In England this year, we have needed magic as never before. Until I moved to Oxford, I didn’t believe in magic. As a rational person who believes in science and logic, how could I?
Gradually, over the years, walking though Oxford’s ancient streets and ruins, in its whispering gardens and through its hushed religious spaces, the magic has seeped into my bones. Even the modern spaces are imbued with magic – whoever has tried to get to the gallery on 4M in the Ashmolean museum will have a real understanding of what Alice experienced through the looking glass. The newly built Weston library, an addition to the ancient Bodleian Libraries, is full of simmering, suppressed echoing whispers escaping from the books and bouncing off every modern, marble surface.
Spend enough time in Oxford and I know you will feel it. Witches, wizards and other magical beings walk the streets, in broad day light. Look between the tourists – you will see them – either struggling to fit into the non-magical population or given up trying and wearing their magical garb in its full glory. You may catch a glimpse of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a Norse god riding a bike up to Summertown or, in broad daylight, a wizard, in shorts, wellington boots and sunglasses, with tennis racket and bucket of chestnuts, casting a spell from the apex of a rainbow bridge.
Huge wooden doors, framed with heavy iron and set into impenetrable stone walls greet you at every turn. Tiny violets, half hidden from the eye, peep out from impossible cracks in sandstone battlements, bright and fair as stars. Gargoyles, golden fauns, enigmatic statues hover just outside your field of vision.
You won’t be visiting Oxford anytime soon so I wanted to share with you this ancient magic in the best way I can. The physical manifestation of magic, especially the type of magic you find in Oxford, is in stories – both ancient and modern. The ancient stories of magic, fairy tales and tales of wonder, have been shared as exquisite enchanted treasure through oral tradition from one generation to another since before writing. The best casket to store these jewels in, is the mind. Absorb these stories so that you can tell them yourself, and you absorb something of the ancient magic that originated them.
If you are too drained and weary to start telling stories – just read them or even better, have them read to you. Not the sanitised versions – it’s the original folklore – the oral tradition told to scribes such as the brothers Grimm – that hold the real magic.
In the original story, the ugly sisters do not make it up with their step-sister; ambitious beyond measuring, they hack their own toes off with a blade so that they can fit the slipper- a bloody and painful mutilation deemed a worthy price for lifelong social status and wealth. Their punishment – being slowly blinded by a bird, at Cinderella’s wedding. Cinderella, fair and meek, can gloat privately over their ugliness.
The modern stories give us the next chapter. Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t disappear from fury. A man who bargains to take a newly born child isn’t the type to dissolve if the bargain has been thwarted. Indeed, there are many modern versions of Rumpelstiltskin that tell us the next chapter of that tragic and bitter tale.
So, my friends, my present to you is to encourage you to find magic this Christmas, within your own four walls, and let your mind soar across time and space.
Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:
The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (Penguin Classics) – Philip Pullman
Spinning Silver -Naomi Novik
The Green Man’s Heir – Juliet E. McKenna
Picture: Section of cover art by paper artist Cheong-ah Hwang from the cover of Grimm Tales: For Young and Old by Philip Pullman