Literary Oxford

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While Cambridge, England, has produced an astounding number of Nobel Prize winners, Oxford’s contribution to the literary world – particularly to that of fantasy and children’s literature – is unparalleled, with many of the city’s historic landmarks and streets playing a role in the lives of writers like JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll and Phillip Pullman as well as their fictional characters.

A good place to start a literary exploration of Oxford is at Christ Church – the city’s grandest college on St Aldate’s Street. Arguably the most famous work of fiction to come out of Oxford was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a story born out of a friendship between young Alice Liddell, one of the children of the Dean of Christ Church, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), a Christ Church mathematician who befriended the Liddell family while photographing England’s tiniest cathedral in the college grounds. He would take Alice and her siblings on outings, working the city’s features into the stories he told them. The outline of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole came about during a picnic excursion in a rowing boat along the Isis river – south of the college along St Aldate’s Street - to the hamlet of Godstow. Alice asked Dodgson to write he stories down and they became the famous book.

Branching west from St Aldate’s Street, Brewer Street leads to Pembroke College, where Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon between 1925 and 1945 and where you will find the most beautiful college chapel in Oxford. Head back up St Aldate’s and follow the road north about 1km until it becomes St Giles Street, and you will pass the pint-sized Eagle & Child pub at number 49, where Tolkien, Lewis and other members of The Inklings literary group used to meet, make merry and discuss their works between 1933 and 1962 (though Tolkien stopped attending in the 1950s). A handwritten note to the landlord, pinned up above the fireplace reads 'The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk to your health', and is signed by the group.

Diehard Tolkien fans should continue on to where the road splits, taking the right fork of Banbury Road to reach Wolvercote Cemetery, the final resting place of Tolkien and his wife Edith. The modest gravestone bears the names Lúthien and Beren -- referring to the love between an elf maiden who gave up her immortality for a mortal warrior (as told in several of Tolkien’s works, including Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion), and the lifelong passion between the writer himself and his beloved wife, with whom he fell in love at the age of 16.

Otherwise, take the footpath past the Lamb & Flag pub, opposite the Eagle & Child, to the Museum Road and Parks Road junction. Here, the Museum of Natural History contains the world’s most complete remains of a single dodo, as well as a 17th-century painting of the bird, which, along with Dodgson’s natural stutter (when he introduced himself, it would come out as 'Do-do-dodgson'), is said to have inspired the character of Dodo, encountered by Alice during her visit to Wonderland.

Follow Parks Road south for about five minutes to where it morphs into Catte Street, crossing The Broad, and you will reach the 15th-century Bodleian Library, its facade decorated with unusual gargoyles. Though JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books themselves were not set in Oxford, the inside of the library, with vast antique tomes chained to sturdy wooden bookcases hidden in the semi-gloom, made a perfect setting for the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films. The library’s cloister-like Divinity School, where theology was once taught, doubled as the Hogwarts Infirmary; and the splendid Great Hall at nearby Christ Church, its stationary portraits of past Masters exchanged for moving ones of wizards, was recreated in the film studios as the Hogwarts dining room.

Further south along Catte Street, past the remarkably round Radcliffe Camera, one of Oxford’s most distinctive buildings, is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – but it is the ornate door opposite the church’s entrance that you are after. The heavy wood is etched with intricate carvings, the symbol in the centre resembling the face of a wise lion. This is the 'Narnia Door', said to have inspired the wardrobe door that the Pevensie children stepped through in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis was a tutor at Magdalen College, a few minutes’ walk east, and he would have glimpsed that door almost every day.

Magdalen College’s most remarkable feature is its cloisters, and the animals carved onto the pillars here look poised as though waiting for Aslan himself to breathe life into them. These carvings are thought to have inspired CS Lewis to write the part in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan brings frozen animals back to life.

Just across from Magdalen College are the Botanic Gardens – a key location in Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. While lead character Lyra Belacqua’s home in her 'alternate Oxford' – Jordan College – does not exist in our own, the Botanic Gardens are exactly the same in her world and fictional character Will Parry’s.  A bench at the back of the gardens has 'Lyra + Will' carved on it and is usually well-attended by mooning adolescents. In the final chapter of The Amber Skyglass, the final book of the trilogy, before closing the window between their two worlds, Will and Lyra promise to sit on this very bench in their respective universes on Midsummer’s Day every year at noon to feel each other’s presence, since they will never see each other again.

Besides giving comfort to Will and Lyra, the Botanic Gardens were the favourite haunt of Tolkien, whose favourite tree, a towering Austrian pine, came alive in Lord of the Rings as the Ents, the walking, talking trees of Middle Earth, while the immaculately manicured gardens doubled as the Queen’s croquet ground for Alice Liddell and her sisters.

Finally, take the scenic route along the back of Merton College, where Tolkien was a professor of English language and literature between 1945 and 1959 after leaving Pembroke. The Dead Man’s Walk footpath winds its way for around 600m to Christ Church – a full circle and a fitting end to the tour.