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 (https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/).

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 https://discord.gg/MNZe3KrEAs

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.

Conference: Dissenting Beliefs: Heresy and Heterodoxy in Fantasy

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic and the University of Glasgow are happy to announce Dissenting Beliefs, an early career researcher conference on religious heresy and heterodoxy in fantasy literature and media. The conference is free to attend and will be held online via Zoom webinars on 11 December 2021.

Our keynote lecture for the conference will be delivered by Prof. Alana M. Vincent, Professor of Jewish Philosophy, Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester.

You can find the conference CFP here and find our full programme below.

Registration is already open – here is the link to book your free ticket.

Keep up with our latest updates by following Dissenting Beliefs on Facebook and Twitter.

Organising Committee:

Dr Taylor Driggers
Lucinda Holdsworth
Meg MacDonald
Luise Rössel

Contact Email: Dissenting.Beliefs@gmail.com

Programme:

9:30-10:00: Welcome and Opening Words


10:00-11:30: Panel 1: Feminist Mythic Counter Readings
Chloe Campbell — “Hell’s Under New Management Now”: Heresy, Patriarchy and Religious Subversion in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Eilidh Harrower — “Pharmakis”: Feminist Paganism in Circe by Madeline Miller

Grace Worm — In the Hands of the Goddess: Feminist Religion, Religious Piety, and Mistaken Interpretations in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall and Other Lands

10:00-11:30: Panel 2: Good Omens and its Descendants
Alex Booer— A Theology from the Margins: The Demon Crowley in TV’s Good Omens

Luise Roessel— Mirroring “sacred” textuality only to break it: the liberating power of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens

Matthew Konerth— The Demon Ascendant Narrative

11:30-11:45: Break


11:45-13:15: Panel 3: Fantastic Queer Heterodoxies
Marita Arvanti — God Has An Asshole?: Queer Heterodoxies in Elizabeth Bear’s Stratford Man duology

Koh Hui Ling Carina — Postmodern Fantasy and Queer Theology in Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree

Da Eun Kun — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Blakean Fantasies for a Lesbian Feminist Subject


11:45-13:15: Panel 4: Interwar Paganism and Occultism
Andrew Korah — “To Pray to the Stars”: The Nonmoral Devotion to Beauty in Dunsany’s Fantasy

Georgia Van Raalte — “The Ass that Carries the Ark”: Fantasy, Initiation and Goddess Theology in Dion Fortune’s Occult Novels

Sean Martin — Gnostic and Pagan Archetypes in David Lindsay’s The Violet Apple, Devil’s Tor and The Witch


13:15-14:00: Lunch Break


14:00-15:40: Panel 5: Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue
Anna Milon — The High Church of the Goddess: Religious Syncretism in Live Action Role Play.

Smita Dhantal — A Socio-Psychological Analysis of Interreligious Dialogue in A Song of Ice and Fire

Snigdha Basu — Theological subversion of the indigenous and trails of Womanist theology in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat

Venetta Octavia — Fantasy or History: Religion vs. Magic


15:40-17:10: Keynote with Prof. Alana Vincent

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: GIFCon 2022: Fantasy Across Media

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is pleased to announce a call for papers for Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations (GIFCon) 2022 with the theme of ‘Fantasy Across Media’.

Much of fantasy studies has focused on the genre’s presence in literature, with histories and theoretical frameworks often either implicitly or explicitly centring the written word. In some cases, academic, critic, and fan responses to the genre outside of literature even go so far as to erase or question the possibility of the genre’s existence in other media, perhaps most famously embodied in J.R.R. Tolkien’s insistence in ‘On Fairy-stories’ that some media, such as drama, are fundamentally incompatible with fantasy. These types of responses fail to account for the medium-specific benefits and challenges that different media pose for depictions of the impossible, serving to establish hierarchies between media, exclude non-literary media from analyses of the genre, and potentially limit a full understanding of the genre’s history.

