Fantasy and Puppetry: Animating the Fantastic

On April 1 2022 – April Fool’s Day – the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow will be hosting a very special online event. Fantasy and Puppetry is a celebration of the art of puppets and puppeteers in bringing fantasy and the fantastic to life, on stage, on screen and on the page. It will feature five of the most exciting and celebrated puppet-centred artists, writers, puppeteers and performers working in the world today: Brian and Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton, Mary Robinette Kowal and William Todd-Jones, all brought together by their friendship with World Fantasy Award-winning writer, editor and artist Terri Windling. Between them, these artists have been closely involved in some of the finest fantasy films, movies, TV series and stage performances of the last forty years: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, the Muppet movies, Sesame Street, The Empire Strikes Back, Dark Crystal – The Age of Resistance, His Dark Materials, John Carter of Mars, The Neverending Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit – the list is seemingly endless. Join us, with our Master of Ceremonies Terri Windling, to discover how their skills as designers, craftspeople and puppeteers have interacted with their skills as storytellers to animate lifeless matter and awake the world’s imagination!

See full programme below!

Click here to book your free ticket!

Brian Froud (artist and conceptual designer)

Brian and Wendy Froud

Brian Froud is a world-renowned painter and film designer whose portrayal of faeries and the Faerie Realm has influenced a whole generation of artists, writers, filmmakers, and folklorists. Raised in Kent, he studied illustration at Maidstone College of Art, and began his career as an illustrator in London (in the same studio as Alan Lee). He then turned to making books of his own, and designing films – most famously, the now-classic children’s films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (both produced by Jim Henson). Brian’s art has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, written about in scholarly texts, and won numerous awards. His internationallybestselling books include Faeries (with Alan Lee), the Lady Cottington Pressed Fairies series (with Terry Jones and Ari Berk), Good Faeries/Bad Faeries (with Terri Windling) The Runes of Elfland (with Ari Berk), Brian Froud’s Goblins (with Ari Berk), How to See Faeries (with John Matthews), and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie – all of them inspired by the legends, lore, and landscape of Dartmoor. His recent books, Trolls, and Faeries’ Tales explore the lives and history of the elusive trolls and faeries; they were created in collaboration with his wife, author and artist Wendy Froud. Brian’s latest project is the Netflix series Dark Crystal – The Age of Resistance. Brian, Wendy and their son, Toby, all worked on the series. Brian and Wendy live near Chagford in a seventeenth-century Devon longhouse filled with books, art, goblins, and faeries.

Wendy Froud (doll artist, sculptor, puppet-maker and writer)

Brian and Wendy Froud (and friends!)

Wendy Froud is a sculptor, writer, and one of the most revered doll artists in the world today. The daughter of two artists, she was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied art and design at the Center for Creative Studies. She began her career as a sculptor on the set of The Muppet Show in New York,and went on to work on such feature films as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Empire Strikes Back (for which she sculpted and fabricated Yoda). Wendy’s doll art and mythic sculptures have been extensively exhibited, published in three children’s books (A Midsummer Night’s Faery Tale, The Winter Child, The Faeries of Spring Cottage), and featured in an art book, The Art of Wendy Froud. As a writer, her work has been published in The Heart of the Faerie Oracle, Troll’s Eye View, the Cottington series, and other magical volumes – including her latest books, Trolls and Faeries Tales, created in collaboration with her husband, ‘faery painter’ Brian Froud. Wendy and Brian live in old thatched farmhouse in the Devon countryside. Wendy, Brian and Toby have worked together on the Emmy winning Netflix series Dark Crystal – The Age of Resistance, and are currently working on a few new projects in development.

Howard Gayton (theatre director, performer, scholar and teacher, puppeteer)

Howard Gayton

Howard Gayton has worked for over thirty years as a theatre director, performer, and teacher specialising in puppetry, foolery, and Commedia dell’Arte; his work is inspired by all manner of mythic tricksters, zanni figures, jesters, buffoons, and sacred clowns. He has directed and performed many puppet shows for the acclaimed Little Angel Theatre in London, as well as for Norwich Puppet Theatre, Light Theatre at the Eden Project and other venues; he teaches glove puppets at The Curious School of Puppetry and tours a traditional Punch & Judy show. Howard was the co-founder of Ophaboom, a Commedia company which toured across Europe for twenty years; he is now co-director of Columbina Theatre, with playwright Peter Oswald. He recently completed a 500-mile theatrical pilgrimage, walking from London to the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and is currently researching The Esoteric Art of the Fool at the University of Exeter.

