With the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter books filling the streets of Oxford at double strength with tourists eager for a peek at the Great Hall (Christ Church), or Madam Pomfrey’s Hospital Wing (the Divinity School), we at ORA think that it is worth remembering some of the other fine works of literature to have taken Oxford as their settings (whilst maintaining healthy levels of allusion).
First up is Philip Pullman, who offers this evocative description of the fictional Jordan College, Oxford, the home of his heroine Lyra Belacqua:
Like some enormous fungus whose root-system extended over acres, Jordan (finding itself jostling for space above ground with St Michael’s College on one side, Gabriel College on the other, and Bodley’s Library behind) had begun, sometime in the Middle Age, to spread below the surface. Tunnels, shafts, vaults, cellars, staircases had so hollowed out the earth below Jordan and for some yards around it that there was almost as much air below ground as above; Jordan College stood on a sort of froth of stone.
Max’s Beerbohm frothy satirical novel, Zuleika Dobson, pokes fun at the naïve seriousness of undergraduate life at Oxford. It is the tale of Zuleika, a rather oblivious femme fatale, who comes to lodge for the summer with her uncle, the warden of Judas College, and provokes a scourge of fatal love-sickness throughout the university’s undergraduate population. On page 3, Judas College ―thought to be modelled on Beerbohm’s own alma mater, Merton College― is introduced through the character of its head of house: “aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas”.
And finally, Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, Decline and Fall, tells the story of Paul Pennyfeather, a simple theology student who disgraces himself at Scone College and is sent to teach at a public school in Wales (held in the public consciousness at that time as the cultural and social opposite to sophisticated Oxford).
This summer, why not pick up one of these books and get to know an Oxford beyond Harry Potter and Hogwarts?