Oxford as Inspiration for C. S. Lewis’ Narnia

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Date of Publication: 30 October 2014

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 Christ Church College, to the centuries-old 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.

But just how did this historic city of academia seem to have such a long-lasting impact on C. S. Lewis as a creative? And how did it lead him to create a fantastical masterpiece that has entertained generations beyond him?

 

christ-church-tower-oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

 

C. S. Lewis in Oxford 

Although born in Belfast, Ireland, Lewis attended preparatory school in Malvern, Worcestershire – which first acquainted him with his love of the UK, along with a fascination for European mythology and the occult. 

Lewis joined the University of Oxford in 1917, studying Classics and English at University College. However, shortly after joining, he joined the Officers’ Training Corps at the university, where he was trained and then shipped as part of the British Army to France to fight in the First World War.

At the close of the war and upon his return to the University of Oxford in 1920, Lewis’ academic talents really began to shine through. Achieving top marks in all his examinations, he was awarded with a First in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin literature), followed by one in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) in 1922, and later, receiving his final First in English in 1923.

Shortly after sitting his Finals, Lewis was appointed as a Philosophy tutor at University College – a position which he held for just one year before being elected a Fellow and tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College in 1925. Enthralled by his role, writing and the academic inspirations of Oxford, Lewis served this position for a total of 29 years. 

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 the city, he also became great friends with another author J.R.R. Tolkien. The pair became close friends, after forming a group of famous Oxford writers known as ‘the Inklings.’ Tolkien had huge influence over Lewis’ work, especially on themes of redemption and religion, 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 Street! 

How Oxford influenced C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia

During the early to mid-twentieth century, C. S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings (which included Tolkien, Nevill Coghill, Lord David Cecill, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Warren Lewis) would regularly meet at the famous Eagle and Child Pub on St. Giles Street to read each other’s writing, discuss modern and classical literature, and share ideas on religion, theory, and modern politics to influence their work.

Between them, the group were unknowingly re-inventing the fantasy genre, revitalising the way we perceive and read medieval literature today. And C. S. Lewis in particular, really drew on the influence of the city around him to transform Oxford into a fantastical portal to other marvellous worlds. 

His world-famous literary creation The Chronicles of Narnia, can be seen all over the city of Oxford, where he allegedly drew on the centuries-old buildings, monuments, and cobble-stone streets to create an extraordinary world of fantasy.

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 on a cold winter’s night, 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 his lecture!) 

 

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St Mary’s Passage, the narrow entrance to Radcliffe Square

 

It was here, while pausing to catch his breath on a cold winter’s night, where he came face to face with a certain door which leads into Brasenose College. The image of which formed the elements for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

As you can see from the inset photographs, the door centrepiece features a maned, lion-like face carved into the wood, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Aslan we are familiar with. 

The side of the door frame is flanked by two faun gargoyles – part human and part goat – who play the flute and guard the intricate animal wood carving. In the first book, we’re introduced to fauns as the servants of Aslan. In particular, the faun, Mr. Tumnus, is the first creature that Lucy encounters upon entering Narnia.

 

narnia-door-oxford

Wooden door with Aslan’s face down St Mary’s Passage, protected by the gold faun playing a flute.

Photo credit: Experience Oxfordshire

 

Slightly further ahead to the right, marking the entrance to the beautiful Radcliffe Square, there stands a solitary lamp post. As we know from the books, the lamp post is the marker which leads us into the world of Narnia from our reality, and also is used as the beacon to lead the characters back home. 

These elements, as the legend would have it, spawned the creation of Narnia, and some of the prominent features of its most famous book. The lamp post, for example, marks the entrance to the magical kingdom, while Aslan, the Lion and arguably its deity, and Mr. Tumnus, is the friendly faun who helps Lucy Pevensie, one of the child protagonists.

Is the speculation true? Who knows. There are, after all, many lamp posts and lion symbols dotted in and around the city. But, to see it all encompassed within the ethereal setting of Radcliffe Square, it seems too coincidental (and beautifully placed), to feel like there’s some truth in the speculation.

“This is the land of Narnia,’ said the Faun, ‘where we are now; all that lies between the lamp-post and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the eastern sea.”

 

Inspiring our students in Oxford, just as C. S. Lewis was 

The city of Oxford and its dreaming spires have been inspiring world-famous authors like C. S. Lewis and his fellow creatives for centuries. And we want our students to enjoy the same magical experience when they join us for a summer course.

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 Christ Church 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. Not forgetting 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!   

Of course, no literary trip around Oxford would be complete without a visit to the famous Eagle and Child pub (age appropriate of course!) Here, students can view a handwritten note pinned above the fireplace which reads; “the undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk to your health.” The note is signed by the famous Inklings group. 

 

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Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Study Creative Writing in Oxford

Be inspired by the same historic walls that inspired C. S. Lewis’ Narnia with a Creative Writing summer course in our beloved city of Oxford.

You’ll be taught by one of our inspiring tutors – each of whom are acclaimed writers in their own right – who will push your creative ideas to the next level. 

Just like the Inklings would dissect and share ideas with one another to produce the best possible week, each week, you and your fellow students will complete a series of creative writing exercises, followed by discussion, workshops and reading exercises to teach you how to finesse your writing craft, find your voice – essentially, equipping you with all the tools and techniques needed to write a bestseller.

Apply for a creative writing summer course

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