Mary Robinette Kowal (Hugo, Nebula and John W Campbell award-winning novelist and short story writer, puppeteer)

Mary Robinette Kowal with cat Sadie and puppet Lee!

Mary Robinette Kowal is an author, a professional puppeteer and voice actor (SAG/AFTRA). Mary Robinette has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures, Sesame Street, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve. She records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. Her own fiction has won multiple Hugo Awards, as well as Nebula, John W Campbell and Locus Awards. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters.

William Todd-Jones (master puppeteer, puppet-designer, performer, movement consultant and writer)

William Tod-Jones

Todd began his career as a builder and performer of puppets for Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. Other award-winning projects include Harry Potter VWho Framed Roger Rabbit, various Muppet movies, Batman, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, John Carter of Mars and many others. He travelled the world as the Master Puppeteer and Manny performer of the Monlove/Stage Entertainment touring show Ice Age Live. Todd established the ground-breaking and award-winning Creature FX department for the BBC/HBO TV series His Dark Materials.  In recent years, he has specialised in combining the disciplines of puppetry and computer graphic animation, developing techniques in optical motion capture, performance animation and digital puppetry. He is determined to use art in the service of the environment, drawing people’s attention to our dependency on nature. ‘Puppets are not about the person performing but about the person looking’ (William Todd-Jones).

Terri Windling (writer, editor, artist)

Terri Windling

Terri Windling is a writer, editor, and artist specialising in fantasy literature, folklore, and mythic arts. She has published over forty books (The Wood Wife, etc.), receiving nine World Fantasy Awards, the Mythopoeic Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the SFWA’s Solstice Award for ‘outstanding contributions to the speculative fiction field as a writer, editor, artist, educator, and mentor’. She writes fiction for adults and children, nonfiction on folklore and fantasy topics, and a mythic arts blog (Myth & Moor). She has edited fantasy fiction since the 1980s, working with many of the major writers in the field, and she’s published numerous anthologies for adult and young readers, including the sixteen volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series co-edited with Ellen Datlow. Being married to puppeteer, she has a particular interest in the ways puppetry is portrayed in fantasy texts.

Marita Arvaniti (student, theatre practitioner, scholar)

Marita Arvaniti is a Greek PhD student at the University of Glasgow, investigating the representations of theatre in contemporary Faery Fantasy literature. She holds a BA in Theatre Studies from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens and an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. Marita is a member of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, and the Administrative Assistant for the Once and Future Fantasies Conference. She is currently working as an archivist with Company of Wolves, a Glasgow based laboratory theatre company, and directs fantasy plays with the amateur theatre group Puck’s Players.


11: 00 am: Fantasy and Puppetry (Film)

Brian and Wendy Froud, interviewed by Terri Windling

A whole generation of filmmakers, puppeteers, and fantasists have been profoudly influenced by Brian and Wendy Froud: through their bewitching art, their best-selling books (Faeries, Trolls, Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, etc.), and their ground-breaking work on the Jim Henson puppet films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In this wide-ranging discussion, Brian and Wendy will talk about their extensive work on the original Dark Crystal film, as well as on the recent Netflix television series, Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. We’ll learn about the creation of the goblin world of Labyrinth, of Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back, and of other creatures for film and stage, while discussing the artistic techniques and philosophies that imbue these characters with vibrancy, authenticity, and soul. We’ll explore the distinctive nature of “Froudian” magic, rooted in the ancient landscape of Dartmoor, and we’ll talk about why this kind of enchantment is so important in the world today. Come join us for art and conversation, with a question-and-answer session at the end.

12.30-1.30 pm: Lunch

1.30 pm: Bringing Fantasy Creatures to Life (Film, TV, Stage)

William Todd-Jones, interviewed by Terri Windling

Puppet designer and performer William Todd-Jones has spent many years bringing fantastical creatures to life for film, TV, and large stage shows. In a discussion with writer-artist Terri Windling, he discusses the techniques and methods he uses for each of these mediums, not only in productions where puppets take centre stage (Labyrinth, The Adventures of PinnochioThe Muppet Movies, etc.), but also those in which behind-the-scenes puppetry is used to create visual magic onscreen. For the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example, he was the Beast Master in charge of the puppets on which the animated ‘daemons’ were based. He’ll explain this process with photos and clips from the set, showing how a fantasy concept is translated into screen drama.

