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.

https://www.ferniebrae.com/brian-froud

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.

https://www.ferniebrae.com/wendy-froud

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.

https://endicottstudio.typepad.com/howardgayton/

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.

maryrobinettekowal.com

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.

http://www.terriwindling.com/

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.

Programme

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:

CFF Statement on the online abuse of Mariana Rios Maldonado

CFF Statement on the online abuse of Mariana Rios Maldonado

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic (CFF) at the University of Glasgow condemns online attacks, harassment, and bullying against our Equality and Diversity Officer and PhD researcher Mariana Rios Maldonado.

In recognition of her standing as a scholar with special expertise in Tolkien studies, Mariana was interviewed by journalists, and a short quotation from the interview was included in the 10 February 2022 exclusive Vanity Fair article ‘Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series Rises: Inside The Rings of Power’,which revealed some of the casting, plotline, and other choices behind the highly-anticipated TV epic.

This quotation has elicited unwarranted and unacceptable abuse and misinformation from certain quarters who have taken against the series’ diverse casting.

We are saddened to see hate and abuse directed towards a person of colour researching Tolkien, and we stand by Mariana, her research, and her inclusive approach to fantasy. These are values the Centre shares, clearly articulated in our Code of Conduct.

Dr Dimitra Fimi
Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature, CFF Co-Director

Dr Robert Maslen
Senior Lecturer in English Literature, CFF Co-Director

Schedule – Medical Humanities and the Fantastic online symposium

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Neurodiversity and Disability

Online Symposium

11 February 2022

Schedule

(GMT)

9:45 – 10:00 Welcome

10:00 – 10:15 Keynote Lecture Q&A: Ria Cheyne

10:15 – 10:30 Break

10:30-11:30 Panel 1: “Fantastic as Methodology”

David Hartley: “Autism and Estrangement”

Emma Dee: “Hauntology and Lost Futures – Trauma Narratives in the Contemporary Gothic”

Josefine Wälivaara: “Out of time: Subversion of Normative Time and Disability in Science Fiction”

11:30-11:45 Break

Panel 2:

11:45-12:45 Panel 2A: “Senses and Sensing the World Differently”

Chair: Anna McFarlane

Sarah Neef: The “City of Unseen Steps”: Blindness and Palimpsestual Sensory Impressions in Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts

Bridget Bartlett: “Rethinking “Mind-Blindness” with Sidney’s New Arcadia

Leigha McReynolds: “Productive Bodyminds in Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17

11:45-12:45 Panel 2B: “Lived Experiences”

Chair: Beata Gubacsi

Jennifer Slagus: “Roll for Initiative: How Gaming Graphic Novels Are Changing Neurodiversity Representation in Children’s Literature”

Yoon, wn-ho: “Web novel in the Republic of Korea – in the viewpoint of Autistic-Neurodiversity”

Brian Keeley: “Colonising Heart Transplantation: fantastical film (mis)representations of the lived experience”

12:45-13:45 Lunch break

Panel 3:

13:45-14:45 Panel 3A: “Disability and Neurodiversity on Screen”

Chair: Anna McFarlane

Margaret Tedford: “Eccentric angels and irregular demons: Reading neurodiverse experience in Good Omens

Jess Gibson: “Blurring the Boundaries of Human/Machine, Dis/Ability and Good/Evil in the depiction of John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Planet

Rebecca Jones: “Augmented Animated Bodies: Disability in American and Japanese Animated Film and Television”

13:45-14:45 Panel 3B: “Disability, Myths and Mythmaking”

Chair: Beata Gubacsi

Clare Moore: “Tolkien’s Disabled Landscapes”

Ellena Deeley “Conjoined Twins and Identity Multiplicity in Diasporic Marvellous Realist Fiction: Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine

Radhika Sharma: “From Marvelous Freaks to Pathological Deviants: A Study of Extraordinary Bodies in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981)

14:45-15:00 Break

15:00– 15:45 Keynote lecture: Louise Creechan

15:45-16:00 Break

16:00-17:00 Creative Panel

Discussion with Bogi Takács and Jo Ross-Barrett

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!

