As I remembered the anniversary of the birthday of celebrated author C.S. Lewis this month (b. November 29th 1898), I found myself contemplating how Oxford’s character is built on these figures from its past. The playwrights, authors and poets who have lived amongst its dreaming spires and described its happenings in various states of reality litter a virtual tour of the city’s lanes and lodgings with factual and fictional anecdotes, “attachments” and “see more’s”. From the connection of the fantasy world of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to Christchurch College, to the pubs where now famous writers would meet, the invented and true histories of literary Oxford, and the myths and legends associated with those involved are part of the city and the university’s identity.
By the mid 20th century, C.S. Lewis had joined the ranks of these literary behemoths of Oxford, perhaps being most famous for his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia which have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and of which the most well known is The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Lewis studied Classics and English as an undergraduate at University College after the end of the war, and later became a professor at Magdalen College, achieving firsts in every exam he took. His academic career made not only a novelist of him, but also an essayist, poet and theologian. Lewis is known to have had a mercurial relationship with Christianity in his earlier life, but he later became a firm Christian apologist, and the allusions to Christian themes within even his fantasy works are unmistakable. The resemblance of the lion Aslan’s story, for example, to the life of Christ, demonstrates Lewis making the Christian themes such as the sins and redemption of humanity accessible to a young audience. During his time in Oxford he also became great friends with another author, J.R.R. Tolkein, and it is said that the two could often be seen huddling over Christian texts or Middle Earth manuscripts in the Eagle and Child Pub on St. Giles!
Lewis enters our topographical mythology most prominently in St. Mary’s Passage, just off the High Street. The story goes that Lewis burst out of the western doors of St. Mary’s Church, where he purportedly had his own rooms, and indeed where he gave the war-time sermon “The Weight of Glory”, (and in fact where my grandmother tells me she listened to him lecture!) and came face to face with a certain door which leads into Brasenose College. As you can see from the inset photographs, the door centerpiece features a maned, lion-like face carved into the wood, it is flanked by two faun gargoyles, and to the right, marking the entrance to the beautiful Radcliffe Square, there stands a solitary lamppost. These, as the legend would have it, spawned the creation of Narnia, and some of the prominent features of its most famous book- the Lamppost which marks the entrance to the magical kingdom, Aslan, the Lion and arguably its deity, and Mr. Tumnus, the friendly faun who helps Lucy Pevensie, one of the child protagonists.
As part of Oxford Summer Courses, we visit all the most interesting sites, literary and historical. Whether the Bodleian Library or the Great Hall of Christchurch which were used as settings for the Harry Potter films, or the ‘x marks the spot’ site on Broad Street where the Oxford martyrs were burnt at the stake in 1555, our students take all the best tours while they are here, including Oxford’s famous ‘Bill Spectre’s Ghost Tour’ – a thrilling and theatrical night-time walking tour filled with some of the spookier of the city’s legends!