Written by Maya Watkins ’17
On May 6, I walked into a bookstore in Oxford called Blackwell’s. It’s the largest bookshop in the U.K., with miles and miles of shelving. I didn’t even make it past the J.R.R. Tolkien shelf on the first floor. I left with a copy of The Silmarillion and an essay he wrote about fairy tales. Blackwell’s was overwhelming. Next to the shelf of Tolkien works was a shelf of CS Lewis books, some of them featuring beautiful illustrations and soft leather covers. After ten minutes, I knew I had to leave before I bought the whole store. It’s hard to explain to non-bibliophiles why places like Blackwell’s affect me so much. It feels like walking into a totally unfamiliar place and finding all your closest friends – and your friends happen to be superheroes, or powerful elves, or talking rabbits. It really feels like a kind of magic.
Oxford was full of that magic. Everywhere I looked there were reminders of stories that I’ve loved all my life. Tolkien and Lewis walked these streets. You look at the buildings and gardens and wonder which of these things inspired their something they wrote about. We were shown a door with a carving of a lion in the center, with satyrs (or fauns) playing pipes mounted above the door, and a lamp post a few feet away, and told that’s what inspired C.S. Lewis to begin his tales about Narnia. Whether or not that’s true, just being around the history of some of my favorite writers was exhilarating. One of my favorite book series was Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which an alternate-universe Oxford College is the home to the main character, Lyra. As I walked through the streets I could picture Lyra scrambling across rooftops and fighting with the town children. When I read, I can imagine the scenery, but being able to see the places that those fantastical worlds were based on gives it a whole new layer. It not only adds to my mental picture, it makes those worlds feel somehow real.
I had similar experiences in Wales. Although we were only there for a day, exploring Conwy Castle (pronounced “Conway”), it felt like coming home. One of my all-time favorite writers in Diana Wynne Jones, a Welsh and English children’s author who wrote Howl’s Moving Castle, the book the Studio Ghibli movie of the same name was based on. In the book, Howl is actually Welsh. In Conwy, it was like pieces of Howl’s story came to life: the rolling hills, the quaint little sea-side town, even the dilapidated castle. It was so exciting, like stepping into one of my favorite stories. I can’t really capture the feeling of having a story so integral to who I am seemingly made real. Conwy Castle also reminded me of Cair Paravel, the castle by the sea in Narnia. The day we visited Wales was one of the best days of my life.
My enthusiasm might seem silly to some people, in the same way the excitement surrounding Comic-Con may appear incomprehensible. But these stories have been a part of me for most of my life. Seeing the places that inspired them has inspired me in turn, and given me a truly moving experience that I will never forget.