For many people, I suspect, the fantasy genre is a relatively recent invention, and something that has some specific definitions; created somewhere around when J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, perhaps, and with rules that confine it somewhere inside the intersection of swords and society, or perhaps those grimy dungeons and their respective dragons. The British Library feels different, however, and has created an exhibit to argue for the longevity, elasticity, and strength of fantasy — and it’s a pretty compelling argument.
Titled, simply, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination, the exhibit takes a holistic approach to the genre, and features everything from a 1906 edition of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to cosplay outfits created by contemporary LARPers; elsewhere, visitors can see Charlotte Bronte’s handwritten notes for the 1834 short story ‘The Spell: An Extravaganza,’ or C.S. Lewis’ very first notes for the very first Narnia story, as well as Michael Palin’s notebook from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (“THE KNIGHT - TAUNTING SCENE,” it reads in all caps, with a check mark next to it.)
The sense that fantasy is not only a long-lived phenomenon, but a constantly evolving, and vibrantly alive one, is inescapable in the exhibit; at one point, an 18th century edition of Wu Chang’en’s Xin le yuan xiang pi ping Xi you ji — popularly known as ‘Journey to the West’ today — is displayed next to a 2013 volume of Dragon Ball, which was partly inspired by Journey to the West. Kieron Gillan and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine is on show next to an installation that recreates The Black Lodge from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks… but just steps away is a copy of Beowulf believed to have come from the 10th or 11th century.
Each of these things are equally part of the fantasy genre, the exhibit says, and each is as worthy of study and curiosity as everything around it. The exhibition is at once scholarly and a work of fandom, even as it eagerly (and convincingly) makes the case that fandom is every bit as vital and important a part of the fantasy genre and its history as anything else. There’s a wonderful video featuring fans talking about their own relationship with fantasy at the end of the exhibit that feels like the perfect capper to the exhibition and an ideal launching point for visitors to start exploring their own relationship with the genre more.
More than that, Fantasy: Realms of Imagination proves the breadth and limitless potential of fantasy as a place for creators to explore ideas. It’s impossible to see works from the likes of Percy Shelley, Ursula Le Guin, Tove Jansson, H.P. Lovecraft displayed next to Magic: The Gathering cards, an 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, or Neil Gaiman’s original notebook for Coraline, and not feel inspired by just what fantasy is capable of when given the opportunity. “Realms of Imagination,” indeed.
Fantasy: Realms of Imagination runs at the British Library until February 25, 2024; anyone in the neighborhood should consider it highly recommended, and we can only hope that other museums and libraries take note on this sort of thing for the future. And if you’re not convinced yet, would it help if I tell you that there are both handwritten Tolkien notes and an early Dungeons & Dragons game to be found inside the exhibit as well…?
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