Magical Books at the Bodleian

The key image for the Bodleian Library's Magical Books exhibition

The key image for the Bodleian Library’s Magical Books exhibition

If you find yourself with an hour to spare in Oxford between now and 27th October 2013 you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than at the free exhibition Magical Books at the Bodleian Library. It’s not a very big room, but the exhibits are wonderful. Highlights for me were:

  • Some of 15th century alchemist George Ripley‘s huge illustrated scrolls
  • Physical manifestations of literary devices, commissioned by their creators – Philip Pullman‘s Alethiometer (I wonder if it works!) and Susan Cooper‘s six elemental talismans (talismen?)
  • Alan Garner‘s beautiful calligraphic handwriting on the original manuscript for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
  • Original JRR Tolkien sketches and finished works, including the handwritten Elvish inscription on the One Ring, the painted Hobbit cover of Smaug curled around his hoard and the pen and ink of the secret design on the hidden door to Moria
  • A 13th century bestiary with colours so bright it could have been painted yesterday, and gold leaf so reflective you could almost see your face in it
  • A gorgeous original Kelmscott Press illustrated spread by William Morris, a printed work very different from, but every bit as beautiful as the medieval illuminations in adjoining cases
  • Pauline Baynes‘ intricately detailed illustrated map of Middle Earth
  • An example of the plates at the heart of Garner’s The Owl Service

These are just a taster of the treasures on display, and I’d highly recommend a visit. As I say, it’s free and on until 27th October. There’s also a book available to accompany the exhibition.

Congratulations to the Goodreads giveaway winners!

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway of Illumination on Goodreads.com. Sorry that it was limited to the UK  - I’ve recently gone freelance in my career, and watching the cashflow carefully, so I was keen to keep postage costs manageable! Hopefully there’ll be another one in the future open to all countries.

160 people entered, and I only wish I could send everyone a copy. I’ve contacted the ten winners, so if you haven’t heard from me, I’m afraid you weren’t one of the lucky ones this time, but thanks for your interest in the book.

The Locations of Illumination 7: Church Island

Looking south from Anglesey below the Menai Bridge

Looking south from Anglesey below the Menai Bridge

A key and recurring location in Illumination is the small town of Menai Bridge, called Porthaethwy in Welsh. It’s been there for a long time, to receive visitors to Anglesey at the shortest crossing point of the Menai Straits. Its modern English name, of course, comes from Thomas Telford’s famous suspension bridge of 1826, which is anchored at one side of the town. It’s not a big place, and perhaps not the most obvious location for a chase scene. I mentioned this particular piece of drama to a friend of mine who lives in the town, saying that a car chase takes place through the streets of Menai Bridge, and he said “don’t you mean the street of Menai Bridge?”

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The Locations of Illumination 6: Llyn Idwal

Llyn Idwal, the surrounding mountain tops shrouded in mist

Llyn Idwal, the surrounding mountain tops shrouded in mist

Dramatic scenes unfold within equally dramatic scenery – Llyn Idwal, high in the Snowdonia mountains. Llyn is Welsh for lake, and this imposing body of water sits within Cwm Idwal, meaning Idwal’s Valley. It’s named for a Prince Idwal Foel, one of the sons of Rhodri the Great, Rhodri Mawr in Welsh, a king of Gwynedd in the 9th century. As mentioned in Illumination, legend has it that Idwal was murdered by drowning in the lake, though it’s thought he died in battle and may have been cremated there instead. Like all legends, we’ll never know the truth of the matter, but like so many Welsh tales, it is a romantic and compelling story, and perhaps  that matters more than what really happened! Continue reading

Typography in Illumination

I’m reading Simon Garfield’s Just My Type at the moment, and finding it unputdownable. I’d forgotten just how much I love type and design – as a teenager I had a, sadly unfilled, ambition to be a graphic designer, and produced a lot of stuff using Letraset – especially university ball and society posters. Simon laments that no books mention their fonts any more, so I thought I’d post the fonts used for Illumination.

The cover, which was supposed to have a sort of Fifties/Sixties kind of vibe to it, inspired by that Saul Bass kind of look, has the title in Matt Terich’s Hitchcock, and all other text in Patrick Griffin’s Fido Regular. Inside, the text is set in Book Antiqua, which turns out to be a clone of Hermann Zapf’s Palatino, and is probably already on your computer. The map is hand-drawn with brush and ink, as mentioned here, with text in Bob Anderton’s Blackadder ITC Std.

The mono version of the Illumination logo, created by changing the point size of each letter

The mono version of the Illumination logo, created by changing the point size of each letter

Pagans & Pilgrims visits Llanddwyn

Welsh writer and presenter Ifor ap Glyn at Whitby

Welsh writer and presenter Ifor ap Glyn at Whitby

I’m hugely enjoying Ifor ap Glyn’s survey of Britain’s holiest places (inspired by a book of that name, which looks like perfect research material for my next book!) Pagans & Pilgrims on BBC Four. Ifor is a Welshman born in London, but who has clearly seized his Welsh roots – not only did he learn the language, he won the Crown at the 1999 National Eisteddfod for a collection of poems about the experience. He was also the Welsh language Children’s Laureate (Bardd Plant Cymru) in 2008-09. His series on ancient British spiritual sites is eloquent, engaging, fascinating and lyrical. Last week’s episode was on islands, and Llanddwyn was featured, including the story of St. Dwynwen. There’s still time to catch it on BBC iPlayer.

The Locations of Illumination 5: Beaumaris Castle

The gatehouse and ‘drawbridge’ over the moat at Beaumaris Castle

I was absolutely adamant that Illumination needed a sequence set in a castle, one of the staples of classic children’s adventure fiction, and I was spoilt for choice in North Wales. As I wrote the chase through Bangor and realised the protagonists were heading for the apparent dead end of Bangor Pier, it became clear that the obvious one to use was Beaumaris Castle (click to visit its page on the Cadw website).

King Edward I built an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses to subdue the Welsh people during the thirteenth century, including Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon. Beaumaris was the last, with building work starting right at the end of that century, but famously it was not finished, as Edward focused his spending on his Scottish campaigns. Nevertheless it is one of the best surviving examples of a symmetrical concentric castle and has some magnificent features that make it an excellent location for story-telling, especially its moat. The chapel, also, was particularly interesting, as one of the themes of the book is religion, old and new.

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