CFP: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic Online Symposium: Neurodiversity and Disability

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic Online Symposium: Neurodiversity and Disability

Friday 11th  February 2022

Keynote lectures from Dr Ria Cheyne and Dr Louise Creechan

The second Medical Humanities and the Fantastic Symposium, funded by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Medical Humanities’ Early Career Foundation Award, and co-hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, continues to map and establish new ways of connecting research into the fantastic (traditionally understood as science fiction, fantasy and horror) and popular culture with the field of the medical humanities. It aims to showcase the potentials the fantastic has to offer as valuable gateway and perspective for discussing medical encounters, practices and lived experiences. The fantastic as a research method can expand the scope of the medical humanities since its modus operandi relies on reframing human understanding of the world, particularly the human condition and its relationship to technology, society, and the environment. Likewise, medical humanities offer emerging trajectories to approach the fantastic.

This time the symposium intends to focus on a specific area, and its theme is set as “Neurodiversity and Disability”, seeking to explore and formulating answers the following questions:

  • How does the fantastic represent or subvert neurodiversity and disability?
  • How can the fantastic help express lived experiences of neurodiversity and disability?
  • How can the fantastic negotiate the reframing of current medical, social, political and economic debates surrounding neurodiversity and disability?
  • How can the fantastic raise awareness, and facilitate critical and policy intervention?

We are inviting 10-15-minute presentations (including work-in-progress projects) relating to but not limited to the following topics:

  • Ableism
  • Academia
  • Activism
  • ADHD, ASD
  • Anthropocene
  • Art and artistic practices
  • Care and care crisis
  • Capitalism and anti-capitalism
  • Children’s literature
  • Chronic illness and chronic pain
  • Comics and graphic novels
  • Communities online and offline
  • Creativity
  • Dis/ability
  • Ecology, ecopsychology, ecosickness
  • Education
  • Fantasy
  • Fantastic franchises
  • Film and television
  • Gaming and gamification
  • Gender
  • Gothic and Horror
  • History and medical history
  • Learning disabilities
  • Modernism and Postmodernism
  • Neurodiversity and the Neurodiversity Movement
  • Posthumanism
  • Precarity
  • Reproductive health
  • Robotics
  • Science fiction and speculative fiction
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Social media
  • Technology
  • Theatre
  • Vulnerability
  • Weird fiction
  • Young Adult

Please send your short abstract (100-200 words) accompanied by a brief bio (50-100 words) by the end of January 2022 as well as any enquiries and concerns to fantastic.medhums@gmail.com. For information and updates on the event follow @fantastic_mhs on Twitter.

Registration for this Symposium is now open! You can register here.

Rewarding Fantasy Research

by Oliver Langmead, Editor in Chief of Mapping the Impossible

At Mapping the Impossible, we are so excited to announce that we are taking a significant first step towards appropriately rewarding the authors of the papers we publish.

Launched earlier this year, Mapping the Impossible is a brand new open-access student journal publishing peer-reviewed early career research into fantasy, affiliated with and supported by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. We are open to submissions for our second issue now.

Renumeration for publication remains notoriously poor in academia. Thanks to generous support from the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, we are proud to be working towards remedying the situation by offering a reward for each paper we publish. On this, the editorial board of Mapping the Impossible and the core team of the Centre agree: publishing research for recognition alone should not be the standard.

As of today, we are pleased to be able to offer a £20 digital voucher (most likely for Amazon, but we are open to providing book tokens) for each paper we publish. This will be available to all scholars (in the UK and internationally), and distributed upon the publication of each paper we accept. Additionally, we have managed to secure funding for our forthcoming first issue, to be released in late January, and all of our current authors will receive vouchers.

Obviously, this is a both literal and figurative token reward, and is not intended to reflect adequate payment for all the hard work the researchers we publish put into their papers. But by providing these tokens, we are doing a number of important things. Firstly, we are putting Centre funds directly into the hands of fantasy researchers, to reward the hard work they are doing to enrich the field. Secondly, we are incentivising other journals to adopt similar policies. And thirdly, of course, we are further encouraging fantasy researchers (like you!) to consider taking the time to submit your paper to us. We’d love to read it.

