2020 was a year for reflection. In the course of her reflections, PhD student Lucy Holdsworth came up with the idea of memorialising the achievements of the University of Glasgow’s Fantasy graduates: students like herself who had taken the bold step of enrolling on the University’s MLitt in Fantasy, regardless of the puzzlement, amusement and even disapproval such a step might bring about. Since the foundation of the MLitt (formally the MLitt English Literature: Fantasy) in September 2015, many students from all over the world have joined the programme, united in their love of the mode or genre called Fantasy, a genre that permeates the creative arts in the twenty-first century but whose study is as yet in its infancy. Many of those students have gone on to work with Fantasy in other capacities, whether as PhD students, like Lucy, or as teachers, publishers, videogame professionals, novelists, entertainers and vocal advocates. Their passion is infectious, their imagination boundless, their thinking innovative and courageous. Their work and mutual support deserves some form of recognition.
How better to celebrate these graduates, Lucy thought, than with the gift of trees? Trees permeate Fantasy literature, from the walking trees and their tree-like shepherds, the Ents, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, to the trees that populate the slopes of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Mountain; from the village trees of the Douen in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber to the mysterious branch-like lettering that obsesses a young librarian in Patricia McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn. Forests are everywhere in fairy tales, myths and chivalric romances, and have a tendency to fill our dreams. As Ursula K. Le Guin puts it, ‘We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone’. Fantasy pays tribute to these mental forests and explores their depths.
In the twenty-first century, forests also hold the key to the future. Without extensive reforestation it is hard to imagine a way to counter the destructive effects of human dominance of the planet. For all these reasons, Lucy found her thoughts turning to a project called Trees for Life, which aims to rewild the ancient Caledonian forest by planting saplings at remote sites in the Highlands of Scotland. Planting trees for the MLitt students seemed like the perfect way to salute their achievements and to celebrate the community they have formed. No one knows where each of the Trees for Life will be; we only know that each will make a small contribution to enriching a larger whole. In this way each tree is like a student of fantasy, each of whom makes a small but vital contribution to a new but rapidly expanding field of study with its roots in the past, just as the trees we plant in their honour have their roots in soil that has been enriched by ancient leaves and branches.
Lucy explained her thinking to her supervisor, Matt Sangster, one of the founding members of Glasgow’s recently-launched Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. Matt at once set about the process of putting her vision into practice, consulting fellow members of the Centre and obtaining funding from a generous donor to plant the first set of trees. This blog post marks the launch of Lucy’s memorial, and will be followed by an informal launch event on 24 February.
We have named our widely-scattered Grove the Immanent Grove after a wood on the Island of Roke in Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy series, the Books of Earthsea. Many people think that this wood ‘moves about in a mystifying manner’; but in this they are mistaken, Le Guin informs us, ‘for the Grove does not move. Its roots are the roots of being. It is all the rest that moves’. May our wood, planted in the name of our graduates who are moving on, help to move the world on, too, in a better direction.
Rob Maslen, Co-Director, Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow
There is always smoke rising from Glasgow these days.
My walk to university had always been a pleasant one—under the shade of young trees by the canal, down past a dim and mysterious grove, and on towards the west end. I knew where to look for foxes and deer, made friends with the squirrels, and even tempted a bird or two to say hello.
Pleasant, that is, until the grove vanished, broken stumps torn up and turned over, all trace of the vibrant ecosystem scraped away to make room for construction.
Not long after, I moved, this time to a flat surrounded by trees almost as tall as my building—old, majestic, strong. They have been torn down too; a carpark covers their grave.
While I understood the reason—people need homes, people need schools, and they have to go somewhere—still it felt like a betrayal, and unbidden, the voice of Treebeard began to echo in my mind: ‘there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!’
I don’t have any power over Glasgow’s dwindling green spaces, but what I do have is an imagination and a community of people who, like me, were raised on stories of the beauty and magic of forests, and so the seed (sorry) of an idea began to grow.
Fantasy is often dismissed as mere escapism, but Le Guin reminds us that ‘escape is the direction of freedom’. Freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from our own abuse of power—once we have imagined a world in which we are free from these things, we begin to see a path towards it. Fantasy is the first step of all activism, and as such, it has an incredible power to change the world for the better. The Centre has used this power to imagine and create a world in which academia and environmentalism can go hand in hand, but it is my hope that the Immanent Grove will act as a catalyst for wider action in this vein. Tolkien said of escapism that, ‘if we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and take as many people with us as we can.’ I look forward to escaping into a better world with you all and creating a future we can be proud of.
Lucinda Holdsworth, PhD student, Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow
Because we wouldn’t want to plant trees for our graduates without their permission, we’ve begun the Grove by inviting our most recent graduating cohort, the Owls, who finished their degrees amidst the complexities of lockdown and pandemic. Their names and their messages can now be seen on the website that logs the Grove’s progress. Their trees will be planted in the Highlands in the spring.
We’re keen to expand the Grove to include all our MLitt Fantasy graduates who’d like to be included: Canaries, Phoenixes, Ravens and Merlins. If you’re a member of one of these cohorts and would like a tree added to the Grove in your name, please fill out this form to let us know how you’d like to be named and whether you’d like to add a message.
Please return the completed form to the Fantasy Centre e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org), using ‘Immanent Grove’ in the subject line.
Moving forward, we’ll also be planting trees for the current MLitt cohort (the Nightingales) and for those who’ve yet to join us. We also look forward to adding our PhD students to the Grove as they successfully defend their theses.
Matt Sangster, Senior Lecturer and Core Team Member, Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow
Join us on the 24th of February for an evening of magic and nature to celebrate the brilliance of our students and the wonderful work done by Lucy Holdsworth and Matt Sangster, who made this project possible. Let’s talk about trees, fantasy, and the Glasgow Fantasy program.