At 10.15 I arrived at the Bodleian Library, one of the most famous and prestigious libraries in the world. Nearly all the day’s guided tours were already sold out, so I was glad that I’d booked online a few weeks ago. I was excited about the tour, but it ended up surpassing all my expectations.
I was given a sticker, and asked to wait on a bench in the Divinity School. (This is the name of a large room on the ground floor.) I recognised the unusual ceiling, as I knew this room had been used in the Harry Potter films as Madam Pomfrey’s infirmary. (Harry’s adventures often ended up with someone needing medical attention, after all.) Our guide, Naomi, gave everyone in the group amplifiers, so that we could all hear her, without her having to raise her voice. (It is a library after all!) We began by exploring the Divinity School, learning about its fascinating past. The ceiling was even more ornate and interesting than photographs I’d seen suggested, and my eyes kept being drawn upward as I listened. Naomi was engaging and knowledgeable, the other visitors friendly and attentive, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I was unprepared, however, for the next stage of the tour.
Naomi led us up a staircase, explaining the history of the next place we would see: Duke Humphrey’s Library. This is a large upper room, the oldest reading room in Oxford University. As I walked into this historic space, I found myself quite overcome, and welling up with tears, a reaction I hadn’t expected at all. I was taken by surprise at the strength of my response. The room was so beautiful, so precious, so significant. It represented a love of learning, and of sharing learning, everything good about culture and civilisation. It was like the Plato’s Forms ideal version of a library, the library I somehow felt I knew without ever having been there. (And, of course, it is also the Harry Potter films’ Hogwarts library, including the restricted section. Books were actually chained to the shelves – although this was due to their value, not their magical powers.) I thought immediately of Sam Tarly entering Oldtown Library on Game of Thrones. I felt like I probably had the same expression on my face.
A woman dressed in sportswear appeared, looking quite incongruous in this ancient place, showed her security pass, and wandered off to get on with some reading. I don’t think I’ve ever been so envious. Naomi explained how the library had been created, where the books had come from, why they were chained, why they were made of certain materials and so on. It was fascinating. I asked about the Inklings’ links to the Bodleian, and she asked me whether I could name any Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien, as she’d momentarily forgotten their names. I felt like I was channelling Hermione Granger as I listed them off, then for some unaccountable reason got embarrassed and turned bright red. She jokingly suggested I give a presentation on the subject, and I turned redder still. She also tipped me off about some Faun carvings next to a lamppost which she thought would interest me.
After some time, we returned to the Divinity School, and through it entered the Convocation House, a room which definitely evoked the Wizengamot. Naomi described Charles I sitting in the royal seat and demanding loyalty from the assembled college masters, as roundheads made their way through Oxford. It was another room full of history, and so interesting I could have stayed much longer and listened to more stories. (The standard tour takes an hour, but I’d have happily doubled the time spent in the library.)
Last of all, we went through another doorway into the Chancellor’s Court, where Oscar Wilde was once tried for debts owed. Again, there were lots of interesting stories attached to the place. One lady, on the tour with her Harry-Potter-fan grandson, told us about her husband’s involvement in a political protest in the 1960s, when he and a number of other students had occupied the room.
As the tour ended, I thanked Naomi, She mentioned that she’d noticed my tears on entering Duke Humphrey’s Library. She told me that it’s not an unusual reaction, and that one Japanese lady cried quietly throughout the entire tour. I felt a little less foolish knowing that.
The Bodleian is a phenomenal place with a rich history. It represents freedom of speech, and the desire to acquire, share and preserve knowledge. And it’s almost Hogwarts.I can’t wait to go back.