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A Secret Message in Oxford

Oy, lads and lasses. I’m writing this from the front steps of a little flat in Edinburgh where the Petersons are shacking up for the week. This evening we walked the Royal Mile down from the castle to the sound of a dude playing bagpipes, and it was as awesome as it sounds. Something else awesome? The accents. I can barely understand what the Scots are telling me (especially the cabbie), but I’m happily oblivious. I just answer, “Aye,” and occasionally scream, “FREEDOM!”

Last week my family and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon in Oxford, England, where of course we stopped in at the Eagle and Child, the pub which inspired the Rabbit Room. It feels a bit like a tourist trap nowadays. Not only were there Lord of the Rings quotes on the walls, but I’m pretty sure every accent I heard in the place was American. We’re such suckers for this kind of thing, apparently. But still! That little back room with Lewis and Tolkien pictures on the wall, the fireplace, the copy of the document whereupon the Inklings, after eating a particularly good ham, signed their names and drank to the health of the proprietor of the Eagle and Child, casts an undeniable spell. It’s an irresistible stop for any traveler who loves Narnia or Middle-Earth.

So this guy named Evan Weppler was visiting Oxford about a month before us, and when he learned Team Peterson was planning to visit the original Rabbit Room, he came up with a great idea. I didn’t tell the kids what it was, but I told them something pretty cool was going to happen when we got to the Eagle and Child. We found our table in the Rabbit Room, ordered our food, then I told them, “Watch this.” I looked over the books on the shelves until I found a little white one about the Trinity. I flipped it open and out fell a folded note that said, “To the Peterson family.”

Evan told us a little about his visit, told us about an early edition Lewis book he found at an Oxfam down the street, and wished us well. It was like getting a secret message from Barliman in the Prancing Pony, and it made our visit that much better. Thanks, Evan, for thinking of us.

When we left, bellies full of fish and chips, we walked to the Bodleian Library, which currently has an exhibit called “Magical Books.” Someone on Facebook recommended it, and I’m glad they did. It included Lewis’s hand drawn map of Narnia, as well as several original Tolkien paintings. They even displayed Tolkien’s handmade pages from the journal Gandalf finds at Balin’s tomb. Remember the part where he reads the dwarven script about the goblins being in Moria? “We cannot get out. The end comes…drums, drums in the deep…they are coming.” Tolkien, in a burst of delightful nerdiness, decided one day to have craft time. The pages are made to look burnt and bloodied, and the script is written in dwarfish—it even has the pen trailing off at the end, when the goblins interrupt the scribe. I love picturing Tolkien the Oxford professor hunkered over a desk, tongue sticking out like a little boy with a coloring book while he made the pages.

Then we drove to Magdalen College, where Lewis taught. While there I saw a Twitter message from a guy named Micah Coston, who lives in Oxford. (You may remember the artist Katie Coston, his wife, who made the very first round of Rabbit Room mugs.) I’ve never met Micah or Katie, but I tweeted back that we were heading to Addison’s Walk, in case he had time to say hello. There’s nothing quite like bumping into someone you know (however tangently) when you’re on the other side of the world. We walked through Magdalen’s campus, one of the most  beautiful places I’ve ever seen, which boasted one of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen (the plaque said it was planted in 1801). We saw the great hall, where Lewis would have eaten meals, and found the windows of his classrooms.

From Surprised by Joy:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.

Then we passed through the gates to a walking path along a little river. It’s called Addison’s Walk, and it was there that Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walked one night and had a conversation that was crucial to Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.

From They Stand Together:

September 1931: He [Hugo Dyson] stayed the night with me in College… Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning… We began (in Addison’s Walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth – interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining…. We continued on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot….

We strolled the path on a beautiful summer day, and when we came around to the entrance again, there sat Micah Coston (a friend of Brannon McAllister, Justin Gerard, Corey Godbey, and some other artsy Greenville folks you may know). He very graciously walked us past Merton College and Christ Church cathedral, an impromptu tour guide with a comforting American accent. We bid farewell to Micah, then drove out to the Kilns for one of the most delightful parts of our visit.

The Kilns, where C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie lived, sits a little way out of Oxford, next to an old pond that’s now called the C.S. Lewis Nature Preserve. If you saw the film Shadowlands you may remember Anthony Hopkins strolling around the pond. I drove past it a few years ago but didn’t have time to schedule a tour; the house is now occupied by students, so you’re supposed to call ahead if you want to see it. Well, we got there and walked the nature trail, peeking awkwardly through the hedges at the house. I didn’t know exactly when we’d be in Oxford, so I couldn’t make an appointment. It was 8 p.m., and I was bummed that we had come so far and my kids couldn’t see inside the house. So I called. The woman who answered the phone was very kind and told me they were closed, but we could make an appointment for later in the week. I said, “Well, this is weird, but we’re right outside. Could we at least walk around a bit?” She said, “Meet me at the door by the path and I’ll let you in.” It was such a gift. She let us interrupt her evening and welcomed us in for an abbreviated tour.

Then we drove a quarter-mile to Trinity Church, where Lewis is buried, and snagged a few seeds from the maple tree beside his grave–we’ll see if they grow in Tennessee. A quick Google search pointed me to three of the houses where Tolkien lived. Alas, we spotted no hobbits. It was getting late, and we had a 3.5 hour drive to our lodging in Wales, so we had to bid farewell to Oxford, “the city of dreaming spires.” Four hours wasn’t nearly enough time. Four weeks would have been more like it. But we saw some amazing things and met some great people, and hopefully planted some seeds of wonder in my children’s hearts. I hope you make it to Oxford someday, and that you have more time than we did.

When you get to the Eagle and Child, there’s a note waiting for you. Look at the bookshelf to your right, just as you pass under the Rabbit Room sign. There’s a skinny white paperback book on the Trinity with a note inside. It says,

On this day, the 15th of July,  in the Year of Our Lord 2013, Andrew Peterson, Jamie Peterson, Aedan Peterson, Asher Peterson, and Skye Peterson had scrumptious food in the Rabbit Room, the Eagle and Child, Oxford, England, with gratitude to the Inklings, whose friendship and stories have shaped our lives, to the glory of God. Let fellow Rabbit Roomers sign below.

Safe travels, pilgrim. It’s a dangerous thing to go out your front door. If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where the road might take you.


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