The City of Dreaming Spires

24 May

Britain has produced its fair share of fantasy authors over the years, including David Gemmell, T H White, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and countless others. Many of these writers hail from all corners of the British Isles but there is one city in particular that seems to have produced a disproportionate number of fantasy authors – Oxford. J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Alan Garner’s Wild Magic series, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and, most recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, all have one thing in common – not only did their authors attend the city’s famous university, the inspiration for their novels often came from the time they spent in Oxford. Even J K Rowling is rolled up in the Oxford mythos, as the Potter films use many Oxonian locations. What is it about Oxford that has proved so inspirational for so many of the greatest authors ever to write in the fantasy genre? One explanation may lay in the fact that, while Oxford is probably most famous for its ancient university, its royal associations and its modern car production factories, this historic city is also full of strange accounts of fantastical happenings, ghostly manifestations, and related supernatural phenomena. Perhaps this should come as no great surprise: if any place in Britain is going to be haunted then it is Oxford, cruel to kings, malignant to monks and redolent with scandal. But Oxford has also been described as the home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties – in the words of Matthew Arnold – the sweet city of dreaming spires.

5 The Golden Compass - Screenshot

At certain times, like first thing in the morning when the dawn sun is reflected like a wraith through the low-lying mist over Christ Church Meadow, or at dusk when the shadows give Tom Tower a Gothic cast as it spears the Oxford skyline, there’s no one around and it feels like you’ve just stepped into the past or even into a world that never was. In many ways Oxford as a whole is like that, full of ghosts of the past and elements of the fantastical that cannot be found anywhere else. They say that this city has more history per square mile than anywhere else in Britain, with the sole exception of the centre of London. King Charles fled here during The Civil War and, for a couple of years at least, it was the country’s capital. Half of the country’s Prime Ministers were educated here, as well as a number of Nobel prize-winners and even one American President (although whether what Bill Clinton did here in his days as a Rhodes Scholar can strictly be described as ‘educational’ in the traditional sense is open to debate). Shakespeare himself knew the city well, though he never attended the university, for he used to stop over with his friend John Davenant at the Crown Tavern in Cornmarket as he passed back and forth between the theatres in London and his family in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In particular, pubs and inns are a rich source of ghost stories and Oxford has its fair share of hostelries – at one time there were well over 400 in the city and perhaps the most famous of these still stands today in the form of the Eagle and Child. The Eagle and Child public house lies on the western side of St Giles, one of Oxford’s widest streets and the main exit from the city to the north. This street is the location of the Martyr’s Memorial, a monument to the three Anglican bishops burned at the stake in the cruel reign of Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary. The Eagle and Child’s greatest claim to fame is that the Inklings, a loose grouping of authors including C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Charles Williams and Neville Coghill, met there for many years. The Inklings got together twice a week to discuss their work: on Tuesday mornings at the pub, and on Thursday evenings in C S Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. In the pub they met in the Rabbit Room, a long thin bar which is still there to this day, one of a few delightfully small snug bars which make up this tiny pub. The Eagle and Child has a long history and there is a persistent rumour that there was a tunnel between the pub and St John’s college over on the other side of the road, though there is now no evidence of an entrance in the cellar today. Although it was not a pub at the time, the building was around during the English Civil War and was used as a pay house for the King’s Cavaliers as they took shelter here from Oliver Cromwell and his advancing Roundheads.

Then there’s the so-called Moberley-Jourdain incident. Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924) was an English academic and author, as well as the Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, between 1915 and 1924. Neither her studies nor her writing, however, ever propelled Eleanor to such fame as the occasion when she and her predecessor as Principal of St Hugh’s, an equally respected academic by the name of Charlotte Moberley, claimed that while on a trip to Versailles they slipped back in time to the period of the French Revolution. In An Adventure, an account of the escapade published later, they claimed that they took a wrong turn and suddenly found themselves in the company of people from eighteenth-century France, including Marie Antoinette herself. This story was an immediate sensation and has been argued over for decades. The boring explanation was that they had simply stumbled upon a tableau vivant of locals in fancy dress, but the ladies themselves, being experts in such matters, insisted on details which firmly placed the scene in the eighteenth century. Those of a superstitious bent immediately decided that the two friends had slipped through a hole in time and, as they were distinguished academics, considered that their honesty could not be in doubt. Of course, detractors concluded that the pair were simply trying to hoodwink the nation and pointed to two sexually repressed spinsters, full of romantic notions, whose story could not stand up to the closest scrutiny. (It should be noted, however, that when they wrote the book together Moberley and Jourdain did so under assumed names, which would seem to invalidate possible accusations of publicity-seeking.)

