Oxford, England at Christmas-time is simply magical. It’s a small city, mostly dominated by ancient university buildings, students, and a crisscrossing of rivers, bridges and roads. But even on the cold gray winter days, students wove in and out of traffic on bicycles, rushed off to study for finals, and huddled in coffee shops talking, laughing and reading. People who weren’t students seemed to be out with coworkers and friends, strolling to pubs and restaurants, talking energetically about life. The city seems all at once relaxed, slow and thoughtful, and yet… alive.
“For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
– from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
As I saw some of the kids who go to school there, I wondered if they knew how lucky they were. They literally go to school at Hogwarts. Well, Oxford may not teach magic, but it looks like they do. The dining hall from the first Harry Potter movie was actually filmed in the Christ Church College dining hall. When we visited, it was decorated for Christmas and you could smell the food cooking – it was easy to imagine that Harry, Ron and Hermione were about to burst in for lunch.Christ Church College itself is fascinating. In addition to being the home of one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, who was a professor there, it literally has little bits of history stuffed into every corner. For example, hidden in the edges of one of the stained glass windows in the dining hall are the tiny, intricate figures of Alice, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and other Lewis Carrol creatures. The stained glass in the Cathedral at Christ Church was beautiful as well. Each pane told a story; some of ancient medieval scenes, and some were more modern – including a lovely Pre-Raphaelite window by Edward Burne-Jones.
It’s easy to imagine that the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth were born in this place. The city exudes magic – it simply demands it. Turn your head for a moment, and out of the corner of your eye, you can almost see a faun, a hobbit or a white rabbit scamper by.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were professors, colleagues, and friends in Oxford. They met regularly as part of an informal group called The Inklings at a local pub, The Eagle and Child. In addition to discussing literature, philosophy, language, and theology (both Lewis and Tolkien were Christians, but the Inklings were not all necessarily religious), they also challenged each other to write good fiction. It was there at the pub, to this group of friends and thoughtful critics, that Tolkien probably previewed and read aloud his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis certainly shared his own proofs for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with the group there.We went to The Eagle and Child for a pint and saw the picture of Lewis and Tolkien hanging above the corner table and fireplace where the Inklings regularly met. What an absolute wonder it would have been to listen in on their discussions.
I remember reading the Narnia stories I was a kid… in fourth grade I think. I was not a cool kid by any stretch of the imagination, and that year was a particularly tough one. I probably escaped into Narnia just as much as the children in Lewis’s story did. And I still remember the feel of those slim library paperbacks… circa 1960’s artwork on the cover, yellowing pages, and that musty old book smell you get when you flap the pages too near to your face. I remember being reluctant to read the final book, knowing that there were no more after that.
The stories themselves were engaging and imaginative, but I was struck in particular by the words themselves and how they sounded. I was baffled by the foreign-ness of new British words and contexts, and I could almost faintly hear the melody of an English accent. Lewis’s writing was charming and simple for young readers to understand, and never patronizing.Still, some of the things in the books were outside of the realm of my American imagination. What was this “turkish delight” that Edmund kept wanting to eat? As a 9 year old, I decided that it must be some kind of sweet turkey. Actually, I tried it a few years ago for the first time out of sheer curiosity, and was stunned to find that it’s more like a rose-flavored gumdrop covered in powdered sugar. NOT turkey. Go figure.
Anyway, now that I’m back home in Texas, it seems a bit unfair that some people get to live in and around that kind of ancient magic and history, and bump into such intelligent, creative and thoughtful people on the street every day. Here, things seem too new, too man-made, too boring, too bland, too sterile. I mean, there is no possible way that I could ever imagine that I could open my standard-issue closet door in my apartment, step into a forest and suddenly meet a talking animal… well, is there?
But maybe it’s all in perspective. Maybe the deceivingly familiar every-day-ness of life blinds us to what’s really out there. Maybe things aren’t as ordinary as they seem. Maybe we just need to look a little bit harder. After all, I suppose if we go looking for Narnia, we’ll eventually find it.