Oct 13, 2013

Oxford and Magical Books

This weekend I went to Oxford, mainly to see the Magical Books exhibition at the Bodleian — but also because the city looms large in my readerly imagination and was currently number one on my mental list of literary places to visit in the UK.

Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth is an exhibition dedicated to children’s fantasy literature, particularly the work of “the group of writers informally known as the ‘Oxford School’: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman”. In addition to this, it focuses on “some of the books and manuscripts that contain the myths, legends and magical practices on which these Oxford-educated authors freely drew for inspiration.” In short, if there ever was an exhibition whose subject was closer to my heart I haven’t had the good fortune to find it.

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Needless to say, I found it beautiful and inspiring and had a most wonderful time. For obvious reasons I couldn’t take picture of any of the manuscripts on display, but I invite you to take some time to browse through the exhibition’s excellent website. Or, if you have the chance to visit Oxford before the end of the month, you can still go see it in person. Some of the highlights include a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone illustrated by Rowling herself, a manuscript of The Owl Service, a replica Alethiometer on loan from Philip Pullman, and replicas of the Six Signs from The Dark is Rising made for Susan Cooper by her husband. Also, behold the Wall of Books of Awesome:

I wanted to hug them all.

After the exhibition, I took advantage of the unexpected sunshine to make my way to the Botanical Gardens, where I wanted to visit a certain bench:

My heart.

The bench and its surroundings. Also, I have now vowed to reread His Dark Materials over the Christmas holidays. Best idea ever or best idea ever?

And lastly, the view from the bench.

The fact that this bench actually exists and is so close to Magdalen Bridge, also important to me because of reasons, was almost too much for my poor heart. I’m not entirely sure why visiting real places associated with imaginary events has the power to move me this much — I suppose it’s because these tangible locations are as close as I can get to touching imaginary worlds that have added so much to my life. Also, being there was a reminder of why I love these stories, and being alive on a crispy autumn morning and feeling flooded with affection for words on a page and the worlds they conjure is a most wonderful thing.

Magdalen Bridge. I didn’t exactly help myself by walking into a bookshop and reading the last page of Gaudy Night. ALL THE TEARS.

A few more photos of the gorgeous Botanical Gardens:

An Austrian Pine rumoured to have been favoured by Tolkien and to have helped inspire the Ents.

And here is the city in all is autumnal glory:

The Museum of the History of Science is full of strange and fascinating objects and it made me wish I wrote fiction.

The Hall at Christ Church College, where the Hogwarts Dining Hall scenes were filmed.

Charles Dodgson portrait in the Hall.

All the Oxford World Classics Wilkie Collins. *pines*

Books as far as the eye can see: the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s.

The Vaults & Garden tea room.

Friends, I do not say this lightly: possibly the best scones I have ever had.


There was plenty I didn’t have time to see or do — the extended tour of the Bodleian, the rest of the colleges, the Natural History Museum, which is currently closed for refurbishment, etc — so I’ll definitely have to go back some day. I believe this is it for me this year as far as trips are concerned, but hopefully my literary pilgrimage will continue in 2014. Will it prove to be the year I finally make it to Hay-on-Wye?


  1. I visited Oxford for the day a few years ago, and managed to see some of the HP stuff, but much to my regret, never managed to get to see that bench.

  2. Awesome trip :) I'm going to be in England next year for a wedding, may extend it for a few days and hit a couple of spots. Don't know if I'll get around to Oxford but it looks great.

  3. Oh I absolutely love your pictures, makes me feel even luckier to live here! The Botanic Garden is one of my favourite places to go on a sunny day, such a beautiful place.
    I recently visited the Magical Books exhibition and loved it. Did you see the First Folio there? It was kind of tucked away and a lot of people were walking right past it which I think would only happen in Oxford!

  4. Ohhh... Oxford. I spent a few days staying there a couple of years ago and this post made me want to jump straight onto a train and go back. Perhaps I will make a long weekend of it soon. That Magical Books exhibition looks incredible, and you've got some wonderful photos. Glad you had a good time.

  5. Such a gorgeous, gorgeous place. It's so green and blue and wet and crisp and I can almost smell the grass. Is that Terry Pratchett I see on the wall of books? That's strange if he wasn't part of the exhibition but also so appropriate.
    (The Six Signs are real?! *dies of envy*)

  6. I am completely jealous. I, too, swooned at the sight of all those Wilkie Collins' novels lined up. One day I will get "across the pond."

  7. I am now kicking myself because I've been to the Botanical Gardens several times and did not know that bench existed!
    The exhibit looks awesome, glad you had such a great time.