Fantasy and the fantastic have had long, rich histories outside of literature, playing a central role in the development of theatre, film, and comic books, and celebrating a more recent boom on the small screen. Furthermore, from the innumerable reimaginings of the Arthurian tradition, to The Wizard of Oz, to manga and anime, to contemporary multimedia franchises and cinematic universes, fantasy texts have been integral to the history of transmedia storytelling, allowing their rich storyworlds to expand across multiple media. By examining fantasy with a focus on media, we find a genre shaped in distinct ways by the many different media and creative industries that produce it, with specific creative processes and varying cultural media traditions opening onto distinct forms of fantasy that may not be properly accounted for in fantasy studies’ traditional focus on Anglophone literature.

GIFCon 2022 is a three-day virtual conference that seeks to examine the myriad narrative possibilities afforded by fantasy across media. We welcome proposals for papers relating to this theme from researchers and practitioners working in the field of fantasy and the fantastic across all media, whether within the academy or beyond it. We are particularly interested in submissions from postgraduate and early career researchers, and researchers whose work focuses on non-Anglocentric fantasy. We will also offer creative workshops for those interested in exploring how the creative processes of different media shape fantastic storytelling on a practical level. 

We ask for 300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers. See our Suggested Topics list below for further inspiration. 

Please submit a 300-word abstract and a 100-word bionote via this form by December 3rd 2021 at midnight GMT.  

If you have any questions regarding our event or our CfP, please contact us at GIFCon@glasgow.ac.uk. Please also read through our Code of Conduct. We look forward to your submissions! 

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Fantasy texts in film, theatre, television, oral traditions, comic books, games (both video and tabletop), new media, virtual reality, theme parks, podcasts, scripts, visual arts, etc. 
  • The relationship between genre and medium 
  • Histories of Fantasy media beyond literature 
  • The cross-media influence of Fantasy texts 
  • Medium-specificity or interrogations of medium-specificity in genre studies 
  • Adaptations of Fantasy texts 
  • Fantasy transmedia franchises 
  • Fanworks of Fantasy texts 
  • Fantasy and the fantastic in a non-Anglocentric medium, e.g. Bollywood fantasies, manga, anime, JRPGs, Karagöz shadow plays 
  • Relationship between Fantasy texts and the regional cultural industries that produce them 

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: Dissenting.Beliefs@gmail.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DissentCon/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DissentCon/

Keynote

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 Dissenting.Beliefs@gmail.com with the subject line ‘Abstract Submission’ by 31st August. Only applications from graduate students and early career researchers will be considered for this conference. We are particularly keen to highlight the contributions of underrepresented authors within the fantasy genre at this conference, therefore we will also not be accepting submissions on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman.

This event will take place online on 11th December 2021 and will be made accessible to the public via both zoom and the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic’s YouTube channel.

CFP: Tolkien and Fantasy sessions at ICMS, Kalamazoo

We are seeking abstracts for two sessions on J.R.R. Tolkien and Young Adult Fantasy, sponsored by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, for the 57th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, Western Michigan University), to be held online on 9-14 May 2022.

Tolkien and the Medieval Animal

Organised by Kris Swank

The emerging field of “animal studies” shifts critical thought away from an assumption of human supremacy and instead explores the web of interdependence that enmeshes humans with all other forms of life (Crane 2015: 1). As Anna Tsing puts it, “Human nature is an interspecies relationship” (2012: 144). But these conceptions are not new. Susan Crane writes, “The people of medieval Britain lived in daily contact with domestic and wild animals. Forest and wasteland loomed over settlements, and even city streets teemed with all kinds of creatures” (2012: 1).