Each college that makes up the university (there were thirty nine at last count) has its own body of history and mythology. It was at Christ Church, in the shadow of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, that the young mathematics don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson turned to writing children’s stories to entertain the Dean’s daughter, Alice Liddell. Using the ‘Latinized’ pen-name Lewis Carroll, he published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-glass six years later. The fantastic lands that Carroll created might well have been based on the wonders around him. Christ Christ Church Meadow, for instance, is one of the last pastoral paradises of the Middle Ages remaining in England today. The fields there have not been ploughed since medieval times and have never been sprayed with pesticide. As a result buttercups, moneywort, columbine, lady’s mantle and straggly yellow rattle all grow here. Where else in the world could you find a herd of cows grazing on undeveloped grassland within two hundred yards of the bustle, noise and activity of the high street of a major city? I mentioned earlier that half of England’s Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford but neglected to say that half of them were Christ Church men – thirteen in all – including Gladstone and Eden as well as Peel. The college was founded by Henry VIII, Albert Einstein taught Physics here, and to this day the head of the college is elected by Royal appointment. John Locke, W H Auden and William Penn all also call Christ Church their alma mater. This distinguished Royal and academic legacy is in large part why Christ Church is often regarded as the cradle of the British upper crust and has something of a superiority complex over the other colleges – according to Oxford style it is either called simply Christ Church, without the need for the suffix ‘college’, or ‘The House’ (from its Latin name Aedes Christi or ‘house of Christ’).

Oxford is full of trivia that it would take far more space than I have here to detail – indeed, it would take a lifetime to uncover the full extent of the history, myth and legend that has accumulated in this city over the centuries. Its colleges, libraries and museums, ranging from the medieval to the modern, testify to the city’s academic traditions but there is another Oxford, the city of car factories and housing estates, high-tech research and alternative culture. From the quadrangles and chapels of the ancient university to the multicultural bustle of Cowley Road, Oxford has many faces, both historic and contemporary. There is the university city: the seat of learning, inside the colleges, river and gardens, dons and students, ‘town and gown’ conflict and so on. Then there is the writers’ city: the Oxford loved and hated by Dr Johnson, Oscar Wilde and Philip Pullman. Finally, there is that intangible Other Oxford: cars and marmalade, saints and sinners, museums and mausoleums, tramps and tourists. As Matthew Arnold, again, once said: “the Oxford of the past is the Oxford that will always be” and in this city where fantasy and history, ghosts and fevered imaginings mingle seamlessly in the streets, I find it impossible not to agree with him.

9 Responses to “The City of Dreaming Spires”

  1. joshuabertetta8306 May 24, 2014 at 2:05 am #

    This is really cool–a fun look at the background setting to so much fantasy–the fantasy behind the fantasy of sorts. Glad you’re back blogging 🙂

  2. georgianaderwent May 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Great post. Did you go to the University and/or live in the town for a period? You seem to know the place very well.

    I studied history at Oxford a few years ago, absolutely loved it and have set a series of novels there, The Cavaliers, which are basically about a Bullingdon-club style society whose members are vampires from the Civil War who are secretly controlling Britain.

    My own books aside, I agree that it’s a great place to set a book or TV show, especially one with a fantastical edge – though Oxford crime series seem to be a bit of a thing too). It’s so beautiful with all the grand old buildings in different architectural styles, and you really can just feel the history and tradition radiating out of them. That Moberley-Joudian story is a new one to me though.

    The one thing I think you missed is the people. The University gathers together some of the cleverest young adults in the country, about half of whom are quite rich, and the other half of whom have had to work super hard and defy the odds to get there. It makes them live close together (at my college, at least, everyone had to live within walls for all three years) and puts them under lots of pressure to succeed. It’s a recipe for rivalry, for close friendships, and for romantic tension. All of which combines to practically give you a ready made novel before you even factor in the underlying plot!

    • ashsilverlock May 24, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      Totally agree about the people contributing to the whole ‘Oxford’ thing. Yes, I do indeed have a long association with Oxford as student, lecturer and resident. More than that I can’t say – I like to maintain an aura of mystery!

  3. georgianaderwent May 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Posh, the Privileged and the Paranormal and commented:
    A really interesting piece on why Oxford is such a great setting for books, especially ones with a fantastical element. Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more!

  4. eao May 25, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    I spent six months there on an overseas studies program while an undergraduate and I have to say I came home with a longer list of things I still wanted to do in Oxford than the original one I started with!

    I confess I spent many an afternoon seeking out places mentioned in “His Dark Materials” and wandering the streets in search of those ghostly whispers of history. The ruins of the Godstow Abbey were of course quite satisfying, though I also absolutely loved just wandering around back streets looking at the gargoyles and poking my head into the little shops. Found a lovely 1834 miniature edition of “Paradise Lost” that I brought home as a souvenir.

  5. boundandgaggedbooks May 27, 2014 at 12:47 am #

    I think universities, particularly in their earlier years, were mythical places of knowledge and mystery and possibility. And when one thinks of universities, Oxford, Camebridge, Harvard, and Yale are often the first to come to mind. Just standing in the hallowed halls or sweeping libraries of such a university feels mythical and, with all that history, it just seemes impossible for there not to be secrets. Surely, one of those books was tucked away to keep it safe or contains a letter of grave import, lost to time. The Long Room of the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin is the closest thing to a wizard’s archive I can imagine, so it makes sense to me that attending a place like Oxford would inspire any would-be fantasy author.

  6. Simon Banks May 30, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    Small point (from a Cambridge man): it wasn’t Oliver Cromwell (good Cambridge man though he was): it was Sir Thomas Fairfax, his superior at the time.

    • ashsilverlock May 30, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

      Actually, to be even more pedantic, it was Fairfax AND Cromwell! (And I don’t think you can really call Cromwell a ‘good Cambridge man’ as he left the university without a degree…)

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