One day, we hope to be able to offer full, appropriate payment for the papers we publish. But we hope you’ll join us in celebrating what amounts to a significant first step towards that. And to other journals, we say: if we can do it, so can you.

If you’re interested in finding out more, or wondering whether your paper would be eligible for our journal, please check out our website here: https://fantasy-research.gla.ac.uk/ and our page on payments here: https://fantasy-research.gla.ac.uk/index.php/rewarding_research/

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

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Neglected Fantasy Gems

In this blog post, we share recommendations for fantasy works that have been neglected, overlooked, or forgotten. We hope to inspire you to pick up one of these books or stories! The recommendations here were shared in one of the bi-weekly meetings for our fantasy PhD students.

Annals of the Westen Shore by Ursula K Le Guin 

Recommendation by Christopher Lynch Becherer

Dear reader, I know exactly what you’re thinking! Ursula K Le Guin in a blog post on overlooked fantasy works?  

Yet her final fantasy trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore (2004-2007) is curiously ignored. These three novels, Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007) are set in a fantasy world where both the fantastic and the protagonists are marginalised, side-lined within their own worlds. Despite each novel in the series being award winning, and despite Le Guin’s place at the heart of the fantasy canon, there is almost a complete paucity of scholarship on the series. I suspect this has something to do with their Young Adult categorisation, but maybe also to do with the time in which she wrote and published these novels. After her Earthsea novels (1968-2001) revolutionised fantasy, and the Hainish Cycle (1966-2002) asked bold new questions of science fiction, her work turned inward. After interrogating the patriarchal assumptions of the genre, she turned the critical lens on herself, to stunning effect. Always Coming Home (1985) and the later Earthsea works (2001) re-envisioned her own understanding of fantasy storytelling. 

Her mid-2000s writing is rather unexamined in contrast. For me, though, the Annals trilogy suggests a calm settling of her work. All the richness and balance of her writing is still here, but in this Third Age of Le Guin, there is a settled quality to the texts: a certainty and trust in the simplicity of her sentences, and the assuredness of her characterisations. They may not have revolutionised the genre, but these three final fantasy works are ultimately amongst the most moving and readable of Le Guin’s oeuvre. A beautiful conclusion to a wonderful career, but not a complacent ending: typically of Le Guin, these are still urgent and fiery texts at their heart. 

Of the three novels, I’ll highlight the concluding one, Powers, which focuses on Gavir, a young man escaping slavery in the city state of Etra. Along with her final novel, Lavinia, this text finds Le Guin delving further back for the inspiration for her setting. In this case, early Roman history provides the rich soil for a novel about how history is written and revolutions are born. This final novel, I would suggest, is the novel for today: a book about re-examining the past whilst urgently facing the future, about migration, postcolonial identity, and a personal exodus in a time of crisis. Pick these books up: you won’t be disappointed! 


Tatterdemalion, by Sylvia V Linsteadt & Rima Staines

Recommendation by Lynn R S Genevieve

Tatterdemalion is a piece of speculative fiction but written in a folk-tale manner. The author Sylvia Linsteadt was inspired by the artwork of Rima Staines, who describes her paintings as ‘Waymarkers to the Otherworlds because I am fascinated by the shamanic process inherent in creating art’. What is specifically different about the writer’s process here is that the illustrations came first; Linsteadt used the pictures Staines had already produced to craft a story – and did so extremely successfully. The title Tatterdemalion is evocative of both the process of piecing together the book from scraps and one of the main characters, the ragamuffin Poppy.

            There is a helpful ‘Time Line’ rather than a standard index setting out the order of events, but conversely, the story is told in a reverse fashion. A series of ‘Constellations’ are interspersed with other named story chapters. This adds to the patchwork effect of the storytelling, marrying up the disparate paintings with what could be a disjointed narrative if it weren’t for the sign posting. It is an unashamedly feminine perspective, the work of two women, involving intuition, dreams and magic.

            I particularly appreciated the style of prose. The mix of an old-world lyricism within a – at first glance – dystopian future is unsettling whilst inviting a familiar warmth of round the fire fairy-tales. There is a deliberate wildness capturing the old Northern European tropes that inhabit much of Staines’ work and placed in (the more familiar to Linsteadt) California. The narrative deliberately sets out to create a future world that has been ‘uncivilised’, recognising the value of the indigenous and the marginal.

