How 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.
Disappointingly, 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.
John 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.
The 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.
Given 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.
If 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.