A Reader Reflects: Imagining the World at Hay Festival 2018

Hay Festival
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

Every year, bibliophiles from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye. For more than three decades, this idyllic market town has been home to Hay Festival, a celebration of our love affair with literature and the essential part it plays in the humble reader’s life. I was a pilgrim there myself this year, drawn by the lure of Philip Pullman and his fiercely quiet wit, but far beyond the thrill of daemons was the thought-provoking theme of this year’s Hay: Imagine the World.

I had tickets for two events that broached this theme in different ways. The first was a discussion between children’s authors Emma Carroll (Sky Chasers), Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink & Stars), and Jacob Sager Weinstein (The City of Secret Rivers). The three writers gave an insight into how they create the worlds in which their stories are set, and for an aspiring author currently at work on a world of his own, it was encouraging to recognise the thrust of their approach. For Carroll, as for Hargrave and Sager Weinstein, ‘history ignites the idea’ around which a world can be constructed. Whether that world is entirely fictional or an imagined version of our own, the process is the same: new worlds are made from the one in which we find ourselves.

This same sentiment was at the heart of the second talk I attended, which focused on the role of the fairy tale as a story of resistance. The panel consisted of three of literature’s greatest talents — best-selling author of His Dark Materials Philip Pullman, renowned academic and mythographer Marina Warner, and foremost authority on folklore and fairy tales Jack Zipes. Zipes, in particular, was a revelation to me, and it was clear that both Pullman and Warner were enamoured of his work. Warner, for example, commended Zipes’s observation that fairy tales are emancipatory, while Pullman praised the folklore expert’s emphasis on the real-world grounding of fairy tales and their status as metaphor. These initial remarks formed the basis of an illuminating discussion in which Zipes drew attention to the way in which fairy tales inform our ideologies and values. Noting how frequently they feature tyrants and their downfall, he demonstrated the relevance of these stories as a means of combating the pernicious messages of a capitalist world where tyrants thrive, arguing that we must become the storytellers of our own lives if we are to mobilise resistance and push for change.

As I reflected on this, I realised the immense responsibility that storytellers have whenever they present a world to readers. If fictional worlds are created from our own, we must be careful not to replicate within those worlds the unquestioned biases our raw material contains. Instead, the worlds that we create should bring us closer to the world as we would like it to be, for it is only by imagining a new configuration that we unpick the status quo and bring its tyrants to their knees.

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