Enter A Realm Of Imagination With The British Library’s New Fantasy Exhibition!

November 18, 2023 by crew

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Recently, I had the chance to go to a new exhibition put on by the British Library and sponsored by Wayland Games. Fantasy: Realms Of Imagination is an impressive and in-depth look at the roots of Fantasy literature and how the genre has developed into the modern day. If you're someone who loves diving into different Fantasy universes then you'll certainly want to check this one out.

Outside British Library

With that in mind, I thought I'd talk a little about my experience viewing the exhibition and what you can expect when you head to the British Library! You'll have plenty of time to check it out as the exhibition runs through to the 25th February 2024.


The team behind the exhibition have done a fantastic job of setting the scene. As you descend the stairs you do feel like you're heading into a different realm. That feels particularly apt as you delve into the Fairy and Folk Tales section of the exhibition, exploring a fascinating array of texts and art pieces which highlight some of the core elements of what drives our Fantasy stories now.

Map Of Fairy Land

As you move through the different areas of the exhibition you'll find yourself coming across some very familiar texts that you'll know from the Fantasy genre as well as those that might come as a complete surprise. For example, I didn't know about the Anciente Mappe Of Fairy Land (above) which was absolutely wonderful to pour over. The different elements of the exhibition, be they artwork or books, are tied together in some way, flowing from one to the next as you get to delve into the different ways that people have told their Fantasy stories.

queen mab book alt

What's really nice about those different elements that are tied together is that so many of them are artefacts from the creation of various Fantasy stories. A lot of the space in the exhibition is given over to notebooks and early manuscripts (see above) which often came from the hands of the author. So, not only do you get to learn about different stories that have helped shape the genre but also the people behind them. It's great getting to look at the notes from various authors and where they drew their inspiration from.


One of my favourite sections of the exhibition is the second one that you'll come across, Epics and Quests. As someone who's quite a fan of The Lord of the Rings, I was excited to find plenty of space dedicated to Tolkien's tales but it was also fascinating seeing what else was linked in alongside his famous work.

I actually got to talk to Susan Reed, Lead Curator of Germanic Collections at the British Library about setting up this portion of the exhibition and how it came to life...

"This is one of the sections that looks at the roots of Fantasy. We've explored epics like Beowulf and Gilgamesh but also how they've inspired modern Fantasy literature, films and games as well as how these stories have been retold in different ways and adapted. For example, we've looked at modern epics as well like the work of Robin Hobbs and the Realm Of The Elderlings. I looked at dividing the section into three subsections which look at heroes alongside the nature of heroism and battles which are a great feature of epics. The last sub-section is dedicated to looking at quests including the journey and the search".


Going back to something that I mentioned before, I knew of Gilgamesh and the story but it was fascinating getting a more in-depth look at the story and its characters as part of the exhibition and how that has fed into modern stories. This was particularly interesting when Reed discussed how heroism is explored in the exhibition and how those classic tales have fed through into the modern day.

"One of the things I realised when working on this exhibition is that the flawed hero, which seems quite modern, is actually quite classic. Gilgamesh starts off as a very flawed hero who becomes redeemed through his friendship with Enkidu. We also have Sir Gawain and from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who is tested for his qualities in chivalry. He feels like he has fallen rather short but others praise him. It shows a wonderful continuity as people come to view heroes in very different ways. We also have the heroes who don't start out as born kings, knights or warriors; Tolkien's Hobbits for example. Small, humble people who rise into their stories!"

As mentioned, I am a massive fan of Tolkien so it was great seeing a good portion of this section given over to his stories whilst also looking at the inspiration behind his work. There is a great little section on Beowulf for example which was a key text that inspired Tolkien's work; particularly The Hobbit.

This is where some of the other elements of the exhibition come into play. As well as delving into the texts and learning about them, you'll also find a lot of different audio entries dotted throughout the space which you can listen to. Some have come from experts in the genre and others are interviews with the authors themselves. I had great fun listening to a portion of the Beowulf story!

For those Warhammer fans out there, the epic tales from The Old World weren't left out! There was a neat little section dedicated to it and a showcase of a classic battle in progress.


