Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts!

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Have you ever found yourself in a particular place and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and coloured school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense.

Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.

When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different colleges or communities in which students live and study all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is, in fact, evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold. However, I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within.

As we walked away from the theatre, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

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My target, however, was the second largest library in Britain – the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the UK. Over 11 million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it was Hogwarts! Literally.

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The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set through-out four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College

Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

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Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the Divinity School, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed.

Just a side-note… the official head of Oxford University is called the chancellor, while the vice-chancellor is the one who organises central administration and the in-house professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

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Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All Souls, Queens, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien.

On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centred in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century. It offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and handcrafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which college I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’… so says Prof McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time. And those same steps we see on screen are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College.

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The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this college. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures – from Alice herself to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

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Christ Church Dining Hall was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-panelled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio.

The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as The Alice in Wonderland Shop. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colourful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot pre-viously filled by Alice Liddell’s favourite candy shop.

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The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cosies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice aficionado, prepare your cheque book!

This article of mine was published on The Sunday Times of Malta on 23.10.2016 – http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20161023/travel/Oxford-University-the-real-Hogwarts.628830

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New Article BY MOI – Did Hobbits really Exist??

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It was 2003 when a team of researchers found her – a woman whose bones were 18,000 years old and whose skull was less than one-third the size of our own. This was the woman to be nick-named ‘the Hobbit’, after J. R. R. Tolkien’s renowned book of the same name.

Led by anthropologist Peter Brown and archaeologist Michael Morwood of the Australia’s University of New England, the team was excavating a limestone cave on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia when they discovered a nearly complete skeleton estimated to be about 1.06m (3ft 6inches) tall. The partial skeletons of nine other individuals, all of them less than 1.09 metres in height, were also found.

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The hobbits of Flores created a storm among anthropologists, causing them to question previous assumptions about evolution and human origins, since they could not actually determine whether these humanoids represented a species distinct from ‘modern’ humans, that is, Homo Sapiens, since they seemed to have existed in the world in the same space of time, yet were distinctly different physiologically and anatomically. The ‘hobbits’, or as they are actually called scientifically the ‘Homo Floresiensis’ are remarkable in that even though they had a very small body and brain, they not only could craft and use sophisticated stone implements, which were found in the cave with them, but also lived until relatively recent times – as recently as 12,000 years ago, making them the longest lasting non-modern human species, surviving long past the Neanderthals.

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It is thought that during the most recent glacial period, these Hominids were left isolated on Flores due to high sea levels. This led discoverers to believe that the species or its ancestors could only have reached the isolated island in the first place through water transport, perhaps using bamboo rafts, which would further point out their mental abilities, as well as prompt scientists to believe that they could communicate and had a language, since they obviously needed to cooperate with each other to reach their destination. The isolation of the island is a factor which, many believe, led to the evolution of this different species, if such it is. There exist in fact, a huge number of theories which try to explain this so-far unknown strand of the human evolution tree.

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The ongoing dispute concerns the issue of whether Homo Floresiensis is actually a species in and of itself (like Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens), or whether the skeletons found belonged to a group of people who were merely suffering from some type of condition or mutated syndrome. Critics of the claim for species status have put forth several hypotheses – one of these for example, states that the limited food supply in such a confined environment could have caused the body of a Homo Erectus group to evolve a smaller body, and therefore suffer from dwarfism. Anatomist Gary Richards on the other hand, introduced a new sceptical theory stating that the unearthed skeletons might have belonged to a group of people suffering from Laron syndrome, which is a genetic disorder causing a short stature and a small skull. There were even those who thought that these traits could be attributed to ‘modern humans’ (that is, Homo Sapiens) with Down Syndrome.

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The main argument of those who support the idea that the Indonesian hobbit is a species in and of itself, mainly describe the fact that the bone structure found in the skeletons’ shoulders, arms and wrists are very different from those which stemmed from the Homo Sapiens, being much more similar to the bone structure of chimpanzees or earlier hominids. This supports the theory that the Flores hobbits were a separate species of early human, stemming perhaps, from the Homo Habilis, rather than a group of Homo Sapiens with a physical disorder.

In 2012, an American film studio was going to release a movie entitled ‘Age of the Hobbits’ which depicted a community of Homo Floresiensis, and was scheduled to be released right after Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’. The studio was embroiled in a lawsuit for copyright infringement, and ordered by court not to use the word ‘hobbit’. The film was instead released under the title ‘Clash of the Empires’.
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—— A version of this article appeared on the online magazine EVE – http://www.eve.com.mt/2015/08/01/did-hobbits-really-exist-in-indonesia/

Epic-Fantasy Nerd Moment

Ever since I picked up ‘The Sword of Shannara’ around 8/9 years ago, I’ve had this naggy feeling about it. The novel (I admit I hardly managed to finish the first one) was a complete copy (minus the good writing that is) of Tolkien’s ‘LOTR’ and nothing more. Enter the usual metaphorical nerd-grumbling in my head. I researched online and asked about it and everyone seemed to have enjoyed reading it, not to mention staring blankly at me when I criticized it as being a Tolkien-wannabe.