3.00 pm: Bringing Fantasy Creatures to Life (Theatre)

Howard Gayton

In this talk/demonstration, director and performer Howard Gayton invites us into his studio to show how puppeteers create magic in live theatre settings using the traditional tools of the trade: glove puppets, rod puppets, etc.. He’ll discuss the process of turning folk tales and other magical stories (The Selkie Bride, The Musicians of BremenKing Arthur, Jack and the Beanstalk) into puppet shows for children, and fantasy texts (such as Angela Carter’s story The Bloody Chamber) into puppet shows for adults. He’ll introduce us to such classic figures as Punch and Judy, and the stock characters of a puppet Commedia troupe, and demonstrate how to breathe life and spirit into objects made of wood and cloth.

4.00-4:30 pm Break

4.30-6.00 pm: Panel on Puppets and Puppetry in Fantasy Narratives (Novels, Film, TV)

Terri Windling, Mary Robinette Kowal, Marita Arvaniti, Rob Maslen

Puppets are often used to create the fantastic in performance, but magically animated puppets also feature in fantasy books for adults and children: think of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mr Punch,Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Body Language’, and Diana Wynne Jones’s The Magicians of Caprona. This panel will consider the history and power of the puppet in fantasy narratives, from novels, short stories, comics and picture books to film and TV.

The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy – report and video recording

Thank you for joining us online for our The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy event! We are delighted to share a report on this event by Fantasy PhD student Lucinda Holdsworth.

History is an ideological battleground. For as long as humans have thought about the past, we have altered it to suit our view of the world and repurposed it to achieve our goals. Misremembered or misrepresented histories have inspired rampant nationalism and fascism, but reinterpreting  the past also provides opportunities for liberation and new visibility for groups excluded from historical record. With so much at stake, historical fantasy, a genre which consciously changes elements of the past, is a risky business.

The dangerous entanglement of fantasy and history took centre stage one cold night in November as we gathered to celebrate the launch of James Treadwell’s new historical fantasy novel, The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. Treadwell was joined in conversation by L. J. MacWhirter (author of the Tudor fantasy Black Snow Falling), Rob Maslen (Co-director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow), and Fraser Dallachy (Lecturer in historical linguistics). Our speakers shared a fascination with the affordances of historical fantasy and its unique ability to confront truths of the past.

The evening began with a dramatic reading from The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. As we took in the rich detail of Treadwell’s gorgeous prose, it was easy to become lost in his 18th century world, created by replicating the writing style of the time. It is, as Maslen pointed out, a kind of literary necromancy, resurrecting a long dead style of communication, and with it, the world view that language constructed. Treadwell’s own take on his style is less complimentary, describing this resurrection as a ‘mangled and distorted’ version of the original body. Yet here he makes an important point—it is only through this distortion that a sense of the period can be accurately conveyed to contemporary readers.

The distortion afforded by fantasy plays a similar role here. Our relationship with our own history is often uneasy—did it really happen that way? Can the sources be trusted? Can our own memories? Our knowledge of any given event, be it recent or ancient history, is inherently fuzzy. We misremember, misspeak, misrepresent. We are subjective creatures and that subjectivity, passed down through the ages, is often all we have to go on. How better to navigate the haziness of ancient biases than through the fantastic, a mode which Todorov defines as the ‘hesitation’ between belief and disbelief. Where historical fiction must come down on one side or another of a historical debate, historical fantasy can allow hesitation and the truth of uncertainty to remain. Perhaps the crew of the Mary Celeste really did vanish into thin air. Perhaps Nostradamus really did have prophetic visions. Almost certainly untrue, but perhaps true enough to many at the time that fantasy is the only way to capture a sense of the period accurately. By making the past strange, we can often engage with it more honestly. 

As the conversation turns towards magic systems, Treadwell’s own thoughts on the uncertainty fantasy allows are voiced: ‘magic shouldn’t have systems and rules, magic is what happens when the system collapses’. In his new novel, this is certainly the case. After the Enlightenment, the hesitation of the fantastic should not be possible, and as such the appearance of magic is an embarrassment. It breaks the rules and undermines objective scientific fact. For this reason, magic is made socially invisible.

