Good Reading : December January 2006
22 goodreading ı DECEMBER 2005 • JANUARY 2006 Remember when people jostled to see the latest Lord of the Rings movie? Gird yourself, because it’s about to happen again. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is coming to a cinema near you, to be followed in due course by other Narnia films. By 2007, they will be competing with adaptations of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’. No surprises there. Both ‘The Narnia Chronicles’ and ‘His Dark Materials’ are obvious successors to The Lord of the Rings. They’re epic fantasy stories set in another world, involving a world- shaking clash between good and evil. But they are even more connected than that: they were all written by people associated with Oxford University. Look at English children’s literature and you soon discover that Oxford University is Fairyland Central, home to Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, Roger Lancelyn Green, CS Lewis, Dianna Wynne-Jones, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman, to name a few. It could be the place itself.The medi- aeval city looks like fairyland—at least, it does to the masters and students who are allowed behind its privileged golden- stone walls, mostly locked against the public. But if you can get inside, you find a serene world of ancient trees and over- flowing flowerbeds. It’s like entering the wardrobe into Narnia. Or like visiting Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, lectured in math- ematics at Christ Church. A friend of the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, he wrote his most famous work,Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), for them. The book seems much less surreal when you realise he based much of it on people and places around him.Take the white rabbit, for example.The young Alice’s father had fluffy white hair. He was also chronically late for dinner, and would bound up the tiny staircase from the masters’ common room underneath the Great Hall to arrive at High Table crying, ‘I’m late, I’m late!’Then there’s the plane tree that inspired the Jabberwocky, still flourishing in a Christ Church garden. After Carroll, very little children’s writing came out of Oxford until the publication of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit in 1937.Throughout the 1930s Tolkien, the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, would meet with friends (including CS Lewis, a fellow of Magdalene College) at the Eagle and Child pub, where they would read out snippets of manuscripts they were working on. Today, the Eagle and Child’s walls are plastered with fading newspaper clippings about Tolkien and Lewis. It’s a dark place, with a low ceiling and polished wooden tables, where you can imagine a hobbit popping up to offer you a beer. It was here, and in Lewis’s rooms, that The Lord of the Rings and ‘The Narnia Chronicles’ were thrashed out. Tolkien and Lewis made another great contribution to literature. ‘Tolkien and Lewis were heavily involved in developing a lot of the English sylla- bus,’ says Dr Julia Cresswell, author and Oxford University tutor. According to Cresswell, this syllabus is one reason so many Oxford students became famous writers. Until the 1970s, English students studied mediaeval literature, philology, and literary sources. As a result, she says, Oxford writers ‘like what a mediaeval critic would call “polyphonic” nar rative, where you have lots of different story lines weaving out of one another. It’s based on the idea that good writing has layers of meaning that can be discovered by those who want to.’ She says Oxford writers are also characterised by linguistic playfulness. ‘Look at Philip Pullman and the way he creates his alter native world,’ says Cresswell. ‘In that world people use mediaeval magic The beautiful mediaeval city of Oxford in England has more than a passing connection with some of the best-known fantasy writing for children and adults, as FELICITY CARTER discovered. writers’ city Above: Tom Tower, the entrance to Christ Church. This beautiful building was designed by Christopher Wren. Below: A view of Christ Church from the Meadow. Students of Christ Church have the right to graze cattle on the Meadow.