Modern fiction and fantasy have an unquantifiable amount of geographical, cultural, and institutional origins, but only a few of these places can be credited as continuous sources of literary innovation. These locations may even deserve the title of “birthplaces”, for they have inspired many genres of literature, including: classic and modern, children’s and adult, fantasy and speculative fiction.
One of these literary cradles is the city and University of Oxford. Although the university’s precise date of establishment is not known, scholarly activity in the city dates to Medieval England, as far back as the 1090s. That’s right, Oxford has been an active site of scholarly pursuits and literary innovation for more than 900 years.
The university is therefore considered the oldest educational institution in England, and the second oldest in Europe, only preceded in establishment by the Italian University of Bologna. Oxford increased dramatically in size and student population after 1167, and gained a royal charter between the early and mid-1200s. This essentially gave the university official recognition and the allowance of institutional power. Over time, Oxford came to be made up of several departments and divisions. The most notable aspect of its structure is the 38 colleges, which were created at different times ranging from the 1200s to just about a decade ago, and were established by various religious and political groups, educational departments, and influential individuals.
For those who love fiction, the magic of Oxford is not only in its incredible history, but also in the world-changing works of literature that have emerged from within its walls. These works and their respective authors have influenced, and continue to influence, the concepts of fantasy, children’s literature, secondary worlds, modern fairytales, and the writer’s agency. A fraction of the renowned poets and authors who graduated from and/or taught at Oxford University include: C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Philip Pullman, and Thomas Warton.
While the educational origin of these authors is significant, the most amazing aspect of these authors’ connection with Oxford is that it was, for many of them, the actual location where they wrote some of their most influential works. For some, the setting of their stories also took place at the great English institution, ranging from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia to Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Incredibly, several of these and other acclaimed authors associated with one another for many years—gathering in Oxford pubs, restaurants, and gardens to discuss their work. In some cases they shared deep connections and long friendships, supporting one another through personal hardships and inspiring each other through faith and creativity.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, is one of the most well-known writers who emerged from the University of Oxford. Considered to be one of the founders of children’s literature, Carroll studied at Oxford and later taught mathematics at the university for most of his life. This was also the place where he conceived of and wrote his two most famous works, the beloved childhood favourites Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
Alice’s story goes something like this: in the late 1850s Carroll had a strong friendship with the Liddell family, who also lived in Oxford at that time. The family included three daughters, one of whom was named Alice, and who is believed to be the inspiration and dedicatee of Carroll’s books. The idea for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is said to have originated in 1862 during a paddling trip on the river when Alice Liddell requested a written copy of the story Carroll had told her that day. A few years later in 1865, after giving Alice a manuscript and being encouraged by many friends, the book was submitted to a publisher. Soon after, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland met with amazing triumph as a bestseller. And so, it was near Oxford University, on the checkered, manicured lawns of the riverbank, under the ancient swaying trees, where Alice of Wonderland was born, or perhaps, had always been.
Two other prominent authors inseparably linked to Oxford and whose works are world-wide classics are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers were graduates and later lecturers at the university. Additionally, both were part of “The Inklings”, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met often to discuss literature and debate both tradition and innovation in the fantasy genre. Tolkien, while teaching at Oxford, produced two of his most acclaimed works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; while Lewis wrote the well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Notably, the Narnia series is thought to be a product of his return to Christianity—a process encouraged by his close friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien.
Visiting the University of Oxford last summer, I was completely blown away by its beauty, vibrancy, mystery, and majesty. Somewhat naively, I expected a large, lone castle on a hill, with spacious libraries, stone-laid corridors, and expansive gardens—yes, I admit it, I was expecting Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is what I got: there were rose gardens and green pathways, domed libraries and intricately carved walls, spiralling staircases and soaring towers.
But I also experienced a grand and joyous city that I was completely not expecting. Walking through both the busy streets and the peaceful gardens, it was not hard to imagine why this place was the inspiration for and the setting of so many great works of fiction. Oxford holds mystery, magic, and knowledge, and will no doubt be the origin of much more fiction and fantasy.
-Contributed by Polina Zak