Friday, March 12, 2010

A Real Wonderland

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
(Editor’s note: This article is another reflection by Chip Schrader on literary aspects of places he visited and things he learned during a recent trip to Europe.)
A stereotypical rainy day in Oxford, England that a local shopkeeper ironically calls “exotic” makes the perfect setting for visiting one of the greatest literary landmarks in the English-speaking world. Christ Church College sprawls along the outskirts of downtown Oxford boasting gated gardens around it, and a courtyard and fountain that New Englanders often see only in their dreams.
Referenced in literary works by Shakespeare, Yeats, Lewis Carroll, Phillip Pullman, and most currently, J.K. Rowling, the entryway and halls were used as the filming location for the first two Harry Potter films. The Dining Hall just beyond the stairs is where Oxford’s greatest dined: Isaac Newton, William Penn, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and several Prime Ministers, most of whom are represented among the hundreds of portraits that line the walls. This legendary room also inspired the majestic Great Hall at Hogwarts, only slightly smaller, where the students ate and were assigned to their groups by the sorting hat.
While penniless, Rowling drew inspiration from numerous English fantasy novels after a four hour wait at the Manchester train station. She infused the influences of many authors who walked within these corridors, thus, Harry Potter was born. In Christ Church, it is obvious to the visitor that the Harry Potter stories and settings provided a realm where Rowling’s struggles transported her to a place where she could mingle with Britain’s most influential people, something she herself would soon be after a stint of being on welfare to get her teaching certification.
But, Christ Church’s modern day significance does not halt there. Among the gardens with little doorways and stone walls was where Lewis Carroll had met Alice Dodgson, the young daughter of Oxford’s dean. As this shy mathematician spent his hours with his friend Alice and her siblings, he was inspired to write “Alice in Wonderland.” Because of this book that has been adapted for the screen numerous times, and recently with Tim Burton’s version focusing on the Mad Hatter premiering this past weekend, it is difficult not to feel transported away from reality when looking at the gardens and yards where such curious characters roamed.
Within the Dining Hall, there is a small doorway that visitors will stumble upon. It was this very doorway Carroll hid behind as his social tolerance weakened. It was that very transformative doorway that made numerous appearances in numerous forms within his book.
Across the street from the Cathedral, is Alice’s Shop. According to their website, in Lewis Carroll’s time, this shop was a small grocery store, but in his book this was transformed into “The Old Sheep Shop” where Alice would reach for an item, and it would mysteriously drift away. Today it is an “Alice in Wonderland” themed souvenir shop where tea cloths, card decks, and prints are among the items they offer featuring the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Alice and several other characters.
According to the Guardian, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland broke records with a $116.3 million opening weekend. The film stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Meanwhile, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” is slated to be released in the United States November 19th, and while doesn’t cite Christ Church College as a filming location, the Dining Hall will always be an icon of the film series.
Photo caption: The grounds of Christ Church in Oxford, England. (Chip Schrader photo)