            I cannot end before introducing a central character, the strange, wheeled creature that came from a painting, called Lyoobov:

‘He came on perfect wheels of skin and wood and bone; he was a leathery-skinned, ancient, trunked beast, rolling the way no orderly thing, no neat instrument of civilization, should roll.’

            The impossibility of this being adds to the originality and wonder of this book and I appreciated the thread of imagination reflecting reality, a mirroring of themes held in stories, so important to humanity. The symbolism of this is held in a book within a book within a book; Lyoobov holds one, Poppy tells the tale from one, and you hold one in your own hands when you pick up Tatterdemalion.

I would recommend further exploration of Rima Staines’ work which is far ranging; married to the notable poet, Tom Hirons (Sometimes a Wild God), they have collaborated with Terrie Windling, Jay Griffiths, and Martin Shaw, amongst others.


Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, by S.F. Said

Recommendation by Emma French

For my neglected gem, I chose Varjak Paw by S.F. Said. This was partly because I think it’s a uniquely strange, wonderfully gothic children’s book, with a beautiful and haunting illustration style. I feel it has long gone underappreciated, ever since I first read it, aged 11. But now, reflecting back on it as a fantasy scholar, I also think the book is an excellent example of Todorov’s concept of fantastic hesitation.

This duology of books follows a purebred pedigree cat, Varjak Paw, who must leave the safety of his home when it is threatened, and travel into the city looking for a way to save his family. While exploring the urban landscape, Varjak also travels to a fantastical version of Mesopotamia in his dreams. There, he learns ‘the Way’ from his ancestor Jalal: a series of ancient martial arts techniques for cats (for Mesopotamian blue cats, specifically!) In a feline hero’s journey, Varjak embarks on a quest to learn how to defend himself, facing off against monstrously frightening cars, befriending dogs, and attempting to defeat the strange, ghostlike cat, Sally Bones, who rules the city.

The story opens up many uncertainties where fantastic interpretations can reside. We never know if Varjak is truly speaking to Jalal in his dreams. Nor do we know if the abilities of ‘the Way’ are supernatural, or simply a learned set of martial art skills, but they do seem to affect the world as if with magic. Antagonists like the Gentleman and Sally Bones also dwell in the liminal space between the mundane and the supernatural, seemingly possessing preternatural abilities. As a child, I really enjoyed how so few of these ambiguities were explained away, and now I understand that this contributes to the strange, unsettling and fantastic quality of the story.


“The Woman in Red” and “Unmasked”, by Muriel Campbell Dyar

Recommendation by Georgina Gale

Many think of Victorian fiction as stale, outdated, and often riddled with harmful ideology. However, this is certainly not true of all nineteenth-century literature, and there are some brilliant works which are sadly overlooked despite their quality, originality, and surprisingly pertinence in the twenty-first century. My favourite case in point: Muriel Campbell Dyar’s ‘The Woman in Red’ (1899) and its sequel ‘Unmasked’ (1900), both published in The Black Cat magazine. These two stories are not only excellent works of dark fantasy but, when read together, they also raise important issues concerning men’s attitudes towards women and accountability for their behaviour. Yet, despite Dyar’s talent and the popularity of the first story amongst contemporary readers, the two tales are little known today. Were it not for the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series – set up specifically to recover and share great yet neglected short stories – then I may never have had the pleasure of coming across her work.  

The first of Dyar’s pair, ‘The Woman in Red’, features an enchanting, masked woman who enraptures the men around her after suddenly arriving at Monte Carlo with no name and only an old woman for company. With no clues as to her identity but plentiful rumours about her wealth and beauty, it’s not long before the men begin to speculate about who she might be. However, tragedy ensues after one gentleman succeeds in peering behind the mask. A year after this story’s publication, and after high demand for a sequel that ventured deeper into the Woman in Red’s secret, ‘Unmasked’ was published and proudly advertised at the top of the issue as ‘“The Woman in Red” – Unmasked!’. ‘Unmasked’ is equally well-written and reveals an excellently chilling twist that makes the reader question their previous understanding of the events in the first story, and makes a rather poignant remark on men’s mistreatment of women, one that still resonates to this day. 


