration for Mapping the Impossible. The Press Start team have provided us with brilliant support in setting up, and without Matt Barr it’s likely we would have never got off the ground. Everyone at the Centre for Fantasy has been so enthusiastic and helpful, and their guidance has helped us work out the fine details of what you see today. And a special thanks must go to my brilliant sister, Lois Langmead, who was generous enough to donate some really wonderful illustrations to the site.
Working on GIFCon2021 was an exercise in balance. Joy and frustration mingled together as we tried to take advantage of our present difficulties to create a conference that would be more accessible and welcoming to scholars based outside of the UK, while at the same time maintaining some sense of a work/life balance for our committee of (mainly) PGR volunteers.
One of our biggest sources of joy was (re)discovering the work of our amazing creative keynotes: Xia Jia, and Amal El-Mohtar, and we wanted to share some of that joy with you all in preparation for our event. So, without further ado, we’re happy to offer a small reading list, featuring some of our favourite works of those authors, available online. Think of it as a wine tasting for your brain!
We’re looking forward to welcoming you to GIFCon 2021 on April 28th, 29th, and 30th. Register now on our Eventbrite here and feel free to peruse the programme which is available here.
Adam tends to the garden. He works among the flowers where the bees dance. Around his ankles, and up his legs, and across his shoulders coils the snake, its tongue flickering in his ear…
Oliver K. Langmead, Birds of Paradise
Behind Oliver’s face is another garden, of the zoom background variety, filled to the brim with blooming digital flowers. I am thankful for that part of the online book launch experience, at least. A real garden would make my allergies act up and that would have been embarrassing. Oliver is wearing a pink velvet suit jacket, a shirt with no collar and – allegedly – matching pink velvet trousers. Rob Maslen and Colin Herd, equally dressed up although neither of them dared to go down the velvet path, have joined him. The event starts, as is traditional, with a reading.
Unlike Rob Maslen, and unlike Oliver’s MLitt cohort, the Phoenixes, I’d never heard him read any of Birds of Paradise before today, separated as we were by a zoom connection and pretty much all of Glasgow. However, prior to reading my ARC of this book (thank you Netgalley, I promise the five stars is an honest rating and not just because I know the author), my only experiences with Langmeadian writing were live readings: a sparkle of his next novel, Glitterati, at a Fantasy Reading Party at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, a verse or two of his epic poem Calypso in a PhD cohort meeting back when we were still able to exist in the same room with each other. Birds of Paradise surprised me with its emotion, and by its ability to evoke emotions in me. There was a scene in Birds of Paradise that made me cry and I will freely admit that I did not expect Oliver Langmead to ever make me cry.
That is not a criticism of his other writing in any way. But my opinion of it has previously been very influenced by Oliver’s live readings, infused with chaotic, high voltage energy and the slight delight in pretentiousness that he and I share (although he wears it better than me, the bastard). Birds of Paradise is very like and yet completely unlike anything I was expecting. It is a quiet book, meditative and slow-paced, and even its moments of extravagant beauty or unflinching violence (both of which can be found within its pages) were alike cushioned by the hushed tones of Adam’s voice, his heavy-shadowed presence in every single one of Oliver’s words.
Adam, as I’m sure I will not be the last to say, is a character in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s Shadow, from American Gods. Closed off both from himself and the reader, unreliable in a way that is sombre rather than mischievous, a gentle giant carrying the world on his shoulders. I think the comparison with Gaiman’s Shadow leaves Langmead the winner. His Adam is real and relatable in a way that Shadow isn’t always, and his journey is less flashy but runs deeper. Hearing Oliver read the prologue and first few pages of his book’s first chapter was completely at odds with what I remembered from the other times I’ve heard him read. Rather than manic and energetic he was quiet, almost still, his voice steady. I have to imagine that everyone experienced this the same way I did, in a quiet room, listening to a description of the world’s first gardener.
After the reading Rob and Oliver discussed not only Birds of Paradise, but also Oliver’s previous and upcoming works: Dark Star and Metronome, his two published books, as well as his upcoming Glitterati and his PhD poem Calypso. But Adam kept creeping into the conversations like a vine, and Oliver discussed the seeds of his creation (a short story about a soldier wandering the desert rather than Eden’s clay and the breath of God) and what drew him to the character (“I like characters who are very rich and who give me a lot to work with and there’s nothing richer than a long life… Adam is interesting because he’s human”). Birds of Paradise seems to be a look into Oliver’s creative process in general, as he is constantly “trying to find fragments of Eden in the most unexpected places” as Rob put it, and Oliver agreed. He’s writing best, he claimed, when he’s miserable, finding in that emotion the need to make something beautiful, something gorgeous.
I’ve somehow gone on for almost 800 words without really talking about the event as a whole. Like most of the Creative Conversations I’ve been to it was delightful. It gave Oliver the space he needed to talk about his work in his own words, as well as Rob Maslen, who clearly loves Oliver’s work, to be his conversation partner. Other than the book itself, the two talked about the Fantasy MLitt programme, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, the University of Glasgow, and the creative process in general. In better times, this conversation would be taking place in the chapel, and I would not be sitting in my comfortable armchair but instead somewhere near the back, craning my neck to look. Despite how comfortable my room is now, I miss the live experience. Hopefully we’ll be back next year to talk about Glitterati. I look forward to being able to see everyone’s trousers then. Until then, you can watch the event for yourselves here.
Marita Arvaniti, MLitt Fantasy graduate, PhD student at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow
PS. In a question I very generously asked, Oliver denied basing the character of Magpie on an idealised vision of himself (albeit with worse teeth). I am still not convinced.