Thursday, May 8, 2008

Soaking up a little history

Both the city of Oxford and the University simultaneously feel as comfortable as the company of an old friend and yet as overwhelming as being tasked with memorizing the Atlanta phone book (both yellow and white pages). The sense of comfort derives from the fact that so many books, films, and other bits of pop culture have used Oxford as their setting. Just in the last 15 years, Oxford was used as the setting for such films as The Madness of King George, The Saint, at least three Harry Potter films: Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire before a digitized version of the Oxford setting became cheaper, The Red Violin, Oxford Blues, and The Golden Compass among others.

Readers have also come to know this place thanks to such works as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, P.D. James’ The Children of Men, the series of novels begun with His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, and Endymion Spring among many others. So, it is hard not to feel very familiar with Oxford. The narrow streets, the awkward sidewalk cobbles, the unfriendly stone faces looking down at you from every angle, the friendly faces of the locals who always seemed to be able to tell who is and is not from Oxford.

At the same time, the volumes of history which seem to flow from every door can seem overwhelming. The city itself was founded in the days of the Saxons as “Oxforda” which, to no great surprise, means "the place where the ox can get across the river." This made the village an important place to be before humans figured out how to build bridges that would consistently carry oxen. So important that, in 912, Oxforda was first written up in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. However news traveled slowly in those days as the founding of the town probably coincided with the construction of St. Frideswide’s nunnery at some point in the 8th century. St. Frideswide, now the patron saint of both Oxford the town and the University, was a 7th century Anglo-Saxon princess who was to be given in marriage to a Mercian King. Frideswide had established a priory (school) where her betrothed came to court her. When Frideswide refused his advances, the king, Algar, tried to rape her. She ran into the forest and hid. Later, after she returned to the priory, Algar continued his advances until he eventually went blind. Frideswide, for some reason, felt pity for her would-be rapist and prayed for him at a church in Oxford. There Saint Catherine of Alexandria told her to take her staff and strike the ground. Never doubting her sanity for a moment, Frideswide struck the ground with her staff and there on the grounds of what is now the Church of St. Margaret in Oxford a miraculous spring of water sprang from the ground. History holds that she used the water to heal Algar’s blindness. I’m not certain as to the moral of this tale. However, it is merely one example of the history which literally oozes from the ground here.

One of my very first stops was the Eagle and Child, the pub where J.R.R. Tolkein, of Lord of the Rings fame and C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame, would gather weekly to discuss theology and literature. Of course, I had to hoist a pint of bitters at what was supposed to be the very table where the two would have their infamous disputations. One can also visit Einstein’s chalkboard and the taxidermist’s nightmares at the Oxford Museum of Natural History which served as the models for the talking animals in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland tales. In case you are wondering, Carrol thought of himself as the dodo. On the subject of Oxonian literary ties, Kenneth Grahame wrote the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, which also features talking animals – must be in the water – while studying at Oxford. He decided to donate the copyright income from the book to the University’s Bodleian Library.

Other famous alumni and former students include 12 saints, an antipope, 47 Nobel prize-winners, a pair of British kings and 12 other assorted monarchs, 24 princes/princesses, 291 members of the British Parliament, 20 American congressmen (including a Speaker of the House), 4 associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, and 1 U.S. President.

Some names you might recognize include Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Donne, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Tim Berners-Lee (who invented a little thing we call the World Wide Web), Hugh Grant, Kate Beckinsale, Dudley Moore, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, T.E. Lawrence, Adam Smith, John Locke, John Wesley, William Penn, Albert Einstein, Richard Burton, William Tyndale, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hobbes, Imran Khan, Benazir Bhutto, John Le Carre, Mandfred von Richtofen, Dr. Seuss, T.S. Eliot, Kris Kristofferson, Edmund Halley, Rowan Atkinson, A.A. Milne, Terry Jones, Jethro Tull, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Chelsea Clinton, and Richard Adams of Watership Down fame, to name but a few. I’m certain the Oxford Univeristy Alumni Affairs Office is a bustling place.

Next time, more from Oxford.
--Keith Murphy is the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fort Valley State University

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