‘This must be Thursday,’ said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. ‘I never could get the hang of Thursdays.’ – Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
If you see someone wearing a towel out and about this Thursday 25th May, don’t be alarmed. It’s a sign of excellent worldly preparation, of course, but also a marker of Towel Day – the day in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the local bypass is set to work its way through Arthur Dent’s front yard (and, more pressingly, the hyperspace expressway makes its way through Earth). A celebration devoutly celebrated by fans since 2001, it even goes so far as to appoint a Towel Ambassador for Earth.
It’s also – by an unusual quirk of fate – The Glorious Twenty-Fifth of May, the day of the Ankh Morpork rising in the Discworld series. Adherents often wear lilac in honour of the revolution (fictional, of course, but that’s beside the point.) Terry Pratchett fans are lucky – they find no shortage of ways or ways to celebrate their author, whether it’s celebrating his birthday a month before or – in one of the more poignant traditions created – typing ‘GNU Terry Pratchett’ onto internet forums and message boards across the land – proving ‘a man is not dead while his name is still spoken’.
While it’s strangely coincidental that these two fantasy celebrations coincided on the same day, in many ways it epitomises the centrality of community in literary ‘fandoms’. Maybe it’s the very nature of speculative fiction – out of place, out of time – which draws its fans to come together – on a single day or with a single action – to create a sense of unity. More generally, reading can often feel like a very solitary experience – and there’s nothing super-fans of literature like more than to have a chance to talk about their favourite book.
But that doesn’t stop people finding their own real-world parallels, none more so than in Oxford. Ankh Morpork itself may be based on London (though the Unseen University may seem rather familiar to some of us here…) but Oxford isn’t short on its own fantasy imaginings.
Something about Oxford just lends itself well to speculation. Maybe it’s the otherworldliness of the whole place which offered itself up so well to the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – or maybe it was just the influence of the pubs. Philip Pullman sets the His Dark Materials series entirely within the realm of a parallel Oxford – with a few brief cameos from our own, too – and walking around these streets, you can feel the converging forces of research and mysticism which Pullman illustrates so well.
And with that speculation comes tradition. One only needs to go to a bench at the back of the Botanic Garden on Midsummer’s Day to see a gathering in honour of Lyra and Will, and ‘Inklings’
pub crawls pilgrimages abound about town, with a certain famous elvish phrase above the threshold of a time-honoured pub.
And that’s not to mention more recent home-grown ventures into the realm of speculative fiction – Rebecca F. Kuang’s award-winning Babel, which explores the latent imperialism couched in an alternative-universe Victorian Oxford, or Hertford’s own Women’s Prize for Fiction-shortlisted Laline Paull, whose second novel, ‘The Ice’, describes itself as a work of ‘cli-fi’, or climate fiction. Only time will tell whether these will lend themselves to their own national days – we have a sneaking suspicion they might prove to be classics.
In any case, we eagerly await the Hertford College fantasy novel which will allow us to celebrate with our own time-honoured tradition. Who knows which new ritual we’ll be taking up in ten years’ time? Or perhaps Hertford’s famous pancake-day race will take on its own fantastical significance?
- The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy / Douglas Adams (Picador, 2002)
- Night Watch / Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2002)
- Northern Lights / Philip Pullman (Scholastic, 1998)
- Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution / Rebecca F. Kuang (Harper Voyager, 2022)
- The Ice / Laline Paull (4th Estate, 2017)
- Hertford College Library and Archives blog
- Hertford College New Library Project
This article was written by Hertford’s Assistant Librarian, Katherine Knight