Magical Books: from the Middle Ages to Middle-earth at Oxford's Bodleian Library

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 May 2013

Exhibition preview: Magical Books: from the Middle Ages to Middle-earth, Bodleian Library, Oxford, May 23 – October 27 2013

An image of an illustration of a man in medieval clothing holding a bell above a rabbit
The first magician from Transforming Performers (not before 1873) removes his magical bell from a white rabbit with a flourish. The movable mechanism works so that a whole image is presented to the viewer as each flap is lifted© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman have more than their standings as celebrated authors in common.

In a writing group informally known as the Oxford School, all five were Oxford-educated. The Bodleian is the home of the books which fuelled their myths and dreams. So the witches of the first folio of Macbeth and the alchemists of the philosophers’ stone-pursuing Ripley Rolls, for example, begin paths which can be traced all the way to the words of these towering writers.

In Tolkien’s case, the manuscript of a previously unknown work, The Fall of Arthur, is on display for the first time, showing a poem which was one of several halted by his death. Its first publication will coincide with the exhibition’s opening day.

An alethiometer, conjured by Pullman as a truth-telling sphere, accompanies one of Garner’s “owl service” plates in a line-up of magical materials within a space with a decidedly enchanted atmosphere of its own.

And the Duke Humfrey’s Library was the place where Garner consulted demonic spellbooks, Harry Potter films were shot (as well as in the Bodleian’s Divinity School) and Lewis and Tolkein pored over dusty manuscripts and rare books.

Co-curators Sarah Wheale and Dr Judith Priestman say their task, which has seen them work with Pullman, Garner and Cooper, has been a “real privilege” and represents a “fabulous opportunity” for guests to eye up 900 years of literary heritage.

  • Open 9am-5pm (9am-4.30pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the library on Twitter @BodleianLibs.

More pictures:

An image of an illustration of two lions clawing at a door above a sun and lettering
Alchemical lion image from a 15th century magic scroll© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
An image of an illustration showing a star of david on parchment within a red line
A 15th century collection of texts on magic and fortune telling. The manuscript is referenced by Garner in his note to The Moon of Gomrath© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
An image of a colour illustration of a kind of wizard holding a bell above soaring birds
The second magician, as revealed when all four of the flaps in the diamond-shaped mechanism are lifted© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
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