When one thinks of the world of children's literature, both in the fictive world and the real world, England often comes to mind. From Peter Pan's statue in Kensington Gardens in London, to track 81/2 in Harry Potter’s version of Paddington Station, England has been the birthplace and setting for many children's books that have shared success on both sides of the Atlantic. One city in England, however, may be the place that evokes more ties to children's books than any other, and that city is the ancient university town of Oxford.
Perhaps the most famous children's book in English, Alice, Adventures in Wonderland, was written by an Oxford lecturer. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, set the scenes in Alice upon his impressions of the Gardens of Christ Church and Worcester Colleges, and the story of Alice was first imagined on a boat ride up Oxford's River Isis.
Kenneth Graham, the author of The Wind in the Willows, is buried at Oxford, and Oscar Wilde, author of, among other things, a number of well known fairy tales, was a student here. Also in Oxford is a pub called the Eagle and Child where Oxford Professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would meet to chat about the children’s books they were writing. Tolkien recalled many "golden evenings by the fire at the Eagle and Child" with Lewis, and it was in this setting that The Hobbit, portions of The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were first read aloud.
More recently, Philip Pullman, another Oxford professor, has authored the popular and controversial trilogy for your adults, His Dark Materials. Like Lewis Carroll, Pullman was influenced by a visit to the Oxford University Museums. While Lewis Carroll marveled at the painting of the dodo—and eventually set the bird as a character in his book, so Pullman was inspired by the collections of artifacts from the arctic, inspiring his choice to set his series in the far north.
Today in Oxford a look at the local theatres finds stage productions of The Hobbit and Puss in Boots, and just down the street, scholars of children’s literature dive deep into the recesses of the Bodleien Library, which houses the largest collection of children’s poetry in the world. The future, too, may bode well for Oxford's connection to children’s literature. Both Harry Potter films were shot partially in Oxford, and in late spring this year, world-renowned children’s books authors will descend on the city in a series of lectures. This special place, referred to locally as The City of Dreaming Spires, has much yet to share, and Oxford's Further Adventures in Wonderland are likely to go on, we hope, happily ever after.
Copyright 2003 © Kevin Shortsleeve
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