The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink 

Recommendation by Mariana Rios Maldonado

Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem (1915) is a story about the fluctuating lines between reality and superstition, reason and madness, and the frail construction of what we call the self. Using Prague’s streets and alleyways, with their history steeped in folklore and magic, Meyrink tells the stories of the forgotten souls of the Jewish ghetto, whose beliefs and suffering share the stage with legendary creatures such as Golems and Doppelgängers. At its core, the text poses the following questions: if you realized that in this world there is a force superior to you, to your strength and imagination, a force that steers your life in mysterious, even mystical ways, what would you do? Would you feel comforted in the knowledge that every aspect of your life has led you to this moment? Or would you cower in fear, paranoia, for there is a chance that this force is not simply indifferent or benign, but indeed antagonistic to human desires and purposes, and that resistance is futile? Beyond the plot of the novel, Meyrink’s narrative has endured a fantastic history of its own: from being the author’s most renowned novel and a celebrated piece of Germanophonic fantastic fiction at the beginning of the 20th century, The Golem was later banned by the National Socialists and burned due to the narrative’s apparently “harmful worldview”. But the text survived, and its words have inspired scholars and writers of the likes of Gershom Scholem and Jorge Luis Borges. Although obscure and in some corners of the world still unknown or forgotten, The Golem remains a seminal text in the history of European fantastic literature.


The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar

Recommendation by Matthew Sangster

Sofia Samatar’s first novel, A Stranger in Olondria (2013), deservedly won numerous plaudits, including the World Fantasy Award.  Her second, The Winged Histories, is, in my view, even better.  It’s gorgeously written, deeply human and packs incredible richness into its relatively short span.  One way of describing it would be as the story of a war, but that isn’t really accurate.  Instead, it’s the story of aspects of conflict and its consequences that usually get left out of conventional histories and military epics.  It’s told in the voices of four women – a soldier, a scholar, a singer and socialite – reaching back to their roots before the war, winding around the rebellion itself and exploring some of what happens in the aftermath.  This makes for an allusive and elliptical narrative, but never a needlessly cryptic one.  It’s a book about empathy, and the power of story, and the strength and limits of love.  It reworks many of the pleasures of more traditional fantasies (it includes convincing political manipulations, deep histories, cryptic writings and rich romance), but it does so in ways that make these pleasures new, bringing home how differently such things can hit when we hear of them from diverse and self-aware storytellers, rather than from the avatars of a Manichean conflict.  It’s intense and sad and keening and wondrous.  You should read it as soon as you can.

Hobberdy Dick, by K.M. Briggs

Recommendation by Dimitra Fimi

Katharine Briggs was best known as a folklorist, President of the Folklore Society (1969-1972) and author of many books on folk beliefs about, and literary uses of, fairies. Her work includes key studies on folklore and fairies still very much cited today, including The Anatomy of Puck (1959), The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the 4-volume Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language (1970-1971) and A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976), among many others. Hobberdy Dick is only one of only two novels for children she ever wrote, and is – for me – a perfect example of a neglected children’s fantasy that really does demand more attention.

The titular Hobberdy Dick is a hob, or hobgoblin, or brownie, a fairy creature tied to a domestic space, usually benevolent if treated well, though playing minor pranks (especially when disrespected), isn’t beyond such a being’s sphere of activities. Dick belongs to a house which is in transition at the very opening of the novel. Our setting is a country house in 1652, just after the English Civil War and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime. As the novel begins, the old, royalist family, fallen on hard times, is leaving, and a new, Puritan family are moving in. We have, therefore, a moment of tension between the well-to-do family’s Puritan attitude towards the supernatural (seen as unholy superstitions) and the (still very much living) folklore beliefs of their servants and workers, who know (as does the reader) that fairy creatures, witches, and, yes, hobs too, exist, and should be treated cautiously. The fact that the story is told from Hobberdy Dick’s point of view establishes the supernatural as true, and reveals an entire parallel world of spirits, ghosts, and witchcraft.

