The fourth part of a multi-part conference write-up.
Lunch on Saturday comprised many gourmet sandwiches, a selection of vegetables, fruit plates, stew, and roast potatoes. It was noted that apparently conferencing academics in Liverpool are not to be trusted with knives: cutlery available ran to forks and spoons, nothing sharper. I spent some time in discussion with Shana Worthen about the SF Foundation’s occasional series of books. And then, as far as I recall, I went in Quest of Caffeinated Sugar, finding Pepsi in a greasy spoon just down the road. A weirdly Scouse and very greasy greasy spoon.
(Sad addict was sad.)
After lunch, I was torn for which sessions I should attend. In the end, I settled on the “Britain,” session, chaired by Penelope Goodman (University of Leeds), and featuring papers by Liz Gloyn (billed as University of Birmingham), Sandeep Parmar (University of Liverpool), Cara Sheldrake (University of Exeter), and Stephe Harrop (Rose Burford College of Theatre and Performance/Royal Central School of Speech and Drama).
Penelope Goodman introduced the panelists. The first paper was presented by Liz Gloyn, an engaging speaker with a direct, unpretentious style. “‘By a Wall that faced the South’: Crossing the Border in Classically-influenced Fantasy,” moved through authors as diverse as Charles Kingsley, Hope Mirrlees, Rudyard Kipling, and Neil Gaiman. And once again, I’m not going to be able to do her paper justice. She talked about how space operates in fantastical contexts. How it affects our reaction to monsters. How crossing borders is essential to fantasy, and how, for crossings to be effective, they have to be marked borders. How the moment of transition is critically important to the structure of the novel. Liz had brought copies of the books she was speaking about to pass around – Kingsley’s Greek Fairy Tales, Kipling’s Puck, Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and Gaiman’s Stardust, which was, I thought, a nice touch.
With especial reference to Kingsley, she mentioned that the test of border-crossing was a test of trust.
Of Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, she said that it demonstrated an uneasy relationship with Fairyland, that it reworks the mythological barrier of the cliff present in Kingsley, with whom Mirlees was familiar.
Of Puck, that borders are crossed and recrossed, that the space beyond the border is marked out as a space for “adventure.” “Adventure never happens south of the Wall.”
That the wall in Stardust and the nature of borders there are concerned with identity, and the characters’ places in the universe.
It was a fascinating paper, and I wish I’d had the chance to talk to her more when it was still fresh in my mind.
The next paper was by Sandeep Parmar, of the University of Liverpool, on “Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and the Ritual World.” Parmar is working on a biography of Mirlees, and I confess I did not follow her paper well at all. Although I did learn more about Mirlees’ relationship with the famous Jane Harrison, one of the first of so-called Cambridge Ritualists in the early 20th century.
The third paper of the Britain session was given by Cara Sheldrake, recently awarded her PhD from the University of Exeter. “Time Travel to Roman Britain” looked at thematic elements common to the use of Roman Britain in time travel stories, with a large focus on New Who’s Rory. As she pointed out, Roman Britain is not necessarily very popular from the point of view of time travel stories. Romans are used as shorthand for military dedication and personal courage. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet (1906) is a time travel story with Fabian overtones, while Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree (1977) shows how social integration might work. But overall one doesn’t get a sense of an overall contrast between the then and the now, but rather an image of soldiers. In the cold.
(No. I’m not doing this paper justice either.)
Stephe Harrop closed the session with “‘To keep out bad things’: Representing ‘The Wall’ in A Song of Ice and Fire.” A professional storyteller, her skill at talking was clear in her delivery.
According to GRRM, regarding the Wall: “fantasy has to be bigger.” The Wall showcases a division between monstrous lad and civilised land: the Wall is a defiantly visible border, taking up traditional readings of Hadrian’s Wall as a defensive barrier as well as a monitor and control of people and movement. But GRRM subverts the idea of the Wall as monumental and impermeable barrier. Jon Snow’s narrative challenges the monumental solidity of the Wall, and demonstrates its increasing permeability.
(This is another fascinating paper, and one which I especially hope makes it in to any Select Proceedings that may be published.)
Coffee break! Much interesting talkings. It was during this break that I met Daniel Franklin and Zoe Johnson in the flesh, and very entertaining people they were to prove to be over the course of the weekend.
The next session up included my scheduled paper, so I had no chance to see the panel on Television SF (BSG!) or Creatures (Galenic centaurs!). Instead, Ancient Civilisations saw me presenting the first of three papers, followed by Jason Lundock, PhD candidate of King’s College London, and Christos Callow, PhD candidate of the University of Lincoln – the session as a whole chaired by Stephen Trzaskoma, of the University of New Hampshire.
For my own paper, I shan’t recap. (If anyone’s interested, I can share the whole thing over email.)
Jason Lundock was the only other person there, as far as I could tell, whose paper took a material culture approach to SFF and the Classics. Unfortunately, “Arcane Treasure and Sacred Relics: The Lost Treasures of Anitquity and their Influence in Folktale and Fantasy,” while not the worst paper I’ve ever seen, was scattered and lacked a good through-line, a unifying thematic argument. Despite having interesting moments on the Holy Grail and Roman deposits in ancient Britain, on the whole it was very unspecific and vague. And Lundock, I fear, came off as something of a sexist prat: on discussing why treasure is a popular quest/McGuffin in gaming, he tossed off an aside about well, you could rescue the damsel, but then the guys’d have to fight over who got to take her home. Way to go with the heterosexism and writing out of the agency of women there, man. It really didn’t show you in a sympathetic light.
Christos Callow’s paper was subsequently much talked about. “Science ‘Fiction’? in Ancient Greece: Advanced Technology and Knowledge in Ancient Greece and Contemporary Hypotheses Regarding their Origins,” is as prime, and entertaining, a piece of academic trolling as I’ve ever been privileged to hear. Christos, a good speaker and very Greek, laid out the thought experiment that perhaps the golden age of human existence is in the ancient past. That people were more intelligent in antiquity. Better at living.
This certainly got an argument started. And then a gentlemen at the back of the room stands up to expostulate. “People today are certainly stupider! You can see this just by looking around! Half the people at this conference are stupid!”
Prime entertainment, but perhaps not exactly the most well-considered opinion to share at that particular point. I did not get the gentleman in question’s name, which is probably just as well.
This series of posts will continue with the conference dinner, and Liverpool’s famous lambananas. But for now, I need to rest my typing hands.