The medieval animal is explored in a number of recent monographs, e.g. Animals in the Middle Ages by Nona C. Flores (2000), The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., by Joyce E. Salisbury (2010), Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain by Susan Crane (2012), and Medieval Pets by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (2021), among others. Animals mattered to J.R.R. Tolkien, too, and his writings frequently engage with medieval conceptions of the interspecies relationships between humans and non-human animals. A few examples include Farmer Giles and his dog, Garm, Gandalf and Shadowfax, and bestiary animals Fastitocalon, the Oliphaunt, and dragons. Lists of animals found in Middle-earth are available online (e.g. here and here).

We welcome proposals for this paper session on “Tolkien and the Medieval Animal.” Interdisciplinary topics are welcome, and scholars might engage with a number of diverse fields, such as anthropology, art history, biology, communication, geography, history, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. Panelists may also employ various theoretical perspectives.

For any questions on this session please contact Kris Swank at 2464732s@student.gla.ac.uk.

The Global Middle Ages in Young Adult Fantasy

Organised by Grace Ann Thomas Worm

Contemporary trends in Young Adult fantasy literature demonstrate a close relationship between young adult stories and a global medieval settings. Young Adult fantasies often use medieval settings to position arguments around identity, race, culture, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, violence, environmentalism, technology, folklore, and magic. We want to open a conversation about the turn toward a Global Middle Ages in Young Adult fantasy and its opportunities and challenges for new voices, groups, cultures, and readers.

Since the days of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, settings for fantasy novels have largely been modelled upon the medieval North: the British Isles and Scandinavia. In the last decade, a wave of emerging voices in the field of Young Adult fantasy have turned to the rich variety of cultural models, mythologies, and folklore traditions of the “Global Middle Ages,” that is pre-modern Africa, Asia, the Americas, Austronesia, even eastern and southern Europe. Among this wave of authors who write on global medievalism are Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, P. Djèlí Clark, Hafsah Faizal, Julie Kagawa, Nnedi Okrafor, Rebecca Roanhorse, Nghi Vo, Neon Yang, and many others.

We want to reveal not only cultures which have previously been silenced, but also groups which have been silenced, including women, the enslaved, indigenous peoples, queer, or disabled groups.

For any questions on this session please contact Grace Worm at g.worm.1@research.gla.ac.uk.

How to submit your abstract

All proposals must be submitted through the International Congress on Medieval Studies site: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/call

The proposal deadline is 15 September 2021

References

Crane, S. (2012). Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Tsing, A. (2012). Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: for Donna Haraway. Environmental Humanities 1, available at: https://read.dukeupress.edu/environmental-humanities/article/1/1/141/8082/Unruly-Edges-Mushrooms-as-Companion-SpeciesFor

Crane, S. (2015). ‘Medieval Animal Studies: Dogs at Work’. Oxford Handbooks Online, available at: https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935338.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935338-e-103

Image Credits

Man with hunting dogs. Marginal drawing from Luttrell Psalter. Originally published in England East Anglia; circa 1325-1335. Photograph from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest, 2 Mar 2017.

Medieval Cosplaying. @ Grace Worm

CFP: Tolkien sessions at Leeds IMC 2022

Paper abstracts are currently being sought for the following Tolkien sessions for the Leeds International Medieval Congress, to be held at the University of Leeds on 4-7 July 2022. These sessions are organised by Dr Andrew Higgins and sponsored by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow.  The special thematic strand of the conference will be “Borders” which is reflected in several of the suggested sessions.

Paper submissions are being sought for the following sessions:

Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

This session can accommodate thematic topics on, and new approaches to, Tolkien’s medievalism, ranging from source studies and theoretical readings, to comparative studies of Tolkien’s and others’ works. 

Tolkien and Medieval Poets: A Session in Memory of Richard C. West  

This session is in memory of medievalist and distinguished Tolkien scholar who we sadly lost in 2020: Richard C. West.  Richard wrote some of the most important and influential early scholarship on Tolkien including his seminal 1975 essay ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings’ which demonstrated how the narrative interlace structure used by medieval authors influenced Tolkien’s work.  In memory of Richard’s scholarship papers in this session will explore the influence and impact of works of medieval poetry and poets on the creative thought, process, and works of J.R.R. Tolkien.   

