Yesterday I took myself off to Oxford and made use of the fabulous hospitality of Juliet McKenna so that I could attend the 5th annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. This year’s speaker was Susan Cooper, and a very fine job she did too.
Ms. Cooper will be 82 next month, and yet she is very sharp, witty and charming. She began by talking about her own time at Oxford, when there were colleges for men and colleges for women, and the thought of mixing the two would have struck horror into the hearts of the faculty. Having men and women in the same college, she said, seemed like a fantasy. And yet, here we are. Which just goes to show that if you live long enough fantasies can come true.
Cooper was at Oxford when Tolkien and Lewis were on the staff. She never met them, but attended some of their lectures. Lewis boomed; Tolkien muttered except when he was speaking Anglo-Saxon. Alan Garner, Penelope Lively and Diana Wynne-Jones were all students at around the same time. They didn’t know each other, but they all breathed the same academic air.
Professor Tolkien, with the support of Lewis, kept the literature syllabus firmly rooted in the past. 18th century novels were rarely mentioned; the 19th century was pushed far into the margins; and the 20th existed solely in the confused imaginations of students briefly cast out of lectures and needing to survive in the mundane world. They were taught Beowulf, and Arthur, and Shakespeare. They were taught about a world in which dragons existed.
All of this, of course, had been very real long before the students reached Oxford. This was the generation that spent its evenings huddled in air raid shelters listening to the sky crashing down around them, consuming the night with flame. Their childhood was a very literal battle between good and evil.
They were also, as Farah Mendlesohn noted during the Q&A at the end, children of winter. The period immediately after WWII saw some of the worst winters that England has suffered since good meteorological records began. This too found its way into their fiction.
Cooper articulated all of this in a focused and engaging fashion. The talk was filmed, so you should all be able to enjoy it sometime next week. I’ll embed the video once it turns up on YouTube. My thanks to the folks at Pembroke College for putting on a fine event, and especially for the Second Dessert and port.