What makes this novel special is its combination of historical fiction (well-researched), Briggs’ extensive knowledge of folklore traditions (used very effectively to advance the plot), and, ultimately, the point of view of a fairy being, who plots and schemes to bring about the best result possible for its beloved home, and the human beings he favours. There’s a bit of an unexpected twist at the end, and a very moving conclusion, but I’ll let you discover this for yourselves. I think this little novel is a perfect example of rich folklore scholarship explored via creative practice, something I would love to see more of.

A Tale of Two Lindsays: In Search of Starkness Observatory

Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University

The term “astronomical observatory” usually brings to mind an image of a gleaming white or silver hemispherical dome, or a vision of the Hubble Space Telescope, hurtling around the earth at 30,000 km per hour at an altitude of more than 500 km above the surface of our planet. But in centuries past, the basic architecture of the astronomical observatory was far more utilitarian, merely constructed to raise the observer above the local landscape. For example, Cheomseongdae in South Korea is a 7th century ten-meter-high bottle-shaped tower made of granite blocks (Castro Tirado 3).

Figure 1: Cheomseongdae Observatory [Public domain]
Figure 2. Exterior of the Rundetårn [Public domain].

The Rundetårn (Round Tower) Observatory in Copenhagen was built by Danish king Christian IV in 1642, a helical internal ramp not only leading to an observation platform 40 meters above the ground, but reportedly offering amusement to Peter the Great as he frequently rode his horse up to the top (Castro Tirado 6; Cajori 372). Hans Christian Andersen included numerous references to the Round Tower in his writings, for example as a setting in the 1857 novel To Be or Not To Be (At være eller ikke være) (“Hans Christian Andersen”).

Figure 3. Interior tamp of the Rundetårn [Jorge Láscar, CC-BY-2.0]

In H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, the narrator recounts viewing Mars through a telescope in a “black and silent” fictional domed observatory in the English village of Ottershaw, describing the “shadowed lantern throwing a feeble glow upon the floor in the corner, the steady ticking of the clockwork of the telescope, the little slit in the roof” (Wells 11). George MacDonald’s 1864 short story “The Castle” includes an “observatory on a lofty tower,” part of the eponymous castle built on “the top of a high cliff” (n.p.). This latter architecture is echoed in David Lindsay’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus. The fictional “famous Starkness Observatory” where “Curious discoveries are made … from time to time” is said to be located on “the north-east coast of Scotland” (Lindsay 14). The characters Maskull and Nightspore arrived at the observatory after walking seven miles from the fictional Haillar Station, along a road “very wild and lonely, [that] ran for the greater part of the way near the edge of rather lofty cliffs, within sight of the North Sea” (Lindsay 17). The observatory complex, which looked as if it had been deserted for six months or more, is described as a “self-contained little community” and composed of “three buildings: a small, stone-built dwelling house [including a library], a low workshop, and, about two hundred yards farther north, a square tower of granite masonry, seventy feet in height” (Lindsay 17).

The eponymous departure for Arcturus is made from a platform on the top of the observatory tower. Lindsay’s choice of design is understandable, as it is certainly easier to launch a “torpedo of crystal” (Lindsay 27) from the flat roof of a tower than the narrow slit of a round dome. But the description of this abandoned Scottish observatory brings to mind the troubled history of real Scottish facilities, those in Edinburgh.  In 1768 optician Thomas Short (1711-1788) inherited a telescope made for the Danish King upon his telescope-maker brother James’ death. Thomas brought the instrument back to Edinburgh and after first setting it up on the roof of Heriot’s Hospital, petitioned the Town Council to lease him land on Calton Hill for the purpose of building an observatory that could be used by University of Edinburgh students (Brück, “The Story” 5). The stone structure was begun in 1776 but not completed until 1792, four years after Short’s death. While it is not built on the coast, and is composed of a single structure (unlike Starkness Observatory), it is made of stone, has a flat roof, and hugs a cliff-side.

Unfortunately, no funds had been set aside to purchase research-quality instruments, and the so-called Gothic Observatory languished. In 1811, nine years before the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, a group of private citizens founded the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, and convinced the Town Council to lease them the Gothic Tower and adjoining land. The original structure (which became known as the Old Observatory) was slated to be used as a public observatory, while a true scientific observatory would be built nearby (Brück, “The Story” 7).

