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.


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

Ewing, Murray (2021) “Biography.” The Violet Apple

Ferguson, Brian (2020) “Gothic Landmark Built for 18th Century Astronomers in Edinburgh to Become Artists’ Retreat on Calton Hill.” The Scotsman

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

“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

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


(1) Public domain

(2) Public domain

(3) Jorge Láscar CC-BY-2.0

(4) Public domain

(5) Public domain

(6) Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

(7) Public domain

(8),_Edinburgh,_Scotland-10Nov2010_(1).jpg Magnus Hagdorn CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy

Wednesday 24 November, 6 pm GMT

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

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

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

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

Book your free ticket here.

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

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

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

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

Fantasy Horror Reading Group Halloween Event

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

To join us, follow the link

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

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:


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 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:




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

Call for Papers

Religious fantasy, for a great many readers, is synonymous with Christian fantasy; more specifically, it is understood as literature overtly reproducing biblical narratives within a fantasy world, such as C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Concurrently, fantasy texts engaging with theology through non-allegorical means that challenge mainstream Christian doctrine are all too often dismissed as disingenuous, offensive or deliberately antagonistic. While this is sometimes the case, such a narrow view of religious fantasy excludes all but the least innovative texts from the genre and leaves little room for authors of other faiths. Furthermore, the dominance of texts affirming orthodoxy in religious fantasy discourse threatens to blind us to another side of belief: that radical, sometimes even heretical, literary reconfigurations of religion can also be acts of devotion.

If religious fantasy is instead allowed to encompass heterodoxy and heresy, theological subversions and expressions of misotheism, then the affordances of religious fantasy expand far beyond the didacticism popularly attributed to it. Understood in these terms, religious fantasy can be used: to affirm one’s identity and spiritual worth in opposition to official doctrines which may deny it, as a tool of protest against unjust systems of power, to explore complex spiritual responses to historical instances of religious complicity in atrocities, or to express lived spiritual experiences which do not conform to orthodox teachings.

This online conference, supported by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow, aims to explore the wide ranging affordances of heterodoxy and heresy in fantasy texts across a wide range of faiths. We welcome 20-minute papers from postgraduate students and early career researchers working in any area of fantasy or theology. These papers might address, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  • Queer, feminist and womanist theology in fantasy
  • Non-Western, post-colonial or anti-colonial heresies and fantasy
  • Misotheism, ‘New’ Atheism and Death of God theology in fantasy
  • Fantasy and interreligious dialogue
  • The affordances of fantasy in theologies of protest
  • New Media’s interactions with fantasy and theology, and how this might differ from traditional media

Please submit a 300 word abstract and a short bio (maximum 150 words) to with the subject line ‘Abstract Submission’ by 31st August. Only applications from graduate students and early career researchers will be considered for this conference. We are particularly keen to highlight the contributions of underrepresented authors within the fantasy genre at this conference, therefore we will also not be accepting submissions on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman.

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