As we begin to discuss the trials and tribulations of replicating the language of a given time period, Fraser Dallachy gives us a brief overview of the remarkable work of a historical linguist. In this role, Dallachy charts the changing meaning and power of words across time. A particularly intriguing part of this work involves catching anachronisms—words which appear in periods they do not belong in. Such linguistic analysis is invaluable to historical fantasy authors like Treadwell and MacWhirter, both of whom have made use of this kind of research in their work. Treadwell has used historical linguistics to pay homage to the narratorial voice of literature of the time, noting in particular the influence of 18th century gothic novels such as Clarissa. MacWhirter, on the other hand, has used a minimalist approach in her appropriation of historical language. She notes that, given the complex temporal structure of her work, anything more linguistically unconventional might have alienated readers.

As the discussion continues, Maslen realises that there is a striking difference between our authors’ approaches to historical fantasy. Treadwell focuses on the practicalities of his characters’ day to day needs—needs upset by the intrusion of the fantastic. As such, his characters are resistant to the magical elements of their world. MacWhirter’s characters, on the other hand, enter into much larger fantastic frameworks consciously and deliberately. In this, MacWhirter seeks to address issues from our own time, or perhaps more precisely, from our future. The path ahead of us seems, at times, apocalyptic in the light of climate change. Such a global phenomenon is too large to get our heads around, and can only be made sense of through fantastic narratives.

Towards the end of the evening, Maslen asks the question we have all been waiting for: How important is accuracy to historical fantasy?

This question of historical accuracy is a source of great contention in the world of fantasy literature. Demands for historical accuracy have long been used to justify the exclusion of people of colour, women and queer folk from medievalist works. It was an argument that cropped up again and again in the discussion surrounding Game of Thrones which, despite being set in a secondary world, appears to have been heavily influenced by the War of the Roses. Its depictions of sexual assault in particular, many argued, were necessary for historical accuracy. As many scholars and fans have pointed out before me, this kind of historical accuracy is rarely actually accurate. David Olusoga has traced the presence of black individuals and communities in Britain since the time of the Romans. Women have, of course, always been part of our society, as have queer folk. Sexual assault may have been more normalised in the past, but when the women being assaulted are sexualised according to contemporary beauty standards (e.g. skinny women with modern makeup and no body hair), the excuse breaks down. This is not so much historical accuracy as it is a dark romanticisation of history—nostalgia for a past that never existed. At the same time, genuine historical accuracy has a radical power to counter this exclusionary romanticisation by pointing out the truth of our interconnectedness throughout history.

Our authors’ responses reveal a shared awareness of the awesome responsibility of the historical fantasist, yet their approaches to this conundrum are quite different. When asked if historical accuracy matters, Treadwell replies enthusiastically, “Not at all!” He notes that accuracy is not the aim here; instead, he works to create a sense of time and place which feels convincing to contemporary readers. Yet Treadwell’s extensive academic work with 18th century literature puts him at an advantage here. MacWhirter takes the opposite line. For her, research plays a key role in replicating the past as faithfully as possible, allowing her to wrap a rich tapestry of details around her story. Her own academic work is also great source of knowledge and expertise in this—her PhD on pre-modern responses to ontological suffering have given her great insight into the Tudor mind.

As the evening comes to an end, our speakers give us some closing thoughts on the magical power of language. The ability of style and syntax to convey more than the words themselves, they all agree, is magical in itself, let alone the magic of Old Words or verbal spells. It is, as Treadwell notes, a ‘richly textured beautiful thing that is constantly drawing attention to itself’. It is magical because it is how we understand the world, but it is not neutral in this role—it changes the world at the same time it describes it. In this, once again, fantasy is the perfect lens through which to view the past. Our view of history is at times frighteningly malleable (just look at the Mandela Effect for a recent example!) and fantasy, above all other genres, understands the power of language to shape the world and our memories of it.

We close with some final recommendations for historical fantasists—Octavia Butler is a popular choice, her award winning Kindred the perfect example of historical fantasy forcing us to reckon with an uncomfortable past. Alison Uttley and Frances Hardinge are mentioned too, but Macwhirter suggests going back much further and experiencing the magic of historical texts for yourself, starting with medieval romances and dream poetry. After a final thanks to our guests, the night ends.