Famed Scottish engineer William Playfair’s unorthodox design for the new observatory was a “cruciform Roman Doric structure with six pillars in front of each of its strictly equal sides and with a prominent dome for a telescope at its centre” (Brück, “The Story” 8). While the observatory was begun in 1818 and not completed until 1825, a 1822 visit by King George IV led the facility to be “styled The Royal Observatory of King George the Fourth,” elevating it in name to a similar level as the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (Brück, “The Story” 10). Unfortunately the years were not kind to the new Royal Observatory, as financial support waned. The second Scottish Astronomer Royal, Charles Piazzi Smyth, announced his retirement in 1888, and a royal commission on the Scottish Universities issued a series of devastating recommendations, including abolishing the designations of Royal Observatory and Astronomer Royal for this facility (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 126).

Figure 6. Playfair’s Observatory [Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0]
Figure 7. 1878 caricature of James Lindsay [Public domain].

All seemed lost for Edinburgh astronomy, but fate had other plans. James Ludovic Lindsay (1847-1913) twenty-sixth earl of Crawford and ninth earl of Balcarres, had long been trying to garner support for the Scottish Royal Observatory. A gifted amateur astronomer, in 1872 he moved to the mansion estate his grandfather had purchased in Dunecht, near Aberdeen, and built a world-class astronomical facility, including a 15-inch aperture refractor, in the U.K. second only to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1878 and president of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1878 and 1879 (Gingerich 872).

Dunecht is certainly farther north than Edinburgh, but while it is on the coast it is not in sight of the North Sea. Lindsay’s observatory did include a number of separate buildings, including some with cylindrical domes and single-story structures housing solar instruments and a photographic laboratory (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 102). While there was also a library and a stone-built astronomer’s house, which had an observing platform on the roof, there was no separate stone tower (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 99).  

Lindsay’s astronomical instruments were admittedly the envy of his colleagues, but his library was even more impressive. The so-called Crawford Collection is considered “one of the finest collections of astronomical books in the world, and especially rich in ancient and rare books, … altogether there may well be as many as 11,ooo books and pamphlets representing the individual contributions of well over 4,ooo authors in at least sixteen different languages” (Forbes 459). Upon the death of his father in 1880, the new Lord Crawford gave up his astronomical duties, leaving the day-to-day operation to his main assistant Ralph Copeland (1837-1905). When he later inherited his uncle’s title, he decided to sell Dunecht and move his observatory to Balcarres House in Southeast Fife, closer to the coast.

It was during this time (1888) that Piazzi Smyth resigned as astronomy professor at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Astronomer Royal, leaving the future of Edinburgh astronomy hanging by a thread. Lindsay approached the government and offered all his astronomical equipment and his legendary library as “a gift to the nation, subject to the condition that the observatory should be rebuilt upon a suitable site and maintained in a proper manner” (“James Ludovic Lindsay” 272). The offer was accepted, and in 1889 Copeland was given the titles of Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Astronomer Royal (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 127). A committee was established to locate a more suitable site, away from the lights and smoke of the city, leading to the selection of Blackford Hill, a public park on the southern edge of Edinburgh. (Brück, “The Story” 53). As in the case of Starkness Observatory, there was no railway up to Blackford Hill, but a temporary track was built in 1892 branching from Blackford railway station in order to facilitate the movement of building supplies to the site (Brück, “The Story” 55). The main building is end capped by two revolving cylindrical domes “38 and 22 feet in diameter at the east and west ends of the building which were to cover the two principal telescopes of the observatory, the 15-inch refractor and a 24-inch reflector” (Brück, “The Story” 55). In between was a flat-roofed section housing the library and a platform for portable instruments. The facility was completed in 1895, far faster than the previous iterations of the Edinburgh observatories. With the Royal Observatory safely moved to Blackford Hill, the Calton Hill facilities became the property of the city council, and the Playfair facility was open to the public as the “City Observatory” for many decades.