  8. Oh my. I've never been, but going on this tour with you just made my heart ache. I think that hearts of the literary are carved just slightly different than the rest of the world. We consume and absorb these worlds as if they are real. I even do that with some shows and movies, if the writing is good enough. My husband and son just don't get it when I break out in tears over a show/movie/book or sink into a depression when it is over, but I know you understand :) You just made my Sunday.

  9. Oh, this is gorgeous! I'd heard of the exhibit and wanted desperately to go, but your account is almost as good. :) Almost.

    I never even knew that the Lyra and Will bench actually existed, and my heart was touched by that. And I know exactly what you mean about places where the fictional world touches the real world. It is, after all, exactly Lyra and Will's condition: knowing about this vibrant, wonderful thing on the other side and touching it, only for a brief moment.

  10. Wonderful pictures! It is my dream to visit England and Oxford but never knew about this Magical exhibition. The Norrington Room looks AMAZING.

    Hope you get to go to Hay-on-Wye. That's on my place to go list too. :)

  11. What a fantastic experience...the photos are wonderful!

  12. Ah, the Botanical Garden scene in Gaudy Night... Lovely, lovely Oxford.

  13. I feel so much the same way about visiting real places associated with imaginary events. I am not a big walker, but every step I took around Addison's Walk in Oxford was magic.

  14. How did you manage to handle so much awesome?

  15. Ana, what a wonderful post! I love your idea of rereading "His Dark Materials" and may just join you!

  16. Ana, what a wonderful post! I love your idea of rereading "His Dark Materials" and may just join you!

  17. Oh, wow. I had no idea there was a Lyra and Will bench in existence. I'm a little teary eyed right now. I think rereading His Dark Materials over Christmas is, in fact, the best idea ever.

    Your pictures are so beautiful. What a very lovely time.

  18. Looks and sounds like you had a wonderful time. Thank you for sharing :-)

  19. Ahhhh, Oxford!! Was there long ago, and have never been back. It may be time. Thank you for the lovely pictures. Such a treat!

  20. It's a dreadful cliche but Oxford made my heart ache. I'm like you -- so many of the places there (including Magdalen Bridge, oh heavens) make me feel connected to imaginary events that take up so much space in the landscape of my mind. The whole of Magdalen College puts me near tears (it makes me maudlin, ha ha, pronunciation joke, I am so sorry I made that joke it was awful please still like me) because I always think about Oscar Wilde. I need to go back to England soon, it has been too long.

  21. Fabulous! Those scones look delicious.

  22. CONSUMED WITH ENVY. I would have followed the precise path you did, for most of the same reasons, and it kills me that I was not there to do it! But if I could have wished this for someone other than myself, it would certainly be you, Ana - thanks for letting me go there from my desk chair.

  23. What a wonderful exhibit and a fantastic day! So jealous. Thanks for sharing all the photos!

  24. OMG--that is the best idea ever!!! I just told Rich last week that I was reading them this December too! (I never even read The Amber Spyglass because I am a complete idiot, but I'm going to start by rereading the first two.)

    Anyway, this all looks so beyond amazing I don't even have words. SO HAPPY you were able to go to this!!! :D

  25. Oh huge sigh. I love Oxford so much. I love Blackwells and the beautiful Harry Potter sites. You make me want to be back there eating scones and meandering through the town. Thanks for the gorgeous reminder of a city I love!

  26. I visited the Botanical Gardens twice in early 2003. It was after the books were published but I didn't read them until the following year, so I didn't know to look for a bench. I'm not too regretful as I loved the Botanical Gardens even without the added literary layer, but still it is very cool that there is an identified bench now.

    I've been meaning to re-read that trilogy for a long time now. I've been a bit worried that it won't stand up to a re-read.

  27. This post is so amazing!!! I'm so glad you got to go Ana and you've just added "going to Oxford" to my bucket list.

    "I’m not entirely sure why visiting real places associated with imaginary events has the power to move me this much — I suppose it’s because these tangible locations are as close as I can get to touching imaginary worlds that have added so much to my life."

    I can relate to this SO much. It truly is a gift when you can be in a place that your favorite characters have "been".

  28. Wow, what a lovely post, Ana. I loved seeing the photos you took. I want to go into those bookstores, of course!! I like what you said about real places pulling at you when you have experienced them in literature. I find that too. Perfectly understand the bench and the bridge - I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Materials series, and am waiting for my daughter to be old enough to read them - she already likes the movie, but is slower to read big texts.

    Mostly though, the love for that writing circle, and the awesome display of books, and all that those writers have done for fantasy and children's literature. We - readers, writers, the book community - owe them such a debt of gratitude.

    I think you went there for all of us too, Ana! :-)


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