The evening’s conversation took many twists and turns along the way, through unnatural temporalities, histories real and imagined, and our strange relationship with the truth of that past. Such discussion is, if you’ll forgive the pun, timely, given our current state of affairs. Our movie theatres are full of 80s remakes and every week a new TV reboot is announced. Our political leaders harken back to the good old days at every turn, and there is ever greater public opposition to teaching the ugly truth of history in our schools. Perhaps it is a hopelessness for our future, as MacWhirter noted earlier, that inspires this widespread romanticisation of the past. Whatever the reason, historical fantasy lies at the centre of this conundrum. The night’s discussion has shown us that historical fantasy has a greater power than we could imagine, allowing us to engage, critically, with the past, or obscure the truth. It is a powerful tool, but a tool that can break just as easily as build.

Lucinda Holdsworth

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: A Book Launch and Discussion with Taylor Driggers

What can dragons, genderqueer aliens, and aging Hollywood starlets teach us about religion, gender, and sexuality? Join the University of Glasgow’s Dr Taylor Driggers via Zoom webinar at 6PM (GMT) on 23 February 2022 to celebrate the launch of Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology, the first book in Bloomsbury’s new Perspectives on Fantasy series.

Series editors Prof. Brian Attebery, Dr Dimitra Fimi, and Dr Matthew Sangster will begin the evening by introducing the new series and its aims. Dr Driggers will then introduce his book, which explores works by C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Angela Carter, among others, to show how fantasy literature can help women and LGBTQ+ people marginalized by Christianity reclaim and re-envision their theological traditions. He will then be joined by Anglia Ruskin University postgraduate researcher Meg MacDonald for a conversation about fantasy’s affordances for theology, and how their respective research projects respond to existing scholarship in fantasy, theology, and religious studies.

You can book your free ticket here!

Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures: A Report from our Being Human Festival 2021 Event

Thank you to so many of you who joined us for our Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures event! We are delighted to share a report on this event by Fantasy MLitt graduate and Social Media Officer of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, Madalena Daleziou. Madalena tweets at @LBooklott.

Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures was a series of mini-presentations, fondly nicknamed “fantasy tapas,” focusing on how the fantastic – from taproot texts to modern science fiction – can help us reconsider our relationship with the natural world and non-human others. The event was part of Being Human, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and was presented as part of The Dear Green Bothy series, a collaborative cultural programme from the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts, with events and activities that, in their own words, demonstrate “the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.”

With the problem of climate change more pressing than ever before, fantasy literature inevitably reflects the current environmental concerns. Fantasy, as a highly imaginative genre, has traditionally helped us establish connections and think of our relationship with the natural and cultural world in new ways. The fantastic as “serious play” can help us explore solutions to present dilemmas and imagine different futures. In short, it is “a good way to think.”

The evening started with opening remarks by Dr Laura Martin, Core Team member of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, who co-hosted the event together with Dr Lizanne Henderson. Martin began with a poignant quote by writer and storyteller Martin Shaw: “The business of stories is not enchantment. The business of stories is not escape. The business of stories is waking up.” Beyond their entertainment value, stories of magic and transformation have historically helped humans better understand and relate to the world about them. Moreover, tales about supernatural beings and anything that we consider impossible have often been used as a means for social commentary—a function that is now more relevant than ever.

The event was structured as a series of very short presentations of some of the work being done by members of the Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. Martin’ introduction succinctly concluded with a quote by author Ursula K. LeGuin: “the exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

This quote proved particularly relevant with regards to the first panel, titled Fantasy, Ecology, and Children’s Literature. Recent fantasy PhD completer Heidi Lawrence joined us from Utah, US, where the problem of climate change has often been politicised. Even as more people acknowledge climate change as real and pressing, there are still many barriers, psychological, socioeconomic, and others, that must be overcome to productively discussing ecology. Lawrence’s presentation focused on the potential or children’s literature to overcome these barriers, being non-threatening and widely accessible. Madeleine D’ Engle’s books, such as A Ring of Endless Light, for instance—written before discussions about the environment became so pressing and constant—present the possibility of true care for the natural world in digestible ways, suggesting that an analysis of D’ Engle’s works and other children’s books through the lenses of eco-psychology and eco-therapy can prove enriching and educating.

