BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH
When I visited England the first time, the place I most wanted to go was Oxford, the home of some of my favorite writers. I wanted to see the Bridge of Sighs where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet, and the gate of Christ Church where Peter’s nephew collided with Harriet and spilled the bag of meringues, and the deanery garden at Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson first met the Liddell girls, and then I wanted to go have a pint (well, of shandy) at the Eagle and Child, where the Inklings used to meet to read and critique each other’s manuscripts.
Many of my favorite writers are associated with Oxford and/or wrote about it. Here are some of my favorite books of theirs:
THE PERELANDRA TRILOGY by C.S. Lewis
I discovered the Inklings, that band of writers who assembled at the pub, the Eagle and Child (or, as they called it, the Bird and Baby) and which included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and assorted other professors and writers, through C.S. Lewis, whose work I first read in college. I loved his religious allegories–THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS and THE GREAT DIVORCE and A GRIEF OBSERVED–and his reworking of the story of Psyche and Eros: TILL WE HAVE FACES. It’s probably his best work. Because his faith is so intertwined with his writing, he can sometimes be annoyingly preachy, but in TILL WE HAVE FACES, he’s working outside that world, so that he focuses entirely on the story, and when he does that, there’s nobody better.
But my favorite C.S. Lewis work has got to be the PERELANDRA trilogy–OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, AND THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. It’s part science fiction, part religious allegory, and full of fascinating ideas. Especially about the nature of evil, which Lewis sees not as grandly Mephistophelian or even clever, like Ray Walston in DAMNED YANKEES, but petty and pointless and gratuitously cruel. His scene with Weston and the Venusian frogs has stayed with me for fifty years. Plus, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH has a great Merlin in it. And Coventry.
Lewis is one of those writers who’s just exploding with ideas, and is full of opinions, with the result that the meetings of the Inklings were often contentious (especially after Lewis, who’d refused to allow women into the group, insisted that his wife be included), and I have a feeling that if I’d been allowed into the Inklings, I would have been mad at Lewis most of the time. As it is, I disagree with lots of what he says, but he’s still one of the most interesting writers I know, and I highly recommend his work.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien was responsible for my getting married. I’m not kidding. When I was a senior in college I flew out to Connecticut over spring break to break up with my boyfriend (which for some unknown reason I thought it would be kinder to do in person). Flights took even longer than they do now, so I went to the bookstore to find something to read on the flight, and picked up a trilogy with strange pinkish and purple creatures on the front.
I knew nothing at all about Tolkien at that point–it was way before “Frodo Lives” and decades before Peter Jackson and Viggo Mortensen, but the blurb on the back looked intriguing, and from the moment I opened up the first volume and read, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit,” I was entranced. Here was a fairy tale–for grownups!
By the time I arrived at Newark Airport, I was so deep in the story and so worried about Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin I couldn’t think about anything else. “The Black Riders are after them,” I told my boyfriend, “and nobody knows what’s happened to Gandalf, and I’m not sure they should trust Strider,” and completely forgot to break up with my boyfriend. As a result, we are about to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I’m still in love with him, and with LORD OF THE RINGS.
Tolkien gets all sorts of praise for creating languages and inventing an entire world, complete with geographic, history, and maps, but it’s the story that keeps us riveted–the tale of a small, ordinary person (just like us) who finds himself caught up in events beyond his control and beyond his abilities, facing enemies of great power, somebody who can’t possibly win but who simply has to. It’s a timeless story that never gets old. I’ve read it many times, and it only gets better each time.
If you’ve never read it, you should probably start at the beginning and read THE HOBBIT first. And I’d also recommend Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.” But skip The SILMARILLION.
- DESCENT INTO HELL Charles Williams
Charles Williams, the third of the Inkling triumvirate, is the least known of them. I once got into a fight with a clerk at Blackwell’s because they didn’t have a single one of his books. “How can you not have Charles Williams?” I said. “He was an Inkling. He lived here. And he worked for the Oxford University Press!”
He may be the least known, but to my mind he’s the best of them. Tolkien’s the best storyteller, C.S. Lewis has the clearest prose style, but Williams has the most imagination. I know that sounds like an unlikely claim when you’re talking about the authors who invented Perelandra and Middle Earth, but it’s true. Williams’s books are so strange and visionary that there’s simply no way to describe them.
Some reviewers have called them “supernatural thrillers,” which has an element of truth to it, but gives completely the wrong impression. Others have called them “religious mysteries,” and one even said he wrote about the occult and “talking animals,” which gives totally the wrong impression.
