In Pursuit of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll
It wasn’t until the 70’s that I finally discovered The Lord of the Rings. A friend had told me of this fantastic world where Hobbits, Dwarves, Wizards and Elves fought evil necromancers and horrible goblins. My 23 year old mind was ripe for such things and I remember buying the four-book set which included The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Another passion was born within me while reading of this world and as Peter Beagle said in his foreword for the Ballantine paperback series, given a chance, I would go to Middle-Earth in a shot. Living in England provided me that opportunity, at least a chance to see the countryside that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create this mythical place. Carol tells me that the Cotswolds, an area of England northwest of London, inspired Tolkien’s vision of Middle-Earth. Though Carol got to experience more of the Cotswolds than I did, we did drive through the area on our way to Stonehenge in June 2003. For me though, the pilgrimage to Oxford and to The Eagle and Child, was the fulfillment of my Tolkien fantasy. The Eagle and Child, or the Bird and Baby as Tolkien and his friends called it, was something I had just learned about shortly before our visit. This is the local pub where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and a group of Oxford writers called The Inklings met to compare manuscripts, have a pint and generally commiserate. Clearly this was an important destination for our Oxford visit.
Carol’s love of Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland made Oxford just as important a place to visit for her. Lewis Carroll was a math professor at Oxford in the 1870’s and he created these characters in an environment that hasn’t really changed much since that time. Carol had scoped all this out and knew that she’d want to spend a lot more time in pursuit of Lewis Carroll related places and things than I would. So for our weekend in Oxford, she left Friday morning while I finished my week at work. She did indeed find Christ Church College (where Carroll taught and lived) and took the Alice in Wonderland tour. She described the walk as though she was in Wonderland herself, where one minute she was dwarfed by huge buildings as she walked through narrow passageways and the next minute she was walking in open gardens next to short walls that made her feel like a giant.
I caught a late afternoon train from Peterborough to London Kings Cross that Friday afternoon, sitting behind a family, mom, dad and two boys, who might have been the loudest four human beings I’d ever been around. It was as though they were competing with each other just to be heard. It was a fairly unpleasant 45 minutes. We got to Kings Cross okay, arriving at a time when it seems all of London was trying to escape the city for the weekend while all the tourists were trying to get into it. I lugged my suitcase down the corridors and stairways to the Circle line of the Underground and located my platform. I had just missed a train so I was in a good position at the edge of the platform to get on the next one. I did just that and so did 850 million other people behind me. It was quite amazing, really, to learn just how little personal space you can live with when you have to. At any rate, it was only about a 12-minute ride to Paddington Station, western London’s equivalent to Kings Cross, so I survived. Since a lot of people live on the west side and since Paddington is a large train station, about 750 million of my new friends also got off there and like a huge herd of human cattle, we all squeezed through the corridors and up the stairways to continue our journeys. My train to Oxford was on time and I found my seat across from a young couple and next to a sleeping woman. The young girl opened a bottle of wine and the two lovers cooed and sparked the whole way to Oxford which would normally be annoying but since they did it quietly, it seemed a more pleasant 45 minute train ride than the last one so I just closed my eyes and tried to nap.
When I arrived in Oxford just after 7:00pm, Carol was waiting for me at the station (which was kind of romantic) and guided me to The River Hotel, less than a ¼ mile walk. On the way, she pointed out The White House, the pub where she had made dinner reservations for us which was actually just across the street from the hotel. I freshened up and we walked to The White House and had a great dinner (and of course a nice bottle of wine). It was early enough when we finished and it was a really nice, crisp autumn evening, so we decided to go for a walk around the city and over the Bridge of Sighs, a skyway over New College Lane.
I had located The Eagle and Child on a map of Oxford city centre so I knew roughly the direction of it from our hotel so we sort of headed that way. We found the street it’s on and just kept walking. Pretty soon, after we’d left the bustle of city centre proper, there it was, up ahead on the left. I really didn’t know what to expect because walking through the city was like walking through any other college town on a Friday night; loud music, young people in big groups, couples, singles, everything imaginable. But The Eagle and Child was, as I said, away from that a few blocks and thankfully, when we walked in, it was very much like you’d hope; .dimly lit, not too smoky, old men talking, older couples and just a few young people quietly drinking. It was crowded, though, and there were no places to sit in the three small rooms that make up the front of the pub. So while I ordered us some drinks, Carol walked towards the back of the pub to see if there were any seats available that we couldn’t see from the bar. Before she’d gotten to the end of the final small room, a group of four young guys got up and left and she grabbed the table (an excellent move) just at the end of the bar. When I got to the table with our drinks, I noticed a picture of Tolkien taken in 1939 on the wall above my head. Behind Carol, there was a framed, hand written note from Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (his son), C.S. Lewis and I guess the rest of the Inklings to the landlord at the time. Aside from that and a sign describing that the Inklings used to frequent this place, there really wasn’t much hoopla about it. We were right next to the fireplace and we assumed that we were near the spot the Inklings gathered (since Lewis’s description of their evenings in the pub included “a blazing fire”). Carol asked the landlord and he confirmed that this was indeed the very room, so we were literally sitting in the same space where the Hobbit was conceived and the entire history of Middle Earth was formulated. It was great! We sat there for an hour, just absorbing the atmosphere.
On Saturday, we had planned to have lunch at The Eagle and Child, so after a long walk around the city, we headed towards St. Giles and again found this great pub. We were there a few minutes before 12:00 noon (when they open) and there was already a bit of a queue. At the head of the line was Bill, a regular who had his newspaper under his arm and began peering in front window with a scowl on his face when 12:00 came and the door was still locked. By then, several other, what appeared to be Tolkien fans, were milling about around us and when they finally opened the door at about five past, they had an almost immediate full house. We got “our” table and Bill (and later his friend John) took up the table adjacent to the fireplace and began putting papers out in front of him. We had been talking to him out front and he said he was a student at Oxford in his youth and had returned 10 years ago to live his retirement years in this great city. We first thought maybe he was a writer and was working on a manuscript himself but he was actually working on a pub quiz for The Eagle and Child. Anyway, it looked pretty cool to see this old guy there with paper and pencil.
By mid-morning it had stopped raining and by mid-afternoon it had turned into a beautiful day. We walked and walked and walked some more. Bill had told us at lunch that the wall that inspired Lewis Carroll to write about Humpty Dumpty was in the Dean’s Garden at Christ Church. Carol had been to that church on Friday but had no way of knowing that. So we went to find it and sure enough, if you look at the original sketches in the book, you can see that they exactly match the wall that separates the church property from the adjoining meadow. So Carol got to see the very wall that inspired Humpty!
Oxford is a great city and provided wonderful memories for Carol and me. We were able to connect very strongly to literary loves we long felt and I would recommend a visit to Oxford for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings and the works of Lewis Carroll.
Things to do and places to stay and dine in Oxford can be found at www.oxfordcity.co.uk.
This story first appeared in "... we're not in Kansas anymore", my account of our time in England.