As many of you know, the original Rabbit Room was in the back of a pub called The Eagle and Child, which was right across the street from another Inklings haunt called The Lamb and Flag. From what I read, Lewis and Tolkien changed pubs because they were annoyed that the Eagle and Child had introduced a dartboard. I happen to agree that a good pub’s goodness is due to its hospitality to good conversation. Loud music and television screens and party games have no place in the pubs of my dreams.
So the Lamb and Flag, which as I said is right across the street from the Eagle and Child, was a gathering place for four hundred years. That’s a long time for an institution to last, and we got to enjoy its timelessness a few years back. One of my favorite memories from Hutchmoot in Oxford in 2019 was of Pete and Jennifer, me and Jamie, Phillip and Lanier Ivester, and a few others gathering in the Lamb and Flag’s snug to read our poems aloud in honor of the Inklings. Another was on the last night of the conference. We finished up at about 9 p.m. The Lamb and Flag closed at 11. We all began to furiously clean up the church, running trash bags to the dumpsters, cleaning dishes, vacuuming the floors, setting up the church for Sunday services the next morning. As soon as we got the place put back together we hurried through the streets of North Oxford to the Lamb and Flag, got there a few minutes before last call, and were able to raise a pint of English ale in a toast to Christ our King, to the many people who made Hutchmoot happen, and of course to the Inklings who had in some measure inspired the whole affair a half a century before. For whatever reason, Chris Thiessen’s delightful laugh in the alley outside the pub is the thing that stands out in my mind. It’s a good memory.
But then, 2020 happened. A lot of people who care about the Inklings were saddened to hear that both the Lamb and the Eagle had shut their doors during the pandemic. Both pubs were rumored to have been closed permanently, and the Eagle and Child was supposedly going to be gutted to make room for a hotel. I couldn’t believe that these places which were so important to so many were going to be lost, just like that. I visited Oxford in 2021 and peeked through the windows of both empty, cobwebby pubs, muttering under my breath about the travesty of it all and wishing I was a millionaire so I could rescue them from certain destruction. We were in Oxford again this summer, and the pubs were still closed. I looked in the alley behind them in case they were tossing out the old benches and tables, because if they were I was absolutely going to find a way to steal one and ship it home. That these places would be forever lost, turned into a hotel lobby or a convenience store, felt so terribly sad. If a dartboard was enough to drive the Inklings out of one pub back in the day, imagine the sputtering indignance that the ghosts of the Lewis brothers, Tolkien, Williams, and the rest would have felt as their favorite haunts were pillaged and turned into soulless commercial ventures. I sputtered with them.
It’s sad when something you love fades away. It’s sad when something like the Eagle and Child, a place that felt like it would last forever, is up and gone overnight. The death of a historic pub can represent the death of a million beautiful things in our broken world. That sadness is real, and appropriate, because what we experience in those precious places is a little glimpse of the Kingdom—and then things change and you realize it wasn’t permanent at all. It was only ever a glimpse. By definition, a glimpse is fleeting. But that one rustle in the bushes, the catch in the throat, the sweet memory of laughter on a warm night with your friends—it’s enough to tell you that the Kingdom is real and on the move, and the sad truth is that when the flash of light is gone the dark can feel even darker. That’s why it’s so important to keep our eyes peeled for the white stag, the cup of cool water, the miracle of an onion as you peel it, the Psalm that rises out of scripture like a candle to bless you in the cave. We need those things, and yet those things are just signposts to the giver of all good things. They’re like streams in the woods. We need the water. It keeps us alive. But it’s also a mere stream running downhill to a river, and even the river is a mere river coursing to the open arms of the unfathomable sea. The stream is good, but it’s not the ocean. The pub is good, but it’s not our home. Our hearts are restless till they rest in God, and we are yet pilgrims to the mansion of his heart.
Our hearts are restless till they rest in God, and we are yet pilgrims to the mansion of his heart. Andrew Peterson
I say all that to say this: it’s an error to confuse the stream for the ocean, or a wayside inn for home. I have missed Hutchmoot these last few years. I’ve missed the great joy of this yearly feast. If you’ve been here before I imagine you’ve missed it too. It’s such a concentration of good and beautiful things: conversation, food, books, music, laughter, stories—all emanating from the Great Story and the Great Storyteller himself. Of course, we celebrate that. We would be fools not to. But Hutchmoot is also just as imperfect as the people running it. We’re all doing our best to make the Rabbit Room amazing, but it’s going to disappoint you. I’m going to disappoint you. We’re trying, in our broken way, to make room for a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom. And when we all come together, each with his or her gifts, each of us as eager to forgive as to be forgiven, each of us pointing the way home, then each of us can become for another that fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom.
The last few years have shaken us all. It’s disorienting when things that seem unshakeable are shaken. The Rabbit Room is most definitely shakable. What the Rabbit Room is pointing to is not. Think of the thousands in Florida who lost their homes last week. It’s literally devastating. But when that devastation happens we’re reminded of what is steadfast and truly unshakeable—as Rich Mullins sang, “everything that could be shaken was shaken, and all that remains is all I ever really had.” And what remains? The purposes of God. The reality of his Kingdom and its steady, unstoppable advance. The indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit in his people, and the presence of his people all around us, stepping into the rubble to rebuild and remake, practicing resurrection till we die into the perfection of our resurrection through his. I learned last week that a hurricane is considered to have made landfall only when the eye of the storm arrives on the shores—not when all those tendrils of the storm spin out across land for days. The bands of the storm of the kingdom of God are here, but the thing hasn’t made landfall until that peaceful eye is overhead. All creation groans with eager expectation for it. So we hammer signposts into the ground of this old world, pointing to the good storm that’s coming, and coming, and coming, and which will one day be here in its fullness.
Sometimes, a community of people comes together to recover what was lost. And that is always cause for celebration. And here we are. This morning, my dear British friend Mark Meynell texted me a link to an article. The headline was this: “The Fellowship of the Lamb: How We’re Saving Tolkien’s Pub.”
The author of the article was part of a community who banded together to resurrect the Lamb and Flag. He wrote, “As Tolkienologists will know, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, opens with Bilbo Baggins’s 111th birthday – or his eleventy-first birthday, as Bilbo put it. The new Inklings – locals, Oxford graduates and undergraduates – each paid a minimum of £1,000 for a renewable 15-year lease on the pub. I paid the minimum. Many paid much more – including one anonymous Inkling who paid for extra building work with a generous donation.”
“In 1911, a young man named Tolkien arrived at Exeter College, Oxford, to read classics. A couple of years later, he changed courses to read English language and literature, which turned out to be quite significant. We reopen our pub at 6 p.m. on Thursday 6 October 2022, which is possibly, or exactly, 111 years to the day that J.R.R. Tolkien arrived in Oxford.’
So I’m happy to report that while we were setting up this afternoon, the Lamb and Flag reopened, and the familiar sounds of clinking glasses, laughter, fellowship, and celebration filled that place once again. Hopefully, there were no dartboards. That means that literally right now in Oxford, while the proprietor is mopping up and shutting the place down for the night, we’re reopening this thing called Hutchmoot, flinging open the doors for the first time in years.
Look around you. Look into someone’s eyes. Catch a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom of God, because in the words of the late Frederick Buechner, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would barely fill a cup.”
Welcome, friends, to Hutchmoot.
May it be a glimpse of the Kingdom.