But I can understand their difficulty–I have no idea how to describe them either. They do deal with the supernatural–and I guess they are thrillers–there are villains and car chases and even murders–but none of those definitions do his books justice or tell what they’re actually about. WAR IN HEAVEN, for instance, begins with the finding of the Holy Grail in a little church in rural England. ALL HALLOW’S EVE begins with the heroine standing on Westminster Bridge, looking across the Thames at the plane crash in which she has just been killed, and in THE GREATER TRUMPS, the figures on the Tarot cards come to life and head out into the world. And they’re all full of unsettling insights about love and faith and reality.
DESCENT INTO HELL begins with the heroine, on her way home from a play rehearsal, seeing her doppelganger walking toward her. It also involves a suicide, trapped in a half-constructed netherworld of two-by-fours and ladders and scaffolding. It’s also about a martyr being burned at the stake and a play that may be more than a play–and the true meaning of bearing one another’s burdens. A brilliant book.
It’s like no other book you’ve ever read, eerie and touching and infinitely strange, and the only things remotely like it are Williams’ other novels.
They’re sometimes difficult to read. Reading Williams’ prose can sometimes be like hacking your way through a thicket, and on several occasions I’ve reached the end of a page only to think, “I have no idea what I’ve just read,” and have to go back and read it again, but his books are definitely worth the effort.
- GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers
Dorothy Sayers didn’t just live in Oxford, she went to Somerville College and worked at Blackwell’s Bookstore. She also wrote about it, and her mystery Gaudy Night is probably the best novel ever written about Oxford.
Not only does it have punting on the river, the May Day celebration on top of Magdalen Tower, dinner in a college hall, getting caught out after hours, and a concert at the Sheldonian, but it’s about Oxford, the scholarly research and the faculty infighting and the undergraduate excesses. And the spell it casts over anyone who spends time in the “city of dreaming spires.” Plus, it has the delightful romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, though to get the full effect of that, you need to read STRONG POISON, HAVE HIS CARCASE, GAUDY NIGHT, and BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON in order.
I took a walking tour in Oxford one time with a bunch of tourists who yawned at the sight of Shelley’s Memorial and Lawrence of Arabia’s college and Einstein’s blackboard. But when the tour guide showed us the Bridge of Sighs, and said, “This is where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet Vane,” everyone took their cameras out and began clicking madly away, in spite of the fact that they weren’t real.
But that’s just the point–they are real, and they’ve made just as indelible a mark on Oxford as Einstein and T.E. Lawrence and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sayers’ other mystery novels are good, too. I especially recommend Murder Must Advertise, Clouds of Witness and Nine Tailors.
- ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll.
Charles Dodgson is even more of an Oxford writer than Sayers or the Inklings. Not only was he a professor at Christ Church his whole life, but his rooms overlooked the deanery garden where he saw the Liddell girls playing and were right across the street from the little shop he immortalized in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS as the Sheep Shop and just up the way from the river up which he took Alice and her sisters on that most famous of all picnics.
ALICE and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS are quoted far more than they’re read (in fact more often than anything else besides Shakespeare and the Bible and there’s been a sharp increase in these Wonderland-like times. I must have heard, “We’re really down the rabbit hole now,” at least a dozen times in recent days, followed closely by references to Alice’s telling Humpty Dumpty, “The question is whether you can make words so many different things,” and Humpty Dumpty’s replying, “The question is which is to be master–that’s all” and to the Red Queen.) but you really should read the books themselves, especially if you haven’t since you were a kid.
Alice is wonderful, the voice of common sense in a world in which everyone else is clearly mad. Except for the White Knight, who’s one of my favorite characters in all of literature.
I’d also recommend watching DREAMCHILD, a movie about the real Alice and Charles Dodgson, and SyFy’s miniseries, ALICE, a Nick Welling miniseries set in Wonderland a hundred years after the original Alice visited. It’s a science-fictional take on the story, with Wonderland a dystopian place, Hatter as a drug-dealer, and unexpected takes on the Dormouse, Owl, and Caterpillar.
DREAMCHILD is a British film about a real event. In 1932, Alice Liddell was invited to accept a posthumous honor for Dodgson at Columbia University, and the movie tells the story of her trip to America, during which unsettling memories of her childhood and the books begin drifting to the surface. It stars Ian Holm and Coral Browne, and is unfortunately nearly impossible to locate, but it’s worth the search. It’s my favorite movie of all time. Absolutely beautiful.