Amongst the Dreaming Spires of Oxford
A week spent in Oxford recently was reason enough to reread one of the best-known children’s books associated with the city, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
Only the opening pages take place in Oxford, as Alice and her sister sit by the banks of the river at Christ Church Meadow. Once Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, she finds herself in a surreal world where she grows tall and shrinks small, where caterpillars, rabbits and dodos can speak, where a baby turns into a pig, and a grinning cat up a tree slowly disappears, leaving behind only its smile.
But the inspiration for the story came from Oxford, on a boating trip down the Isis with the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College. Carroll passed the time by spinning a story for the girls, and three years later, in 1865, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published.
Visitors to Oxford can ask at Christ Church Cathedral to have the door to the Cathedral garden opened. For just a few minutes, you can stand in the doorway and see the painted green door into the Dean’s garden that may have inspired the little door into Wonderland, and the chestnut tree where the Dean’s cat used to sit, inspiration for Carroll’s Cheshire Cat.
The dodo figures prominently in the book as well, inspired by the stuffed dodo that was displayed in the Natural History Museum in Oxford when Carroll was there. I paid a visit and was rewarded by seeing a creature that looks exactly like the one in Tenniel’s illustration.
Although “Alice” is a classic, it’s not to everyone’s taste. Carroll was a mathematician who loved quizzes, riddles and wordplay, and the book is full of the kind of arcane nonsense that readers either love or hate. Fantasy readers ten and up are a good audience for Alice, and families will enjoy the terrific audiobook version recorded by Jim Dale (the acclaimed narrator of the “Harry Potter” books).
Philip Pullman lived in north Oxford for many years, and much of his award-winning series, “His Dark Materials,” is set in the city. The first book, “The Golden Compass,” presents an alternative England where every person is accompanied by an animal “daemon.” Here Lyra and her friends scramble over the rooftops of the Oxford colleges while the scholars below practice “experimental theology.” In “The Subtle Knife,” the second book, Pullman brings readers into present-day Oxford, when Will comes to the city in search of information about the disappearance of his Arctic explorer father. Observing a cat batting at an invisible mouse (an homage to the Cheshire Cat?), Will discovers a way out of Oxford and into another world.
Pullman’s “Lyra’s Oxford” includes a fold-out map of his slightly askew Oxford, where Christ Church is called Cardinal’s and Exeter College is St. Michael’s.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were Oxford friends whose books – “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings,” respectively – have been read by children, teens and adults since their publication in the 1950s. Although the stories themselves are not set in Oxford, you can pay homage to them at their favorite Oxford pub, The Eagle and Child. I recommend a peek at the author’s photos on the wall, followed by a half pint of Old Hooky raised to their memories.
This article was first published in the Free Lance-Star on 8/18/09.