(Religion Unplugged) — I felt the rush of wings as we alighted to the ground. The air and the sky all looked and felt the same, yet I knew I’d stepped into a different world. I jumped up to take my luggage from the overhead compartment. Instead of a giant eagle, I’d come on a plane. The great green Hobbit house door was instead an airplane hatch. Though my feet weren’t furry, I knew I was due for an adventure.
I’d arrived in the United Kingdom for a 5-week summer study-abroad program with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. My short adventure would begin, and part of my quest was to learn more about a couple of my literary heroes along the way, all while studying environmental policy and scientific history.
My favorite fantasy settings were created by J.R.R. Tolkien, who lived and worked in Oxford for many years. He was a brilliant linguistics scholar at Oxford University and practically the father of the high fantasy genre. His magnum opus, “The Lord of the Rings,” is beautiful and compelling in proportions that may never be repeated. Even today, 50 years after Tolkien’s death and 20 years after the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster Hollywood film adaptations, “Rings of Power” is already the most successful Amazon Prime series premiere of all time.
One of Tolkien’s best friends was C.S. Lewis, the famous Oxford literature professor, Christian apologist and author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. Their classmates, family members and fellow writers comprised a group called the Inklings, a writers’ group who met at the various taverns and libraries around Oxford during the 1930s and 1940s. For the foreseeable future, I would be eating, drinking and studying in their shadows.
An uncertain place
While many have heard of Oxford University, few know that Oxford itself is a town, the only town in the county of Oxfordshire. While technically considered a city, the 2020 census only recorded 151,000 residents.
One of my classmates and I split an Uber from the London Heathrow Airport to our dorm. We packed too much and, when waiting for our Uber, were nearly run over by our own driver — he was driving a Tesla, and we didn’t hear the engine. As we left Heathrow, and eventually London altogether, I rolled down the window. I let my hair blow in the cool summer wind. Less than an hour into our drive, we sensed no large buildings or skyscrapers — just the sound of sheep, the smell of trees and the faraway sights of a rolling green country under a swift sunset.
A mid-sized Victorian mansion had been converted into our dormitory. Its original owner, Sydney Howard Vines, served as a botany professor at Oxford from 1888 through the end of World War I. The house was built for him in 1890 and today it is fittingly called the Vines. Yes, ivy is growing up the back wall.
In the first two days, we adjusted very easily to our new home. The nearest stores and pharmacies were in Headington, a suburb of sorts in east Oxford. None of the iconic university grounds or libraries are in Headington. For the briefest moment, though my surroundings were beautiful, I asked myself, “Is this it?”
Lewis also entered Oxford in the summer term, 105 years before I did. Many of his personal feelings and experiences were recorded in his book “Surprised by Joy.” In one such excerpt, Lewis entered Oxford via the railway, and his first impression was likewise underwhelming. “As I walked on and on I became more bewildered,” he wrote. “Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose.”
That was before I took the bus into town, an experience in its own right. I walked up to the driver and said “For one, please.”
“Where ya headed, sir?”
“Where’re you stoppin’?”
“Oh, ermmm, Oxford?”
“That’s not a stop. You’re in Oxford.”
There was a queue forming behind me. I stepped out, flustered, and asked my advisor where we were going.
“We’re going to City Center.”
I stepped back into the queue.
“One to City Center, please.”
“One-way or return?”
The driver closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Are ya coming back here? If yes, it’s City Center, return. If you aren’t comin’ back on a Brookes bus, it’s City Center, one-way. Now, one-way or return?”
“City Center return, sorry sir.”
Surprised by quiet
It was uncommonly warm in Oxford that year, even for the middle of summer. As I slowly sweltered on the second floor of the bus, that’s when I saw it. That’s when I truly saw Oxford for the first time. Everything had a golden limestone shine. Throngs of students in black gowns strode through the streets to their next exam. I glimpsed the patina dome of the Radcliffe Camera library, the iconic “Radcam” through an alley near High Street. There were churches and crosses everywhere.