Dr Maureen Farrell, Senior Lecturer in Culture, Literacies, Inclusion & Pedagogy at the University of Glasgow, presented on Climate Change and Sustainability in picturebooks. Farrell similarly focused on the potential of children’s books to “raise awareness in non-threatening ways.” Her presentation provided an overview of works such as David J. Smith’s If the World Were a Village, Grahame Baker Smith’s The Rhythm of the Rain, Suse Moore’s Max Power and the Bagpipes, Dyan Sheldon’s The Wales Song, John Burningham’s Whadayamean, and Debi Gliori’s The Trouble with Dragons, all of which offer interesting insights about the environment, presented in palatable ways both children and adults can benefit from.

Gina Lyle, PhD student in Scottish Literature, moved the discussion to books aimed at older children and teenagers, stressing the importance of location and space in facilitating discussions about climate change. Lyle’s presentation focused on the Exodus trilogy by Julie Bretagna, which offers a powerful comment on global warming. Following the end of COP26, the novels’ image of a drowned Glasgow due to rising sea levels as a result of global warming is as relevant as it is alarming. Imagining known locations as ruined by climate change makes the concept of global warming less abstract. “Imagination,” Lyle concluded, “is a very powerful tool to craft our futures.” If fantasy allows us to imagine grim futures like the one presented in Exodus, it can also help us think of, and work towards, the futures we would prefer. 

Continuing the discussion on YA literature and climate change, fantasy PhD student Grace Worm addressed the politicisation of climate change in the US. YA literature has often attempted to bridge the gap between the control of information by adults, and children’s wish to not only be entertained, but also learn about the state of the world and what they can do about it. While children’s and YA fantasy is often acceptable to adults due to being deemed unreal, literature has the very real potential to help young adults process the climate disaster they must engage with. Tamora Piece’s Wolfspeaker was mentioned as an example of such a YA novel that criticises anthropocentric narratives and emphasises the need for change. Young adults can no longer be shielded from climate change, but fantasy allows them to imagine a new world and engage with their own in new ways.

The second panel focused on Renewal and Transformation in Traditional and Pre-Modern Supernatural Narratives. Dr Lizanne Henderson, Senior Lecturer in History at the Dumfries campus of the University of Glasgow, opened the panel with a discussion of witch hunts and the cultural history of animals. But how do witches relate to environmental concerns? As Henderson pointed out, climate change sometimes referred to as “Little Ice Age” devastated Europe at the time during which witch trials took place. This was partly associated to the popular perceptions of witches as controllers of nature, as well as anti-nature. Moreover, witches were thought to cross boundaries between human and non-human through shapeshifting. The discussion thus shifted to the possibility of a “supernatural ecology” through a consideration of animals in folklore. In many cases, animals have been used as symbols or as the embodiment of ideas, rather than for their own sake. Still, many animals in folklore are depicted as sharing kinship with humans through transformation, and their presence or absence from fantastic works can indicate stability, or lack thereof. 

In the next presentation, Azalea Ahmad-Kushairi, PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, introduced the Garuda as Myth and Symbol of the Malay world. The presentation began with an introduction of the Malay world as “a cultural and linguistic group the embodies the Malay language and characteristics.” The Garuda, a prominent figure in the Malay World, is often presented as a golden-winged bird with human heads, or as a human torso with a bird head. This anthropomorphic creature symbolises both a connection to and a disconnection from nature; Garudas are so strong as to be able to defy the natural world, and potentially care for humans, while they simultaneously represent life and death. During the Islamic era, the Garuda was not swiped out but assimilated in the faith, showing the significance of imagining possibilities of a harmonious coexistence between human and non-human entities.

Next, Dr Laura Martin presented on Mother Holle, a well-known female figure from Grimm’s fairy tales. The tale of Mother Holle might initially be read as a straightforward tale in which a lazy girl is punished, and a good girl is rewarded. Yet, a closer analysis suggests that Holle is much more interesting and layered than initially suspected. Her association with fertility, and with spinning— tasks traditionally associated with women— renders her a goddess for women and girls. The ability to spin in that context should not, however, be read as a task for “good girls,” given that it used to be a necessary, often life-saving occupation. Martin talked about Holle’s association with divine figures linked with both life and death. Considering the above, the well-known fairy tale can be read as the story of a girl who lives up to the task assigned to her by a powerful woman, rendering this a story of “humility, reverence and willingness to take responsibility for oneself with reference to a powerful feminine figure” inviting us to consider our own tasks and responsibility to the ecosystem”—which has traditionally been associated with feminine figures including but not limited to the goddess Gaia.

