September 2, 2012

I decided to visit Oxford today. The other contenders were Cambridge, Caterbury, and Bath, and all of them seemed great, but I chose the place with more relevance to literature.

I opted for the bus over the train since is was about ten bucks cheaper, and it was only after I got on the bus and paid my fare that I learned the trip was twice as long on the bus (two hours instead of one). I had already woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and so was a bit irritated, but there was nothing I could do about it. At least I snagged a front seat on the top level of the double-decker bus, which afforded me a unique three-quarter view. And the country-side was pretty. And I got to sleep a bit, which was clearly in order. Nevertheless, I was still wearing my grumpy pants when I arrived in Oxford — especially when I paid a little more than I could have for a walking tour of the university — but the storm clouds cleared soon after I started exploring. (Also, I passed a sign with an arrow that read “Toot Hill Butts.” So that helped.)

Oxford University is comprised of 38 colleges, all of which are their own self-sufficient academic institutions. Most (all?) are made up of at least one quadrangle of old and spired buildings that surround a beautiful and pristine lawn, some with additional cloisters and gardens. The colleges all have their own chapel, dining hall, dormitories, classrooms, studies, and offices, so a student hypothetically would never have to leave the college while “reading English” or any other discipline. All of the instruction is done either one-on-one with a professor, or in very small groups.

I spent most of my time at New College, a sacred-feeling institution founded in 1379. It was impossible to not feel studious while walking through the cloisters, halls, and gardens, as it felt like such an optimal setting for focused learning.

Many of the Hogwarts scenes from Harry Potter were filmed on the grounds of Oxford colleges — the Great Hall is actually a near-replica of the dining hall of Christ Church College. I definitely pretended to be Harry while sitting in the New College hall, replete with its long and dark wooden tables and benches, table lamps, high table for the professors, and portraits adorning the walls. (None of these ones talked or moved, though.)

Scores of impressive writers have graced the halls of Oxford, including Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, John Locke, John Ruskin, Jeanette Winterson, Joseph Heller, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aldous Huxley, Philip Pullman, and TS Eliot. My favorites, though, are JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who were mainstays of the Inklings, a combination writing club and literary society, in which members read from their unfinished work. From 1931 until late 1949, Inkling readings took place on Thursday nights, usually is CS Lewis’ room in Magdalen College. And on Tuesday nights, the group would gather informally in local pubs, their favorite being The Eagle and Child (known locally as The Bird and Baby, or just The Bird). And so, after poking about the colleges, I went to the Eagle and Child for a dinner of bangers and mash whilst seated in the corner of the tiny old pub, daydreaming of Middle Earth, Narnia, and the spirited conversations the writers must have had there.

I wanted to hear Evensong at Christ Church, and so it was necessary to hightail it from the pub to the church to make it in time. Jogging down the sidewalk, dodging people and jumping off curbs and on benches, I pretended to be Lyra from The Golden Compass, racing off to get in trouble. (If you’ll remember, Lyra spends much of her early childhood exploring the rooftops of the fictional Jordan College at Oxford.)

Christ Church is beautiful, and I loved listening to the robed choir sing the evening prayers. At the beginning of the service, though, we were all asked to recite a prayer in unison: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep… O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. And grant, O most merciful Father, for [Jesus’] sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name.” I couldn’t disagree more with these sentiments, and so I only made it a few words in before I stopped reading aloud. I do not consider myself — nor any of the people I know — a “miserable offender.” And I believe in righteousness for its own sake, and not for the benefit of a deity. A church, though it may be achingly beautiful, is not where I find God, and a church service with communal and solemn prayers in not how I feel faith. If anything, I find God (ie an energetic oneness between all things, and not a man)… I find God in music. The polyphonic layering of the choir was transcendent, leading to a truly heightened sense of being. Part of me wishes that the words in the songs were not so steeped in dogma, but most of the composers wrote their music specifically for the church, so they go hand-in-hand.

I left Oxford super sleepy, and dozed most of the way back to London. I really think I must have walked the length of Europe by now, and I’m still only in England.

Tomorrow: Last day in London!