Wonderlands Symposium: a report by Nick Campbell

NCRCL PhD student, Nick Campbell, spoke at the Wonderlands Symposium at on 23rd May 2015, an annual event organised by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy. He writes about his experience at the symposium below.

Wonderlands Symposium: Once upon a time…

By Nick Campbell

…and it wasn’t in my time, nor it wasn’t in yours, but it was a very good time…

Sussex-Centre-for-Folklore-Fairy-Tales-and-Fantasy-1024x847The Sixth Annual Symposium to be run by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy (based at the University of Chichester) invoked all sorts of interesting characters: from the Prophet Muhammad’s adventuresome Uncle to lawless types in the English greenwood; from ‘loathly ladies’ who are actually fairy queens in disguise to a Victorian girl and her famous adventures underground. In fact, as the event’s title suggests, there was an emphasis Alice and her ‘Wonderland’, celebrating their 150th anniversary this year.

Papers covered curation of Alice exhibitions and creation of an Alice Tarot deck, as well as an illustrated keynote talk by the artist John Vernon Lord, whose Giant Jam Sandwich is legendary in the Campbell household, and whose take on the Alice books is an evocation of the dream state so scrupulous that the dreamer herself is unseen yet omnipresent.

Illustrations by John Vernon Lord

The idea of ‘Wonder-land’ itself was the major theme. Mary-Louise Maynes’ work on children’s responses to works like North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Navigation questioned whether non-fiction always had to place actuality and imagination in opposition. Mightn’t they instead inspire a critical, even storytelling approach from readers: a state of wondering about the land, as well as a state of wonder?

The majority of papers on children’s texts were given over to Alice, but I talked about the mid-twentieth century children’s novelist William Mayne, whose novels encourage an archaeological view both scientific and uncanny. Aishwarya Subramanian considered post- and anti-colonial readings of the Narnia books, while Siddarth Pandey explored why Indian fantasy writing has long been indistinguishable from folkloric writing. Phoebe Chen talked about eco-critically informed new takes of fairy tales by Young Adult authors, such as Stacey Jay’s Of Beast and Beauty, where ‘natural’ and ‘human’ are no longer synonymous.

This was a distinctive, deliberately eco-friendly event, organised by University of Chichester postgraduate students Joanna Cole, Jo Blake Cave and Rose Williamson, with poetry in the information pack, a book swap and, after a busy day, an hour of professional storytellers. It was a reminder of the craft of retelling that renews our sense of wonder, in the face of cynicism or even repression.

Professor Diane Purkiss

Professor Diane Purkiss’ keynote speech.

In her opening keynote speech, the brilliant Professor Diane Purkiss told the story of an early modern witch, Andro, whose tales of other worlds were heresy to the authorities of his time. And yet, as Purkiss described it, Andro felt the storyteller’s responsibility to ‘renew and remember and make a whole of the rough shards of myth.’

Keep an eye on the Sussex Folktale Centre’s website: these talks are due to be made available as videos, and their forthcoming events are bound to be of interest. Their gorgeously produced journal Gramarye, is also worth exploring.

… but that, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is another story.

Nick Campbell is a writer and research student at the NCRCL. His project, ‘Neo-Romantic Adventures: the archaeological imagination in children’s fiction’, is funded by the Jacqueline Wilson Scholarship. He’s on Twitter, here: @lifeinleaves.

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About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California · www.ericagillingham.com

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