In “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis wrote, “Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. … I was soon at tea in comfortable surroundings. The house is still there, the first on the right as you turn into Mansfield Road out of Holywell.”
That very house is still there. It isn’t far from the King’s Arms tavern, which I passed every week biking into town by way of University Park. Holywell Street, Bath Place, Mansfield Road — it’s all still there. Following Lewis’s footsteps was fairly easy, considering the “younger” parts of Oxford are older than the United States.
Living in England is not very difficult for an American: Standards of living are relatively high, everyone speaks English and the legal system is very similar. Even then, many elements of this world were alien to me. First, despite being a 10-minute walk from east Oxford, and despite being flanked by multiple large colleges —at this point the school year had not ended for full-time Oxford students — everything was so quiet.
It’s not as if the people were quiet. Turn any corner and you could hear a biker panting, parents taking an ice lolly from their misbehaving child, an old man complaining about Margaret Thatcher as if no one had told him she died years ago. No, it wasn’t the people who were quiet. It was the cars. Day after day, unless it was rush hour, the streets were half-empty. Everyone either rode a bike or took the bus, including me and my schoolmates. Half the cars on the road were electric. This resulted in a bustling yet oddly serene atmosphere.
Every house had a garden. The most mundane things had such cute, nursery-rhyme names. Q-tips were cotton buds, popsicles were ice lollies. Instead of “see something, say something” it was, “see it, say it, sort it.” Most entertaining of all, certain local shops tried to co-opt American culture. It was not uncommon to see adverts for “Detroit-style pizza” or menus offering “American-style breakfasts.” One day I even passed a busker singing, of all things, country music.
Following footsteps of giants
In our first week, my classmates and I were issued cards to the Bodleian Library, one of the largest libraries in the world. Its most iconic building is the RadCam, right in City Center. For such a beautiful structure, it inspired J.R.R Tolkien in a surprisingly sinister way. In “The Notion Club Papers,” a “fictional biography” of sorts, Tolkien mentions that the RadCam resembles Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Nümenor.
J.R.R. Tolkien, unlike me, was every inch an academic. He came to Oxford in the fall semester of 1911 and graduated from Exeter College in 1915 with first-class honors. Even today, Exeter is one of the best colleges in Oxford.
Like Lewis, he also served in World War I. In the summer of 1916, he was stationed in France. Tolkien would later write that “junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.”
Upon his return to England after the war, Tolkien threw himself into his academic and linguistic work. While I hadn’t the fortune of seeing it in-person, I read digital excerpts from the “Red Book of Hergest,” a compilation of Welsh poetry and history. Readers well-versed in “The Lord of the Rings” may notice a resemblance to the “Red Book of Westmarch,” a fictional compilation of Middle Earth poetry and history composed by hobbits.
It was during this same period, roughly 1926, when Tolkien would meet C.S. Lewis.
Prior to this point, the famous apologist had been an atheist. Despite this, Lewis and Tolkien became friendly almost immediately. Often Lewis, Tolkien and their other mutual friends would become absorbed in thoughtful conversation lasting hours. Eventually the subject would shift to Lewis’ faith, a subject that increasingly concerned Tolkien as their friendship developed.
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen (College, Oxford),” Lewis explained, “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 the 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 England.”
In the early 1930s, Lewis, Tolkien and their associates began to pursue literary as well as academic work. This group coalesced into the Inklings, and members would frequently read unfinished material to their fellow members. This included C.S. Lewis’ younger brother Warren and even Tolkien’s son, Christopher. One of my professors, Jonathan Kirkpatrick, noted that Tolkien was apparently a very dull narrator. Whenever Tolkien presented a new chapter from “The Lord of the Rings,” the Inklings dearly hoped Christopher would read aloud instead of his father.
Finding my own Inklings
Despite embracing my stay in Oxford with zeal, I stubbornly refused to be a tourist. I would enjoy various parks and small shops in passing, only occasionally stopping to fully absorb a famous museum or library. In the meantime, my classmates passionately explored every attraction they could, posthaste. While we all took part in communal trips and activities, loneliness crept in as days turned to weeks.
