Although I’ve been a book lover as long as I can remember, I have never been consumed by the desire to visit authors’ homes, to walk their haunts, to explore their settings. I’ve always been satisfied to inhabit the imaginary worlds writers created in my mind, rather than seeing the landscapes that inspired them. Or I was — until I visited England nine years ago on a literary tour.
The tour wasn’t my idea. My mother was a travel agent at the time, specializing in guided tours with a literary or historical bent. She planned a trip to the Lake District and Brontë country, and offered me the job of providing the literary content. And so I stood in Wordsworth’s cottage talking about his poetry, sat in a boat on Lake Windermere and thought about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, hovered over Charlotte Brontë’s tiny shoes in the Brontë parsonage museum. There is, I discovered, a certain thrill to seeing things touched by the authors you’ve only encountered through their words. Things start to come to life.
But it wasn’t until I saw Hilltop Farm, the working farm where Beatrix Potter lived and wrote and sketched and painted, that I really got it. There I was — looking right at Mr. MacGregor’s garden! The very fence that Peter Rabbit squeezes under, the rows of carrots — not, of course, the same carrots, but still! The illustrations — pictures that I almost didn’t see any more, they were so familiar to me — suddenly came to life again when I realized how accurate they were, how drawn from this specific place.
Four years ago I first visited Oxford, and I had the experience again. Two of my favorite children’s books are set in Oxford: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, and much of the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Both are alternate-world fantasies, works that take place in a realm of the author’s imagination. Alice leaves Oxford within pages of the opening of her story, and Lyra’s Oxford is an alternate Oxford in a world where humans have external, animal-shaped souls, and zeppelins are a common mode of transport. I hadn’t really expected the real Oxford to intersect with the worlds of the novels.
And yet these fantasy Oxfords are so close to the real Oxford that the tourist can almost touch them. Walking around the college where I was teaching that summer, I often yearned to enter the Fellows’ Garden — but it was behind a locked door, just like the garden Alice longs for. Seemingly arbitrary rules govern behavior in Oxford, just as in Wonderland: while Alice is reprimanded repeatedly for mistakes she hadn’t knows she was making, we were enlightened by the sign we saw as we entered Christ Church Meadow. “The Meadow-Keepers are instructed,” we learned, “to prevent the flying of kites, throwing stones, throwing balls, bowling hoops, shooting arrows” or any number of other inconvenient or dangerous pastimes for which the meadow seemed eminently suited. Suddenly I understood Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is stark realism, representing the ways the adult (especially the academic) world imposes itself on the child. Arbitrary rules, locked doors, people telling you what to do and what not to do — Alice faces them all, and in the Wonderland and Looking Glass world she repeatedly has the chance to answer back. A child’s fantasy, indeed!
His Dark Materials has its realism as well. Although England’s Queen is also the head of the Anglican church, most English people I know find America’s religiosity off-putting and strange. So the fact that Pullman cast his alternate England as a theocracy had always seemed part of its fantasy to me — until I sat in the dining hall of an ancient Oxford college and realized I was being watched by the portraits of centuries-old priests and prelates, relics of an Oxford that had prepared its students for the ministry, an Oxford whose power structure was inextricable from its ecclesiastical structure. Oxford once was a theocracy of sorts, after all, and Pullman’s fantasy simply reminds us of a path not (quite) taken.
I’ll be back in England again this summer, teaching a course on children’s fantasy at Oxford. I’ll take my students to see “Alice’s” meadow, Tolkien’s pub, the bench where Lyra and Will finally part. We’ll take a longer excursion, too, to see the White Horse of Uffington, a huge paleolithic chalk carving that is both amazing in its own right, and a central feature of the landscape of Discworld, where Tiffany Aching, of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and other novels, lives. I’ll show them locked doors and old portraits, gargoyles resembling some of Wonderland’s denizens and the buildings that suggest Hogwarts to us all.
Children’s literature brings the imagination to life; I’ve grown and stretched my own imagination in the years I’ve engaged with it. But it also grounds us in a very real world.
This is my last column for Literary Mama. It’s been a pleasure to write Children’s Lit Book Group these last four — almost five! — years, and I am reluctant to say good-bye. But, grounded in the real world as I am, I have to acknowledge that my life is changing. With a daughter going off to college in the fall, a son in middle school, a job whose responsibilities are changing and more to write than I can keep track of, something has to give. I’m sorry that it’s this column, but I’m also grateful for the conversations that it has sparked over the years, and the pleasure it has given me. I’ll keep reading and writing; I hope you will, too.