Crossing Borders in Middle-earth 

This will be the first session to directly address the special thematic strand of the conference.  Papers in this session can explore any aspects of borders in Tolkien’s works in the broadest sense of the term.  We welcome explorations of geographical, conceptual, political, linguistic and other borders in Middle-earth studies. 

Borders between Life and Death in Tolkien’s Legendarium

In the second session related to the thematic strand of the conference we are looking for papers that explore themes around metaphysical borders and liminal spaces between life and death in Tolkien’s works and their influences. 

Family Ties:  The Limits of Kinship in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

In his vast and complex life-long world-building Tolkien put a great focus in his narrative and para-textual work on developing networks of relationships between different races, languages and families, as in the case of the genealogies found in The Silmarillion and in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. These networks of various forms of kinship create their own borders between the many peoples of Middle-earth.  This session welcomes papers that will explore the many different types of kinship networks Tolkien establishes in his legendarium and how they work within his rich secondary world. 

Orientation, Transgression, and Crossing Borders of Middle-earth

Papers in this session will explore broader topics around different types of less evident borders found in Tolkien’s creative thought and writing. They can include orientations and borders that are encountered and crossed (or not) in various types of social interactions and relationships in Tolkien’s legendarium including social, linguistic, racial and sexual. 

Tolkien as a Gateway to Interdisciplinary Teaching: A Roundtable

For our 2022 Roundtable we would like to hear from teachers who have used the works of Tolkien to introduce and engage students with new fields of study and disciplines. How have you used the works of Tolkien as a gateway for students to explore and become passionate about other areas of study?

  • Please submit a paper title and abstract by 31 August 2021 to  Dr. Andrew Higgins (asthiggins@me.com)
  • Length of abstracts: 150 words (max!) 
  • Papers will be 15-20 minutes long

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 (steelthistles.blogspot.com) when, upon sharing the Narnian Chronicles with her own children, she found they weren’t as keen on them as she remembered herself being. Harry Potter, it seems, had taken over from the world of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter. In order to try and find out why, Katherine revisited the books to see how they had changed when reading with an adult eye. What did she remember of them from her childhood, and what new revelations would they hold for the grown up reader?

Exposure to Narnia evokes strong memories in many readers – Katherine spoke of the tangible recall of “bristly armchairs” when reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. My memory of my first encounter with Narnia is listening to my mum reading it aloud to me – the books lend themselves to reading aloud beautifully and I know exactly where I was sitting and how it felt during those precious read-aloud times. I’ve read the books aloud to countless classes since then, even holding whole school story sessions to read The Magician’s Nephew to children aged 4 to 11 and I hope they remember not only the story but also the visceral sensations of the hall floor, and the swoosh of local traffic and the smells coming from the canteen as we shared the magic of the book together. Because the thing about Narnia is that we desperately want it to be real. For the nine year old Katherine, there was no option for it not to be real. “You’re meant to feel that way,” explained her mum, when the young reader expressed her belief that Narnia had to exist.

The books are explored not in order of their publication, but according to their ‘internal chronology’. Katherine explained how this approach helped to create a coherent approach. It isn’t without its problems, however, as she explained – Lewis’s eclectic take on events leaves gaps which the adult reader on revisiting can see clearly, where events and characters don’t always relate to the subsequent back story. But reading them in order of how the story unfolds made narrative sense.

Katherine talked about Lewis’s distinctive voice, explaining how his voice remains the same regardless of his audience, be they child, literary critic or Christian apologist. She suggested that he read with a child’s directness and that this influenced the way in which he wrote – was he an ardent reader of children’s books as an adult, she mused? – and compared his directness of approach to that of the medieval writer. Medieval literature, she suggested, has the same candour. It can be subtle and nuanced, but at its heart, it aims to tell a story with colour. Narnia is like that, she said.