I’d taken incredible comfort and solace from the young adults group I attended every week back in America. One day, I began looking for churches in the local area hosting small groups. Eventually I found one: Summer Thesis, hosted by St. Ebbe’s Church. Here, many of my associates were in post-grad. It is no exaggeration to say that every individual I met at St. Ebbe’s was friendly, full of integrity and exceedingly intelligent. Many were studying law or neuroscience, or were already working in clinical laboratories or law firms. In an odd sort of way, I’d stumbled upon my own band of Inklings. The experience was truly humbling, and I arrived none too soon: The program would be over in just a couple of weeks.
To celebrate the completion of our studies, one of my classmates and I attended a comedy show on Little Clarendon Street.
“This is my first time in Oxford,” the comic explained with a smile. “I passed the big RadCam and saw some workmen in hi-vis (high-visibility clothing), right on the dome. ‘How’d you get all the way up there?’ I asked, and one of them shouted back, ‘Through academic excellence!’”
Since it was late, we walked back to the dormitory together. This classmate (let’s call her Kara), was studying psychology. Bibliotherapy (the relief of various anxiety or depression symptoms through reading) captured her particular interest. Oxford is almost a totally different city at night. In a place like New York, it’s uncommon for a restaurant to close before 9 p.m. In Oxford, most shops shutter their shades before 7 p.m. By 10 p.m., everything is closed. Kara and I walked and talked through University Park for a very long time. I’m almost certain we intentionally, subconsciously made our journey last longer to prolong our conversation. To this day, that one night likely holds some of the best memories of my entire stay. Kara is a gifted woman, and she will certainly enjoy incredible success in her pursuits. Despite all that, my sleep was troubled that night. I would be leaving soon.
End of a quest
I counted the days. I didn’t want the end of the program to sneak up on me. That was a mistake. The day I was due to leave, my flight was canceled that morning. It was so unbearably hot, the tarmac at Heathrow had started to buckle, necessitating cancellations. No other flights were available for another two days. Fortunately, the program staff had no issue with me staying. It should have been an occasion for rejoicing, yet I felt like a man on borrowed time.
After living the fastest month I’d ever lived, those two days were probably the longest. I’d written 5,000 words’ worth of essays and given two presentations in that week alone. Each morning I had a plan upon a plan: what to do, when to do it — no deviations. Now, it was 9 a.m … and that was it. No meeting to rush to on my bike. No presentation. No field trip.
I strolled to the bus stop. No one else was there. I flagged down the bus.
“City Center, return.” I slipped two quid through the port and took my ticket. “Cheers,” I said, walking upstairs. It was stifling inside. My hair stuck to my sweaty forehead — not what I had in mind when relatives told me England was wet. I bought some souvenirs for my parents and friends, then bid farewell to the new companions I’d met at St. Ebbes’ Church.
The next morning, it was finally time to go home. I was ready. I was happy, even. Yet … I felt a little hollow. I knew I was leaving a piece of myself behind.
Lewis’ first stay in Oxford was short-lived like mine. However, I came home to continue my education in America. Lewis left home as a second lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry to fight in World War I. During his time as an officer, Lewis would experience trench warfare. He would be wounded, and some of his friends killed by artillery fire, including friendly fire. It was not glorious or honorable. Lewis was severely homesick and depressed. The decades following his return would be some of the best in his life. Every measure of his life would change: He would become Christian, begin writing novels and eventually die as one of the best apologists in the world. All of this began when Lewis first traveled to Oxford. I felt ready to go home, yet so very reluctant to leave. I’d only experienced a small inkling of adventure.
Well … I’m back.
by Evan Louey-Dacus, a senior at The King’s College in New York City, where he majors in politics, philosophy and economics, serves as opinion editor at The Empire State Tribune and is the president of the debate team. He is also an intern at The Media Project.