Figure 8. The two revolving domes of the Blackford Hill Observatory [Magnus Hagdorm, CC-BY-SA-2.0]

While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Lindsay’s description of Starkness Observatory and any one of the Edinburgh Observatories, there are tantalizing parallels to each. More importantly, having been born in 1876, David Lindsay could have witnessed the drama concerning the Royal Edinburgh Observatory in real time as a young man, having spent part of his youth in Jedburgh, Scotland (near the border with England) with father’s relatives (Ewing, “Biography”). While I have seen no evidence to suggest that David Lindsay was closely related to James Lindsay, the similarity in name may have attracted the author to the astronomer’s life story. It is also interesting that David’s older brother, Alexander (1869-1915) used the pseudonym Alexander Crawford to write serialized novels and short stories between 1911-15. As Murray Ewing notes, “the name Crawford has a long association with that of Lindsay, since a Sir David Lindsay (c.1360–1407) was made 1st Earl of Crawford in 1398” (Ewing, “Alexander ‘Crawford’ Lindsay”).

Today the observatories of Edinburgh have come back to life. While the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the closing of the Royal Observatory’s visitor’s center, scientific work continues at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) and the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA), both housed at the observatory. In 2018 the Collective Gallery took on responsibility for the Calton Hill complex, turning the City Observatory into a public celebration of contemporary art. In 2020 it was announced that the long-neglected Gothic Tower was being refurbished as apartments for visiting artists, special events, and vacations (Ferguson). This ultimate marriage of exploration, science, and the arts is certainly worthy of the heritage of Lindsay’s novel, and its Starkness Observatory. I wish them many successful voyages to ‘Art-cturus’ – and beyond.

References:

Brück, Hermann A. (1992) “Lord Crawford’s Observatory at Dun Echt 1872-1892.” Vistas in Astronomy 35: 81-138.

Brück, Hermann A. (1983) The Story of Astronomy in Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cajori, Florian (1928) “Four Old Astronomical Observatory Buildings.” Science 26(4):372-6.

Castro Tirado, Miguel A. (2019) “Astronomical Observatories: From the Prehistory to the XVIII Century.” Revista Mexicana de Astronomía Y Astrofísica 51: 1-8.

Ewing, Murray (2021) “Alexander ‘Crawford’ Lindsay.” The Violet Apple https://www.violetapple.org.uk/notes/alexandercrawford.php

Ewing, Murray (2021) “Biography.” The Violet Apple https://www.violetapple.org.uk/life/life.php

Ferguson, Brian (2020) “Gothic Landmark Built for 18th Century Astronomers in Edinburgh to Become Artists’ Retreat on Calton Hill.” The Scotsman https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/gothic-landmark-built-18th-century-astronomers-edinburgh-become-artists-retreat-calton-hill-2922771

Forbes, Eric G. (1973) “Collections II: The Crawford Collection of Books and Manuscripts on the History of Astronomy, Mathematics, Etc., at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.” The British Journal for the History of Science 6(4): 459-61.

Gingerich, Owen (2004) “Lindsay, James Ludovic.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 872-3.

 “Hans Christian Andersen and the Round Tower” (n.d.) Rundetaarn https://www.rundetaarn.dk/en/article/hans-christian-andersen-and-the-round-tower

“James Ludovic Lindsay.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 74: 271-3.

Lindsay, David (2007) A Voyage to Arcturus. Radford: Wilder Publications.

MacDonald, George (2016) “The Portent and Other Stories.” Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8913/8913-h/8913-h.htm

Wells, H.G. (2008) The War of the Worlds. Waiheke Island: The Floating Press

Images:

(1) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cheomseongdae_Observatory_gyeongju.jpg Public domain

(2) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Denmark._Copenhagen_317_Rundetaarn.jpg Public domain

(3) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rundetaarn_-_Round_Tower_(37867038602).jpg Jorge Láscar CC-BY-2.0

(4) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calton_Hill_Gothic_Tower_1792.jpg Public domain

(5) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calton_Hill_Old_Observatory_2010.JPG Public domain

(6) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scotland-2016-Edinburgh-City_Observatory.jpg Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

(7) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lord_Lindsay_-_Earl_of_Crawford.jpg Public domain

(8) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Royal_Observatory,_Edinburgh,_Scotland-10Nov2010_(1).jpg Magnus Hagdorn CC-BY-SA-2.0