The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Friday, March 02, 2007

I am Now an Official Lord of the Rings Hajji

Last Saturday I went to Oxford. I took the train from Paddington, which in itself was quite enjoyable. I found that the Journey is just long enough to listen to the entire Parachutes album plus Exit Music (for a film).

I walked around the town for a bit, which is quite small, and very centralized around two main streets. I tried to sneak into University College to see the Shelley Monument, but that didn't work as I had no idea where to go and it was quite obviously that I had no idea where to go. I ended up asking for a prospectus. Ha. I wish.

The place was absolutely sick with bookshops of all kinds, including the original Blackwells. The bottom floor of Blackwells alone, the Norrington Room, holds 160,000 books on three miles of shelves. I can't even begin to describe how huge it was. The bottom floor in itself was about the size of the entire main floor at my Barnes & Noble, and then there were 3 or 4 more stories on top of that, which housed the novels, children's, poetry, a coffee shop, history, secondhand books, rare and antique books, etc etc etc. But for all of that, they didn't have a copy of Ursula le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness." Psh.

I went to cute secondhand bookshop and got a very old copy of George Eliot's "Romola" for just 2 pounds. I completely lost myself in bookshops for most of the day. I went to the Oxford University Press bookshop, Waterstones, a few secondhand, and Blackwell's. I wandered through a covered market and bought a skirt and a button in a boutique there. I had lunch in a coffee shop and warmed myself with a pot of tea.

But of course, the main focus of my trip was the famous, legendary, realm-of-fantasy-itself pub, The Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to hang with their other writing buds in a group called The Inklings. Walking in there felt pretty much exactly as I imagine it would feel to walk into the Prancing Pony at Bree, and not just because it *looked* exactly like the Prancing Pony. Everything was dark, ancient, worn-smooth wood, with various objects and old pictures hung on the walls. I sat at a tiny table in the back on a hobbit-sized stool, and wrote in my journal about how entirely surreal it was. Then it was time to catch a train back to London. I am now a Lord of the Rings Hajji.

Before the Eagle and Child, though, I took the Lamb and Flag passage across the street, because I was looking to get to the Natural History Museum (which was closed when I got there). The passage was surreal as well, I felt ridiculous to actually be walking down it. It was not so much an alleyway as a paved path between buildings, and just behind the Lamb and Flag pub (for which the passage was named, and actually where the Inklings defected to in later years) there was a great and twisty tree, which I half-expected to come to life. As I continued on the passage I came out onto a residential street. Through the windows of the row houses I could see what were presumably Oxford students, hard at work, and I fantasized for a few moments about joining their ranks. I could go to Oxford and study religion, or law, or any number of things. I could share halls, rooms, chairs, books, libraries with the great, both past and present. I could take my dinner at the Eagle and Child every night, and perhaps be inspired to create a universe of my own. I could *be* great.

But even though I was there, that I'd seen with my eyes and felt with my hands this place that had always to me seemed to be as much a fantasy as Rivendell or Narnia, I still felt it was impossible for me to ever really be an Oxford student, to actually live here and study here and walk in the footsteps of so many I admire. Perhaps it's still the resistance to really "leave" home (though of course, I *have* left it, and I could return to Springfield from Oxford just as well as from London), or perhaps it's lack of confidence, but mostly I think it is the idea that I feel like I come from an entirely different world, that I'm an alien to Oxford, and I could no more study here than live on Mars.

Who knows, I suppose time will tell. Maybe one day I'll find myself there after all. For now I'll keep fumbling around on earth, looking for direction, looking for meaning, looking for answers.

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