The specialness of Narnia as a place was apparent throughout Katherine’s talk. She described the sense of longing for Narnia which forms a thread through all the books, even though the reader knows little of the history of the land at all. Lewis provides glimpses of a great and long history but little in the way of detail. And when Narnia is restored, the children are sent away leaving the land as something almost too slippery to grasp. Narnia remains on the edge of our understanding and experience; a place to be visited and to be desired, but, perhaps, not to be known. And that brings us to Aslan. The terrifying, beautiful, all-knowing, all-seeing lion who frightens us with his roars and his fearsome power, and yet into whose mane every reader wants to snuggle as Lucy and Susan did before his sacrifice at the Stone Table. Katherine talked about how Aslan’s character changes throughout the Chronicles – the lion incarnate in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; remote in The Horse and His Boy; his late appearance in Prince Caspian as a faith character; his manifestation as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; as remote, good but absent lawgiver and redeemer in The Silver Chair; and finally, in The Last Battle appearing only at the very end on the Day of Judgement. Katherine explained how she wished she could have spent more time exploring the changing character of Aslan in her book. But would the nine year old Katherine have seen Aslan changing? Perhaps not. Perhaps for a child, Aslan will always be the soft, protective, frightening but just creature that you want to hold and stroke and feel. Perhaps for the grown up, Aslan is necessarily more remote.

In exploring Lewis’s inspiration, Katherine spoke about his childhood in Ireland and the Irish imagery and scenery that comes through in the stories. There are clear influences from numerous classic texts, not least of which include Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the stories of St. Brendan. His Irish roots are reflected through the storytelling, and the sense of longing which is apparent throughout the Chronicles. But there are well-documented problems with the books – the racist undertones and the accusation that his stories are sexist amongst them. Katherine refuted the latter, describing feisty girls who hold their own just as much as the boys, and suggesting that writers envisaged their readers as either boys or girls and that the reader mentally shifted gender in the reading and read as a boy or a girl accordingly. The mental gymnastics of the child reader, accepting and internalising worlds and stories and realities which, as boring, rational adults we sometimes struggle with, are celebrated and, I would suggest, yearned for, in Katherine’s work.

The many questions from participants about influences, television and film adaptations, maps, food and imagery (there’s a whole blog to be written on the architectural aspect of the books with their passageways, attics, labyrinths and doorways!) showed just how ingrained the Chronicles of Narnia are in our rememberings of childhood readings of fantasy. As adults, we still yearn to explore all those aspects of Narnia which entranced us as children. Perhaps, suggested Katherine, writers for children are particularly skilled at preserving the child within? And whilst she acknowledged that we don’t get more than a fraction of the story on first reading of Narnia, somehow Lewis has managed to create a world which enables us as adults to return to its Chronicles and find new things which resonate not only with our adult selves but the child we preserve within. In wrapping up the session, Katherine suggested she would find it easy to go on talking about Narnia into the night. I suspect many of the audience would have willingly continued with her.

It’s impossible to put into a short blog the entire world of Narnia. Katherine has made an exceptional job of re-exploring that world in her book. What would the child Katherine make of the book, asked one audience member? She would definitely disagree with some bits, admitted Katherine! And therein lies Narnia’s, and Lewis’s power. We come at the books and the world of Narnia in multiple different ways as we grow older, as experiences change us and our view of our world. For my children, aspiring to be Harry Potter has coloured and influenced their world view – I’m sure my youngest still expects a letter to arrive from Hogwarts at any moment apologising for the delay in summoning him to school. For my children, being magical like Harry has been something to aspire to, to yearn for throughout their childhoods. For me, growing up with Narnia, it was the very fact that Lucy and her siblings were so utterly normal that made me want to be with them. Magical things happened to them – and so maybe they could happen to me as well. It’s been many years, but I remain hopeful. As Katherine explained, Lewis built on the Platonic view that, if you desire and believe in something enough, it must exist. And with that in mind, I’m off to explore the back of the wardrobe in the attic.

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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