This led quite nicely to Reed telling me about how battles can be important in Fantasy stories...

"Battles are a major feature of epic Fantasy. The Lord of the Rings for example sees a war fought on many fronts. You also have epics like The Iliad which is also set right in the heart of a war. They help to examine the period that the story is set in but also the characters themselves. Whilst you have larger battles, there are also the battles fought on a smaller scale which show the inner struggles of characters. You get that very much in The Lord of the Rings with the characters battling the tempting power of The Ring."

There was also a great story about how the British Library collected together the two small armies that you see here!

"There is a lovely story behind the Warhammer display. We put out a call to colleagues in the British Library who could perhaps lend us their figures. Simon and Martin came forward and set up a battle between Orcs & Goblins and The Empire. The attraction of the game works in tandem with the hobby and helps engross you in the subject. This is one of the things that we try and get across in the exhibit is that Fantasy moves over into so many different forms of media. This includes books and films but also games like tabletop games and video games. We also have a look at cosplay and LARP and how that has been influenced!"

the illiad book a;t

This is where I was particularly surprised by the exhibition. It was great seeing so many of the old stories that have informed Fantasy and helped it grow as a genre but there is also plenty of space given over to more modern tales. There is an area that explores Studio Ghibli as well as a great look at video games like the Dark Souls series and how that has taken classic Fantasy elements and brought them up to date and reinvented them for modern audiences.


Talking of other areas of the exhibition, Reed talked about one of her favourite sections, Weird and Uncanny, where there are some neat examples of Fantasy taken in a different direction from the norm...

"A highlight for me is in our Weird and Uncanny section where we have a manuscript from Susanna Clarke's novel, Piranesi which is a book I really love. Not only is it the original manuscript but it also features diagrams of the House and how she imagined it working. It explores how it's partly submerged in water and how the tide flows through the House. It was absolutely fantastic to see."


I think that's a key part of the way that the exhibition is set up and worth mentioning again. Not only are you going to find a whole bunch of stories that you'll be familiar with but loads that you've probably never heard of before. It was neat walking around and others getting genuinely excited to see their favourite story included in a cabinet. I imagine that must have been what it was like when I saw the Middle-earth section and that Warhammer set-up!


The final area of the exhibition is given over to Portals and Worlds and this is where we find the curators looking at how Fantasy has influenced others and how these stories have been used to transport us into different realities. Here is where I found myself getting immersed in a lot of those stories that I wasn't particularly aware of. I reckon that anyone who comes to this exhibition is going to come away with a new book that they want to pick up before they come home!


There is even an area given over to Magic: The Gathering. Yes, I did spend some time pouring over this particular display to see if there were some rare cards in the mix!


As a fan of Fantasy, I’d say that Fantasy: Realms of Imagination is well worth coming to check out. Some real effort has gone into setting the scene and putting you in the right mindset as you delve down into the exhibition and start exploring it.


As mentioned above, you've got a whole bunch of interesting books to look at from those that worked as the building blocks for the genre through to the modern day interpretations of those classic tales. I can imagine quite a few OnTableTop readers might be particularly interested in the Epics and Quests section and they have indeed properly packed that out with information to digest. I would also heartily suggest spending a bit more time in that first section, Fairy and Folk Tales, as it really is brilliant looking at some of those older texts and the artwork that goes alongside them.

If that has got you excited then you'll also want to check out the gift shop after you've gone through the exhibition. They've got plenty of nice editions of books as well as games that you could pick up and take home with you. I am also a mega fan of that bag...


To book tickets to Fantasy: Realms Of Imagination please visit - https://fantasy.seetickets.com/timeslots/filter/fantasy-realms-of-imagination. Entry is free if you're a British Library Member. As well as the exhibit, you'll also be able to attend a whole host of great Fantasy-themed events that are taking place over the next few months including talks from authors and there's even a tabletop games day as well!

Make sure to let me know if you go along to the exhibition and if so, which bit got you most excited!

"For those Warhammer fans out there, the epic tales from The Old World weren't left out!"

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"...you'll also be able to attend a whole host of great Fantasy-themed events that are taking place over the next few months"

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