Finally, Dr Geraldine Parsons, Senior Lecturer at the Celtic & Gaelic department at the University of Glasgow, gave an insightful review of natural circles in what is considered by many as “the greatest of Irish poems.” The poem, known to scholars by its opening line “A[i]thbe damsai bes mara”, or “Ebb-tide to me in the manner of [the] sea”, utilises amble natural imagery but is still anthropocentric, as it does not move away from the speaker, an elderly woman, presumably a nun, who reminisces a worldly youth. In the poem, rejuvenation is not available to the aged speaker, but only to the natural environment she is describing. Old age is compared to a tide, which is, however, irreversible. In this time of climate crisis, the poem is a stark reminder than nature, too, is no longer as renewable as its verses present it to be. The third stanza, starting with the phrase “it is riches you love, not people,” is particularly relevant to the current times.

The last panel focused on Transforming the Earth: Techno-Utopian Fantasies. Oliver Langmead introduced the concept of Terraforming, defined by Chris Pak as “the idea of engineering new worlds for human habitation.” This idea of making inhabitable planets earth-like is present in many SF books, as well as other media. Terraforming is a particular popular concept in discussions about Mars. While this practice might not seem to be an immediate possibility outside the realm of SF, it is still relevant in the discussion of climate catastrophe. As Langmead explained this type of engineering might be paralleled to humanity’s treatment of the earth itself. Similarly to the ways humans would alter another planet, such as Mars, they have accidentally modified Earth in ways that could make it uninhabitable in the future.

The panels were followed by a fifteen-minute discussion, and a Q&A with the audience. After a short break, the evening concluded with an interactive creative writing section by authors Ruth E.J. Booth, and Oliver K. Langmead.

At a time of climate crisis with many world leaders failing to rise to the occasion, Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures was revolutionary to attend. The diverse ecological texts we were introduced to highlight the increased social responsibility of fantasy, as well as its potential to explore better structures, and help us rethink our relationship with the world and our engagement with environmental distress. At a moment when COP26 is accused of being inadequate and disappointing, fantasy can provide hope, proving that it is, indeed, a good way to think.

Madalena Daleziou

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

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The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy

Wednesday 24 November, 6 pm GMT

With James Treadwell (author of the Advent trilogy), L. J. MacWhirter (author of Black Snow Falling), Fraser Dallachy (Lecturer in historical linguistics), and Rob Maslen (Co-director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow).

Join us online as we celebrate the launch of James Treadwell’s most recent novel, The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach (Hodder and Stoughton, 2021), with a discussion of fantasy’s obsession with history. Each of our panelists shares this obsession. Treadwell’s novel is set in the late eighteenth century, MacWhirter’s in the time of the Tudors, while Dallachy and his colleagues have advised historical novelists by drawing on the vast resources of the Historical Thesaurus of English. Together they will consider some of the challenges faced by fantasists who choose to set their stories in the past. These may include:

  • Historical accuracy: does it matter?
  • Is language magic? (Advance warning: we think it is!)
  • What’s at stake in your choice of style as you seek to evoke lost times?
  • Clichés: should we avoid them?
  • Magic: what part has it played in history?

We’ll also be responding to questions sent in by participants. Come along and be one of them!

Book your free ticket here.

James Treadwell is the author of the acclaimed Advent trilogy, about the calamitous return of magic to a world that has forgotten it. These are Advent (2012), Anarchy (2013) and Arcadia (2015), published by Hodder and Stoughton. Before that he was an academic, whose books include Interpreting Wagner (Yale University Press 2003) and Autobiographical Writing and British Literature 1783-1834 (Oxford University Press 2005).

L. J. MacWhirter is an award-winning copywriter and author. Black Snow Falling was published by Scotland Street Press (2018), introducing a new YA mythology in multiple timelines. The 2019 CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award were among its listings and nominations. Liz is currently writing her debut novel for adults, an historical novel with magical realism, in the context of a cross-disciplinary creative practice PhD.

Fraser Dallachy is Lecturer in the Historical Thesaurus of English in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is Deputy Director of the Historical Thesaurus of English, and is currently working with colleagues both in Glasgow and at the Oxford English Dictionary to update the Thesaurus to its second edition, adding new words, senses, and improved dating to the resource. He has published numerous articles, book chapters and conference proceedings, and maintains several websites, including that of the Historical Thesaurus, second edition.

