Review: Fantasy: Realms Of The Imagination At The British Library

Magic in the air at the BL ★★★★☆

By M@ Last edited 8 months ago

Last Updated 03 November 2023

Review: Fantasy: Realms Of The Imagination At The British Library Magic in the air at the BL 4
Inside British Library's Fantasy Realms exhibition

The British Library's new exhibition is a magical, multimedia celebration of the fantasy genre.

Fantasy is having a bit of a moment. Spin offs of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time... you can't move for orcs, dragons and complicated princesses on streaming TV right now. But, as the British Library's titan of an exhibition shows, fantasy has always been with us, as a source of entertainment, inspiration and occasionally fear.

My own introduction to fantasy was playing those early text-based computer games where you'd type "Walk east" or "Walk north" and inevitably get back a "You are overrun with goblins. You are dead" message. Walking around this exhibition feels a bit like being in one of those games, with myriad chambers branching off in unexpected directions. I head north into the first room where, happily, there are no packs of marauding goblins. Instead I find myself in the realm of faerie.

An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, by Bernard Sleigh
An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, by Bernard Sleigh

The very first object I encounter is arguably the most absorbing in the whole exhibition — An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland created by Bernard Sleigh in the early 20th century. This delicious mash-up locates hundreds of fantastic creatures on one map (zoomable version here). It's breathtaking. And, should you have returned from questing with enough gold coin, the gift shop sells prints for £50 a pop.

This map is a springboard to explore fantasy's roots in myth and fairytale. Ancient works like Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Beowulf and Journey to the West all have fantastical elements, and served as inspiration for later writers. The exhibition continues with over 100 items exploring common themes in the genre, such as world-building and grail quests.  

Fantasy exhibition at British Library

One of the strongest messages throughout the show is just how adaptable fantasy is to different media. What started as campfire storytelling led eventually to novels, movies, board games, card games, video games, TV and radio shows, role-playing games and even live-action roleplay. All are represented here in one of the BL's most ambitiously staged exhibitions yet.

A common criticism of the British Library's shows is that they rarely stray beyond the printed word. Understandable, really. It's a library. But here, the curators weave in film props, ballet gowns, Warhammer kit, playable video games and much, much more. There's even a room where you can dance in front of a camera and have your image distorted into fantastical shapes (it was keeping someone's kids happy).

Dungeons and dragons rules in a case
Geeks of a certain age will find much to admire, such as early D&D booklets and a Fighting Fantasy novel

The only disappointment, for me, is the lack of emphasis on maps. Cartography is one of the BL's strongest cards, and I feel a lot more could have been made of the strong ties between fantasy worlds and map-making. There are a few interesting examples, here and there, including CS Lewis's unused map of Narnia, Charlotte Bronte's fantasy juvenilia, and a gorgeous chart of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, but the topic really deserves its own section.

Fantasy fan already? You'll love it. Bit sniffy at the genre? You'll probably find much that will make you look again. Overall, this is an excellent exhibition that slices and dices the fantasy genre with all the keenness of a Vorpal blade.

Magic the gathering cards
The exhibition spans thousands of years, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Magic the Gathering cards (above) and Skyrim

Fantasy: Realms Of The Imagination is at the British Library until 25 February 2024. Entrance fee applies.