How Wild the Space?

I saw a lovely student from another University today. She’s researching Harry Potter and wanted to chat it over. We met in the Weston Library and talked about her project, a reader-response exploration of an illustrated version.

It struck me as odd to be sitting in the Bodleian, in Hogwarts, doing this – odder still (but still a delight) to zip round the Designing English exhibition (I hope this link stays after the exhibition closes: it has been a treat), walk through the main Bodleian quad and then past Exeter/Jordan College (we discussed La Belle Sauvage as we walked). For me at least this is potentially an everyday possibility: to walk through film sets, through putative locations, through ghost stories and narrative devices: trees under which sundered lovers sit; pubs where the righteous and unrighteous plot; rivers that carry fugitives and storytellers. In a short walk to the bus from a cup of coffee I was able, with a light touch, to “explore the concept of investigating key locations within [my] own mythologies and their connection to the landscape and to the literature which they inhabit…” In other words I mirrored in a short and urban way, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. So here are some questions about my chat about locations and my walk this afternoon:

  • In what way does Wild Spaces Wild Magic differ from the solitary reader’s exploration of location?
  • In what way might it differ from the crocodiles of tourists on The Harry Potter tour?
  • Does it matter that Oxford provides an urban setting, and in southern England – in other words, do we need mud?
  • Does it need to be a “real” Oxford?

Of course, the solitariness of the lone scholar doesn’t preclude the investigation – but I think it’s about investigation, not just “being there.” If all we can say is that ‘[i]t was (you may say) satisfactory…” then we are mere tourists. If going to Gradbach and ascending to the Green Chapel is just about a tick on a score card we are a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal, as St Paul writes; if sitting in Thoon was simple finding and possessing, we see only through a glass, darkly. It may be that this superficiality accounts for some of the lack of engagement I suspect in the ungainly crowds who come to see where Daniel Radcliffe trod, and who find a busy city full of traffic and buses and the everyday…

Oxford isn’t Hogwarts – although I did draw the parallel with my visitor today. Rowling never intended it. For Philip Pullman, at least two Oxfords occur in his great His Dark Materials project, and the urban Oxford that is “our” Oxford is carefully delineated so as to distinguish between it and Lyra’s Oxford. But is Oxford magic? If the city cannot really provide, in its old lanes and towers, a setting that is full of a psychogeographic nostalgia (Brideshead, Sayers, maybe even a Pullmanesque wistfulness for les collèges d’antan) then why come here to tell the towers thereof? Perhaps it’s because the visitor hopes- perhaps I hope – not for the gods of the high moors with their new roads and secret gates, but the possibility of stories “that made us who we are and still design us.”  Oxford makes stories; it allows people to make their own stories. Maybe Oxford comes closest to the Wild Magic when it demands of us, as Mat and I have posed before, “What will happen to us when we stop looking back; when we can no longer dreamwalk into a history?”

So does Oxford need to be real? The College Myth I subscribed to from 1976 (until, really, I came back to my Grandpont interview in 1991 and stayed in the Fellows’ Guest Room at Magdalen ) was never real; we came and with our posture made some passing scribble on the air – and then left. Kings and gods of fantasy, we were that most temporary type of Ozymandias, cocky undergraduates.

It was not ours, really, to possess. In some ways, the cruel thing about Oxford is that it keeps growing – up, out, into a more modern place,  whether that growth seems pleasant or not. And we – I – grew too. All children grow up, anyway, and this was not Neverland, either. Oxford is, in that sense, not a city of aquatint, but a city of myth. Maybe, as Andrew Marr has suggested, this is why Oxford is the seminary for the classic fantasy writers: Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien, Cooper, Garner…

Because what would happen if we could no longer dreamwalk?

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