Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth

An exhibition at the Bodleian Library, 23 May - 27 October 2013

This exhibition is now closed.


The lion, Aslan; the dragon Smaug on his pile of treasure; a girl and her daemon; a boy with a scar on his forehead, and a world where animals can talk and strange words have the power to create and destroy – these are the familiar tropes of children’s fantasy literature.

The Bodleian’s summer exhibition takes as its theme the work of some of the foremost modern exponents of the genre, members of the group of writers informally known as the ‘Oxford School’: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

From its unique holdings of these authors’ papers, the Library is displaying a selection of Tolkien’s original artwork for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; C.S. Lewis’s ‘Lefay notebook’ and his map of Narnia, and manuscripts of novels and poems by Alan Garner, Philip Pullman and Susan Cooper, many of which are exhibited here for the first time.

Also featured in the exhibition are some of the books and manuscripts that contain the myths, legends and magical practices on which these Oxford-educated authors freely drew for inspiration. This historic material is housed in the Bodleian, which as a source of sorcery and arcane learning can be re-imagined as an enchanted location in itself, where the very act of reading is imbued with magical, transformative properties.

The Harry Potter films were shot in the Divinity School and in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the reading room in which both Lewis and Tolkien as Oxford dons researched manuscripts and rare books, and where Alan Garner consulted the demonic spellbooks in the Ashmole and Rawlinson collections.

Witches are represented in the exhibition by the First Folio Macbeth, and alchemists by the extraordinary ‘Ripley Rolls’ which illustrate the quest for the life-prolonging philosophers’ stone. Grimoires and richly-illuminated mediaeval bestiaries are on display, as are a variety of magical objects, including a 17th -century marble copy of the ‘Holy Table’ with which John Dee used to converse with angels; Philip Pullman’s alethiometer, and one of Alan Garner’s original ‘owl service’ plates.

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