Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint

Eagle, Child, pub, Oxford, Tolkien, LewisHow often do you walk into a pub mentally dwelling on things like wizards and talking lions?  Be honest now.  If you need help with this, try stepping over the threshold of Oxford’s Eagle and Child, because it was a favourite watering-hole of close friends JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

Eagle and Child, name origin, Earl of DerbyDisappointingly, there’s nothing obviously magical about the Eagle and Child – though it does offer a captivating pint of local Brakspear’s for a paranormally reasonable price, and the barmaid is enchanting.  It has been a pub since 1650 and, before that, had a role in the Civil War (1642-49), when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and the building was either used as a pay-house or a playhouse, depending on the source of your typo.  Its name comes from the arms of the Earl of Derby, the Stanley family, who I assume had some connection with it back in the foggy mists of time.  The Eagle and Child’s long history has, however, been subordinated to the lure of its more recent fantastic literary connections.

Eagle and Child, Oxford pubs, literary connectionsJohn Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) and Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) were the two better-known members of the Inklings, an informal group of British literary buffs, most of them academics.  The Inklings – a nicely ambiguous moniker, I think – met to discuss their works and ideas, normally in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, most Thursday evenings from the late 1930s until the 1950s.  On Tuesday lunchtimes, they gathered in the Rabbit Room, the landlord’s former sitting room, at the Eagle and Child – a tradition apparently maintained until the early 1960s.  Presumably, they did what all enlightened men have done since time out of mind; they quaffed ale and solved problems, real and imagined.  Lewis recalled, “Many a golden session in front of a blazing fire, with a pint close to hand.”  During the Second World War, when thirsty American troops occasionally resulted in the beer running out, the Inklings would take themselves off to other hostelries, such as the King’s Arms or the Mitre.  When the Eagle and Child was refurbished in 1962, the Inklings apparently switched allegiance to the Lamb and Flag across the road.  Both the Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child (which the Inklings nicknamed, the Bird and Baby), are owned by St John’s College.

Rabbit Room, Eagle and Child, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, the InklingsThe Rabbit Room used to be at the back of the pub – there’s an extension now, so the room is more or less in the middle, with two, cosy, panelled rooms at the front.  I sat there, supping my Brakspear, trying to picture these giants of the written word sitting across the table nattering away about their books and beliefs.  Occasionally, one would briefly display unscholarly passion to make a particular point.  I wondered what, if any, inspiration they got from the pub – or the beer.  I read that Tollers, as his friends called him, was once so inebriated that he imagined goblins were trying to steal his wedding ring; but that sounds too good to be true.  Was Tolkien in the Bird and Baby when he dreamt up the massive eagles of Middle Earth who, amongst other things, rescued the good guys in the nick of time?  Did he see Hobbits on the way home?  I was pretty sure I did.  Was Gandalf modelled on a colleague at Merton?

I couldn’t see anything of Narnia in the bustle around me but, peering into my beer, found myself back at primary school on a dark, wet, winter’s day with Mrs McGillivray reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to a spellbound class.  The images of Lantern Waste and Mr Tumnus’ shocking disappearance are powerful, even after all those years.  Wonderful, wonderful stories.

Probably, of course, the Bird and Baby was simply exactly what we said at the start; a favourite watering-hole for close friends.  There is something undeniably cosy, conversational and blokeish about the place; I liked it very much.  Over at the next table, two young men were earnestly, very audibly, mellifluously and without any apparent embarrassment, discussing their sex lives.

“Well, I’d like to go back this summer.  There’s this girl I met.”
“Oh; did you, er..?”
“No.  Oh, no.  We were both with other people, so it was a bit awkward.  But we text and I think we probably…”

I happily dragged myself back to reality.

Pippin: “What’s that?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints?  I’m getting one.”

By the way, it was not unknown for Inspector Morse, creator of Colin Dexter (or maybe it was the other way round) to partake of a pint at the Eagle and Child as well.

Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, Thomas HardyGiven the close proximity of the Lamb and Flag across the road, it seemed rude not to pop over and sup a pint or two there, while I was in the neighbourhood. The Lamb and Flag appears to be a relatively modern establishment, having been an alehouse only since about 1695. It is named for the emblems of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of tailors and the Merchant Taylors’ Company of London, whose Master, Sir Thomas White, founded St John’s College in 1555. The pub’s profits help fund DPhil scholarships at the College, which made me feel much better about ordering more beer.

Lamb and Flag, Oxford, CAMRAPalmers' ale, Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Thomas HardyIf anything, the Lamb and Flag seemed to be more of a drinker’s pub than the Eagle and Child. It served a wonderful pint of Palmer’s (a Bridport brewer) and in 2016 was voted the best pub in Oxford by members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). Tolkien, Lewis & Co would have been in good literary company, because the story goes that Thomas Hardy largely wrote his last novel, Jude the Obscure, there. This is not a book I know, though based on the synopsis I have just read it strikes me as being a thoroughly depressing yarn; enough to turn a chap to drink.

St Johns College, Oxford, Eagle and Child, Lamb and FlagLamb and Flag, St John the Baptist, Merchant Taylors Company, St John's College, Oxford

24 thoughts on “Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint

  1. Andrea

    Another fantastic post that I nearly missed. Being a huge fan of Tolkien and Lewis, I imagine I would be enthralled in that pub, especially after a pint. I’m adding so many names to my list of places to visit, I’m going to have move over there for a spell.

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – having been in the Eagle and Child relatively recently on Freshers’ Day – it was pretty busy and there was a complete buzz about full of busy student bees – actually probably all As or *As … next time I visit – I’ll go to the Lamb and Flag – looks more peaceful. Though Jude the Obscure looks to be a rather troubling read … one I shall miss.

    I love Oxford … and one day will return and spend many a happy day there exploring … I was there recently to see the Bodleian and its new extension … cheers Hilary

  3. quinn

    Well, I feel I must carry the flag (see what I did there?) for Thomas Hardy, who became an Author of Interest to me when saw Jude the Obscure dramatized as a series on education television here is the US. I was about 15 at the time, so probably quite dramatic myself! Over the next decade or two I read the Wessex novels, and could probably still quote sections if provided with a pint of Palmer’s – just to keep my throat from going dry, you know.
    Full disclosure: Hardy loses me completely with his poetry. I think he has quite an eye for human nature and a talent for translating it into text, but the poetry is just so much noise to me. Undoubtedly a flaw on my part!

  4. Ellen

    Loved this post and read it out loud to Dear who is sitting across the way humoring me and being humored by your post. We have enjoyed a pint or two at the Eagle and Child twice in our lives. Once in 2004 and more recently in 2014. We are huge fans of Tolkien and Lewis. In our 2004 trip we were taking our daughter on a literary tour of England and she chose the author’s haunts that we would visit. She didn’t let us leave Oxford or the outskirts until we found Tolkien’s grave amongst other landmarks…

  5. Tina

    All those authors have been read and reread at our house. Middle Earth and Narnia were part of my son’s teen years and reading. What a great place to visit.

  6. Sarah

    Those are great names for pubs and it was so interesting to hear about their past drinkers! Glad you enjoyed the Palmers beer, we had a tour around the brewery recently which was very good! When we were in Dublin we visited the pub where the Dubliners used to play a priest sitting at the bar added to the atmosphere! Sarah x

  7. Judy@CranberryMorning

    We’ll have to try out The Lamb & Flag when we’re there in early October. Definitely returning to Eagle & Child. I’m probably the only person on Earth who couldn’t get into Tolkien, but I love C.S. Lewis and the fictional Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour. Great timing on your post! ☺️

  8. April Munday

    My nephew, who’s at Oxford, showed me the lamppost which is apparently the model for the lamppost at Lantern Waste. It’s near New College. Since it looks like all the other lampposts in that part of Oxford I’m not sure how they know. I’m grateful for your drinking recommendation. I shall be visiting Oxford in the autumn and we’ll doubtless need a pint.

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