Rob Maslen is co-Director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. He has published Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford University Press, 1997), Shakespeare and Comedy (Bloomsbury 2005), The Shakespeare Handbook (with Michael Schmidt, 2008), and editions of Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry (Manchester University Press, 2002), Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems (Carcanet 2008) and Peake’s Complete Nonsense (with G. Peter Winnington, Carcanet 2011). He blogs at The City of Lost Books (

Fantasy Horror Reading Group Halloween Event

The Fantasy Horror Reading Group invites you for a night of fun, horror and mayhem with our live-streaming of Cabin in the Woods next Wednesday 27th of October at 19:00 BST.
We’ll be hosting the event on Discord, and there’ll also be a film bingo, with the winner being able to choose the topic for our first reading group session of this academic year!
The bingo card can be found below, and a copy is also posted on the Discord. For those who haven’t played before, you win when you cross off 5 boxes in a row, having identified the clues in the film. The centre square is blank for you to fill in as you please.

To join us, follow the link

We look forward to seeing you there for Halloween! In the meantime, stay spooky, and feel free to say hi on Discord and follow @WickedReadings on Twitter. We don’t bite… much.

Imagining Ecological Pasts and Futures: Folklore, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction in the Climate Crisis

Humans have always written tales of magic and wonder that relate the human to the non-human world, whether that ‘magic’ is folkloristic belief or the modern quasi-scientific speculations and re-imaginings of Science Fiction and Fantasy. But why should this matter in an age of catastrophic climate change?

Join us online on 17 November 2021, at 18:45 GMT, for an event in which colleagues from the Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic will foreground via short presentations how both traditional folkloric stories as well as past and current Fantasy texts, whether intended for children or adults, usefully serve to imagine our place in the cultural/natural world, including interactions with non-human others. Tales of connection and disconnection—or of utopia and dystopia—are examples of serious play in which solutions to dilemmas, especially the climate crisis, can be explored.  In short, narratives of the Fantastic perennially provide not only welcome solace and escape, but also serve to spark new ways of thinking: fantasy is good to think with.

The evening will end with a Creative Writing Workshop led by two experienced workshop leaders so that participants can experiment with their own ideas, hopefully inspired by the presentations that have gone before.

Themes and Contributors

Fantasy, Ecology, and Children’s literature
Renewal and Transformation in Traditional and Pre-modern Supernatural Narratives
Transforming the Earth: Techno-Utopian Fantasies
Creative Writing Workshop

This event is part of the Being Human Festival and is supported by the Dear Green Bothy series.

Book your free online ticket here.

Exploring Cyberpunk Culture

Jack in to the matrix for a cyberpunk book launch! Join Glasgow University’s Dr Anna McFarlane via Zoom webinar at 6PM (BST) on 16th September 2021 to celebrate the launch of Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades.  The book explores the work of William Gibson and the influence of cyberpunk science fiction. Anna will introduce her book, including her concept of gestalt literary criticism. She will then be joined by academic and broadcaster Dr Sarah Dillon for a conversation about the book and the journey from PhD thesis to monograph. Finally, Anna will be joined by Dr Graham J. Murphy (Seneca College) and Dr Lars Schmeink (Europa Universität Flensburg), her co-editors on The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020) to talk about how the book fits in to existing cyberpunk research, and the future of cyberpunk scholarship. 

Click here to book your free ticket via Eventbrite.

CFP: Dissenting Beliefs: Heresy and Heterodoxy in Fantasy

Online Conference to be held on 11 December 2021, supported by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow.

Deadline for Submissions: 7th September 2021

Organising Committee:

Dr Taylor Driggers
Lucinda Holdsworth
Meg MacDonald
Luise Rössel

Contact Email:




Alana M. Vincent is the Professor of Jewish Philosophy, Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester. Her published work engages a wide range of topics relating to religion, memory, and cultural imaginaries, from commemorations of mass killing to the afterlives of biblical texts. She has published several monographs, including Culture, Communion and Recovery: Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Inter-Religious Exchange (2014), and is currently researching the way that popular narratives, such as comic books and superhero movies, shape public perceptions of post-genocide reconciliation. Born in Canada, she currently resides in Liverpool with her partner and two cats.

Call for Papers

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 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.

From Spare Oom to War Drobe: A report from our Journey to Narnia with Katherine Langrish

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 ( 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.

Anita Lawrence

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

More information about the book here.

You can access Katherine Langrish’s website here.

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