13 August 2008

The 'Eagle and Child'

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The 'Eagle and Child' is a famous old pub in Oxford, often known to the city's students as the 'Bird and Baby'. It serves the usual range of beers, ciders, wines, and spirits along with typical British mainstays like bangers and mash, steak and ale pie and so on.

Its main claim to fame is that it was the meeting place of 'The Inklings', a group of writers active before, during and after the Second World War. 'Who were 'The Inklings'?', I hear you cry! Ah, you will already know some of the names. The pub and the writer's group may not be widely known, but the members included CS Lewis (Narnia) and JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings).

We visited Oxford on 28th July and paid a visit to 'The Eagle and Child'. It's a bit like Dr Who's Tardis, far larger inside than you expect. The street frontage is quite modest, but the pub goes back and back, room opening into room after room. It seems the Inklings met in a sitting room towards the back of the building. But we picked a little snug near the street entrance and ordered ice creams.

What a delight to sit in this place, so full of history and atmosphere. Looking around, it was quite easy to imagine Lewis and Tolkien coming round a corner deep in conversation about a proposed character for a new story.

Those two wrote such good stuff!

Tolkien's great series of books ('Lord of the Rings') about the hobbits and other characters describes a classic struggle between powerful forces for evil and weak, humble, sometimes foolish, homely country folk. The hobbits had no idea at first what they were up against, they had help along the way, mostly unlooked for. In the end they succeeded, not because they were powerful, clever or cunning but because they were weak, honest, and open. The enemy was looking for guile and strength, he overlooked simple folk without power. In the end they slipped through unnoticed, too small for the enemy to trouble with. They were courageous, selfless, and focused.

Lewis' books about Narnia are even better in my opinion. They are direct parables, written for all who will listen - children and adults alike. Tolkien's tale expresses great truths in a rather general way. But Lewis wrote much more specific stories, direct parables in which Jesus is portrayed appropriately as the great lion, Aslan. The evil queen thinks she can carry the day by killing him, yet to her astonishment and dismay he returns to life; death can't hold him, she has misunderstood the ancient law. But Aslan gave his life to rescue the condemned, knowing that everything would be put right and made new as a result.

How fascinating that these two great writers walked these floors, sat in these rooms, ate, drank, and discussed. Their other works are considerable and important. JRR Tolkien was part of the Bible translation team that created the Roman Catholic version known as the Jerusalem Bible. CS Lewis wrote many great books such as 'The Problem of Pain', 'The Four Loves', and 'Mere Christianity'. Both great scholars, both great story tellers, and both knew 'The Eagle and Child' almost as well as they knew their own homes.

It's a privilege to have been there. It's an even greater one to have been there with close friends.

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