Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Following Writers’ Footsteps in Oxford

Oxford has a long and rich literary history, having served as the stomping grounds for some of the most influential authors of the last century and a half. Here are a few of my favorite spots with significant literary associations that you can see walking from St. Giles all the way down the High Street all in a day—though I’d recommend taking a bit more time to enjoy the entire city.

The Eagle and Child
The main roads from North Oxford that feed into City Center combine on a street called St. Giles Terrace. On the west side of the road, you’ll find a pub called the Eagle and Child, known to locals as the Bird and Baby. In the main room, called the Rabbit Room, of the pub a plaque hangs on the wall that reads, “Until 1963 the great writers of the ‘Inklings’, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others, met regularly on this spot. The conversations that have taken place here have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century English literature.” The literary genius of these giants has polished the dark wood interior of the Eagle and Child with a veneer of history that is only brightened by the greasy foods and stout pints that slip and slide between the kitchen, the bar keep, and the patrons. Cozy up in the midday with a cup or tea or in the evenings with a pint of lager; the cheerful, earthy atmosphere is absolutely palpable and a must-see for travelers.

Christ Church
One of the oldest and grandest colleges in the University of Oxford is Christ Church. The honey-colored, blue-domed quads on St. Aldate’s are easy to spot from nearly anywhere in the city. From the literary perspective, Christ Church is famous for inspiring notable fantasy fiction authors Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Carroll, who studied at Christ Church and later taught math there, interested me most, and I had the chance to take a private tour of the Christ Church grounds with Mr. Stuart Fleming, Assistant Head Custodian while I was visiting. Christ Church’s grounds include a croquet field, a massive twisted tree, beautiful gardens, and secret passageways throughout the buildings. All of these elements and more inspired Carroll to write his timeless story for the real Alice, daughter of Christ Church’s Dean during Carroll’s tenure. You can pay a small fee for general admission (visit the dining hall and outdoor quads) or call in advance to arrange a special behind the scenes guided tour of areas normally frequented only by faculty, staff and students.

Magdalen College
On the High Street running east from City Center lies Magdalen College, pronounced maudlin. A small admission fee (even smaller for students) grants admission to the grounds where The Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis taught as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English. One of my favorite walks through the Magdalen grounds follows the River Cherwell that winds through a few fields and a stand of trees. In one meadow, a fenced off area called The Grove, a herd of deer (a literary cousin of Mr. Tumnus, perhaps?) make their home during the dry months. When the rains come, the meadow floods and fills with pools of water that are sure to have inspired a scene early in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. On May Day, the first day in May, the Magdalen choir sings hymns from the top of the college’s tower at 6am, just in time for sunrise. The festivities are free to attend, though they’ll cost you a few hours of sleep.

Botanic Garden
Just across The High Street from Magdalen College is the University of Oxford Botanic Garden. The University charges a modest admission fee for visitors on the weekends, but during the week guests are free to frequent the garden as they like. Towards the back of the garden by a stone wall, there is an immense black pine that towers into the sky with thick, rough-barked arms. This pine was planted in 1800 and was the favorite tree of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; indeed, one of the most popular photographs of the writer shoes him reclining against its trunk. The large trees that pepper the garden inspired Tolkien’s Ents—talking guardians of the forest. Behind the wall are more botanic exhibits including a low branched tree spreads over a wooden bench; someone has carved “Lyra + Will” into the arm in memory of Pullman’s His Dark Materials protagonists. And to the southeast, where the garden is bordered by the Cherwell, a stand of glass domes house tropical and desert plants; Lewis Carroll’s illustrator Sir John Tenniel incorporated the greenhouses into his illustration of the Red Queen and her Court meeting Alice.

Black Pine in the Botanic Garden
There are hundreds of other sites to see in Oxford, especially literary ones. The city deserves at least a few days of your time to properly enjoy them all.

Analise Marcus is a voracious fiction reader and anglophile. Analise lived in Oxford for four months as a cost-conscious student; she advocates the use of an Orbitz promotion code to plan travel adventures both domestic and abroad.

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