Flash-forwards to a week ago, where suddenly someone I know commented negatively on Terry Brooks and his plagiarism. Miraculously, I could hear a chorus of angels singing ‘Halleluljah’ in soprano and treble. Someone else with a brain!

Then this morning, I stumbled on this – http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/05/neil-gaiman-kazuo-ishiguro-interview-literature-genre-machines-can-toil-they-can-t-imagine  !!

An interview with the MASTER Neil Gaiman who while describing said books said ‘And then you had people like Terry Brooks, who wrote a book called The Sword of Shannara, which was essentially a Lord of the Rings clone by somebody not nearly as good, but it sold very well.’…. YES YES EXACTLY!! THANK YOU!!images (1)

Sorry Mr Brooks, I know I’m not a great book-selling writer, but REALLY… I’m a reader and in this case, that’s what matters, since it is people like me who are the most qualified to actually say whether they enjoyed your work or not.

Anyone who wants to read the whole interview – it is really brilliant, though quite long 😀

‘The Hobbit’ – Is it too much??

Apparently, there is a lot of grumbling and criticism around the net regarding the character of Legolas and his improbable feats in the last installment of ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Yes Legolas the elvish Prince jumps, leaps, and almost flies all over the place. He travels by borrowing airborne lifts from evil bats, climbs crumbling steps while they drop in the void, pirouettes over the heads of orcs and monsters, and shoots arrows which find their mark, while climbing, running, and vaulting over improbable surfaces at incredible speed.

And that is not realistic.

Seriously, you are watching a legendary tale which is happening in a non-existent land where elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits, orcs, ents, goblins, wizards, and a number of other races intermingle, where magic is a well-known force, where immortal beings are the order of the day… and you expect realism?? lol

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However, awesome fantasy apart, the greatness of an epic fantasy writer and creator is to write about fantastical worlds and yet impose on them understandable limits, laws of nature, as well as an emphasis on the characters’ consequences for their actions, much like in the ‘real world’. This is what Tolkien did, and this is why most people seem to find Legolas’ feats extreme. And I can understand that.

However the viewers seem to be forgetting one important thing.

LEGOLAS IS AN ELF.

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He is not a human being and is therefore not limited by a human’s physical boundaries. Tolkien describes elves as having heightened hearing and senses, their voices can reach pitches that human voices can’t, they are lights which can pierce the Dark One’s shadow, they are lovers of nature and at one with it, they can see the hidden signs in leaf and tree and cloud, and they are immortal – meaning that they have accumulated an immense amount of knowledge, patience and other traits in the eons they have been alive. Therefore yes, elves can perform feats that humans cannot. They can heal with a few words, sing magic, create metals and artifacts which are beyond ‘normal’, etc, etc.

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While watching the movie (twice) I gasped and gawped at Legolas’ improbable jumps and leaps myself, however I accepted the fact that he was an elf warrior, and as such not only physically capable of them, but also trained from birth as a prince and a lord to feats of arms, and since he is immortal, ‘from birth’ probably means that his training had gone on for hundreds of years.

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I will say it again and again, I am so sorry that Tolkien died before writing more about the elves! Sure we have the LOTR trilogy, the Hobbit, and the Silmarillion, as well as his ‘Unfinished Tales’, but none of these solely focus on the elves as much as I would wish.

2015 – What shall I read next?

I keep seeing book-lists and challenges for 2015, mainly people promise themselves to read books by author with diverse ethnic origins, autobiographies, historical tomes or disadvantaged individuals. I thought about doing my own list, but it seemed pointless to wrap myself up in cellophane and limit myself so much, especially when I already know that there are a number of books waiting on the shelf, freshly bought, which I have not read yet.

So, instead of making a list of books I ‘SHOULD’ read, I’m making one listing the books I am sure I WILL ACTUALLY read.

1. The Blood Knight – Greg Keyes – right now I’m finishing ‘The Charnel Prince’, which is the second book of the quartet ‘The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone’. It will be finished by tomorrow at the latest, so this is what comes after.

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2. The Born Queen – Greg Keyes – Quartet book number 4

3. Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett – bought this last weekend and I can’t wait to start it.

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4. Stardust – Neil Gaiman – it’s been a long time in coming, bought it last weekend as well ❤

5. The Silmarillion – J. R. R. Tolkien – I know, I know, but better late then never right?

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6. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn – I already read this in 2012, but after watching the movie I MUST re-read it again 🙂

7. The White Queen – Philippa Gregory – some time ago I came across a tiny bookshop which sells really cheap secondhand books, it hardly had anything I liked, and then I discovered a treasure trove of Gregory’s books. I had already devoured The Wideacre Trilogy and the Tudor series ages ago, so I bought the first 5 novels which make up the Cousin War series. Still gotta get the last one, published in 2014. The next 4 novels are the other books in the series.

8. The Red Queen – PG

9. The Lady of the Rivers -PG

10. The Kingmaker’s Daughter – PG

11. The White Princess – PG

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12. Prince Lestat – Anne Rice – I’m currently waiting for this one to come out in paperback.

I’m guessing that will take care of the first two/three months of the year for sure. After that… who knows? Bookdepository is my oyster ;p

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