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Reviewed by:
  • Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-Earth, and: Magical Tales: Myth, Legend, and Enchantment in Children’s Booksed. by Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss
  • William Gray (bio)
Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-Earth. Exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK, May 23–October 27, 2013. Images available at
Magical Tales: Myth, Legend, and Enchantment in Children’s Books. Edited by Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library, 2013. 200pp.

Oxford loves its own. This was abundantly clear in the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-Earth. The “Bod” was the perfect setting for this exhibition of original manuscripts, illustrations, and medieval texts because not only have its contents had a great influence on children’s fantasy literature (as the exhibition amply demonstrates), but also the library itself has figured in some of these stories, for example, in Matthew Skelton’s Endymion Spring(2006) and as the “Bodley” in Philip Pullman’s “other” Oxford. Although seeing the original material in the flesh is hard to beat, much of the exhibition can still be accessed online at; and there is a lavishly illustrated exhibition book, Magical Tales: Myth, Legend, and Enchantment in Children’s Books, edited by Carolyne Larrington and Diane Purkiss. Although there is considerable overlap between the book and the website, each contains text and images unavailable in the other, so it is best to consult both to get the closest approximation to a visit to the exhibition itself. [End Page 416]

Larrington and Purkiss make an important claim about the genesis of children’s fantasy literature, which makes their book a useful adjunct to courses in that area. They assert that there is such a thing as “the ‘Oxford School’ of children’s fantasy literature,” and, as far as I am aware, they are the first to make that specific claim publicly in print (it is a truism that there is a generalconnection between Oxford and children’s fantasy literature). The claim made in the introduction and also in David Clark’s chapter, “The Magical Middle Ages in Children’s Fantasy Literature,” is that “the ‘Oxford School’ of children’s fantasy literature” arose from the University of Oxford’s English School during the mid-twentieth century J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis laid the foundations for the children’s fantasy genre not only by introducing in 1931 an English curriculum that required extensive study of medieval literature but also by pioneering the use of medieval sources in their own popular children’s fantasy works. Steeped in the medieval literature introduced at Oxford by Lewis and Tolkien and following in their footsteps as writers of popular fantasy literature for children came such authors as Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman.

The chapter dealing most fully with this idea is Clark’s, though he also manages to squeeze in the important pre-Tolkien or pre-Lewis authors George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, and Rudyard Kipling (Oxford was off limits for the first two as, respectively, a nonconformist and a woman; Kipling was neither academic enough to win a scholarship nor wealthy enough to afford the Oxford fees). Clark concludes with a tale of post-Oxford School children’s fantasy writers, none of whom (other than Terry Jones) actually attended Oxford University; however, they all seem to have been in some way influenced by Tolkien.

Tolkien also figures largely in Larrington’s chapter, “The Myths of the North in Children’s Books,” though it was Lewis who provided the most famous evocation of pure “Northernness” in Surprised by Joy(1955): “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity” (74). Lewis’s vision was triggered by Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Margaret Armour’s translation of the libretti of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (the exhibition book contains two of these striking illustrations). Wagner had succeeded William Morris in the young Lewis’s personal pantheon...


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pp. 416-418
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