Review: Literary Wonderlands, Laura Miller

I fell in love with this in the bookshop.  I have a great weakness for books about books and leafing through the pages of beautiful illustrations and biographies of fantasy worlds that I had loved over the years, I felt that this was a book that I really needed to have for my own.  Fortunately, it was just before Christmas and Santa Claus (in the guise of my parents) was very obliging.  Tracking back from early mythology all the way through to the modern age, Literary Wonderlands is in the words of its creator Laura Miller is a compendium of the ‘lands that exist only in the imagination’, offering a panoramic view of the development of story-telling.  Bibliophiles will delight.

Miller emphasises in her introduction that the book is designed to focus on one of the ‘least celebrated’ aspects of reading; ‘its ability to make us feel transported to a different time and place’.  Along with a vast team of contributors, Miller has grouped the literary wonderlands by era, going from Ancient Myth and Legend to Science and Romanticism through to the Golden Age of Fantasy and then on to New World Order before finishing up with the Computer Age.   Providing synopses and background information for each of the almost hundred wonderlands featured, we gain valuable context about the influences behind many of the most celebrated works of creative fiction.

Of course, when one actually reads through the wonderlands, one realises that being transported to these places would not be as desirable as all that.  From the Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy to the terrifying world of The Water Babies (this scarred me as a child) to the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale, all too often the author’s wonderland has many of the aspects of a nightmare.  Personally, I have always thought that even Alice’s Wonderland is a horrifying story with pretty illustrations.  Yet there are others such as the book world of Thursday Next and Moominvalley which have much warmer memories and the wealth of illustrations in this book only serve to remind us of why they captured our imagination in the first place.

Collected together, it becomes possible to see trends in story-telling which go beyond the individual author inspiration.  It was striking however that the Ancient Myth and Legend section stretched from 1750 BCE to 1666 AD while subsequent sections tended to be a century or so at most, with the Computer Age chapters lasting only the last thirty years.  Additionally, while Miller has examples aplenty for each of her categories, there were a number of notable absentees, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  This was particularly strange given that in the segment on Never Let Me Go, the former novel is hailed as the first piece of true science fiction.  Moreover, Literary Wonderlands is centred on mostly Western literature, meaning that a number of works are cited without reference to the non-Western pieces which inspired them.

More peculiarly, as we move through the sections, there were an increasing number of books which did not seem to be taking place in a wonderland at all, but in worlds strikingly similar to our own.  Does The Handmaid’s Tale ‘count’ as fantasy literature?  Does speculative fiction transport us to an entirely new time and place?  Where does the border come between the two?

It was odd too how Miller seemed to pick the first novel in a series as the point of focus for a segment without considering its place within its individual canon.  So, the Moomins are represented by The Moomins and the Great Flood even though Literary Wonderlands acknowledges that this book is non-canonical and that most agree that the story’s true continuity did not begin until Comet in Moominland.  Similarly, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is featured rather than Peter Pan itself.  Because of this, I felt that some of the wonderlands that I loved the best did not quite get their fair coverage.

Tonally, the book is rather disjointed.  This is unsurprising given that there are over forty contributors, but it does mean that certain entries are more readable than others.  It is not immediately clear who has written about which book, further complicating the issue.  That being said, there are some truly fantastic passages, such as the closing lines on The Chronicles of Narnia: ‘It isn’t the elaboration of the backdrop that casts the spell, that makes the place seem real in spite of its many absurdities, but the inexhaustible delight of the dancers who inhabit it, as well as the man who made it’. So very, very true.  There is a real tenderness too in the descriptions of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.  The one thing I did find a little sad however was how few quotations were made from the original material; the pictures and illustrations are stunningly beautiful but it was the words that transported us in the first place.

What intrigued me most however was the realisation that creative ideas recur over time.  Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes was published in 1977 and seems to feature many of the same themes as Naomi Alderman’s recent bestseller The Power.  I would imagine that this comes from the ongoing frustration of women with our patriarchal society but I was fascinated by how Alderman’s novel could be hailed as ground-breaking when another book had achieved success with the same message so comparatively recently.  Indeed, many of the wonderlands do seem to be inter-related, with numerous examples of cross-pollination.  I wondered, was this because the stories we hear in childhood leave a mark which decides on the ultimate path of our own future imaginings?  Or are there just a finite number of fresh ideas in the world?

While not quite qualifying as encyclopedic, Literary Wonderlands is a feast for the book-lover and a wonderful chance to revisit old friends.  I found a number of books to be added to the TBR pile and enjoyed tracing the lines of intertextuality.  Despite the impressive credentials of its contributors, this is less an academic piece as it is a joyous recognition of fiction’s power to make us visualise the product of someone else’s imagination.  While Wonderlands is not without its flaws, I am still smitten with its unabashed enthusiasm for its subject matter and of course, the beauty of the book itself.

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Literary Wonderlands by Laura Miller
Published by Thames & Hudson on October 26th 2017
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9781911130345

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