As I’m typing this blog post I am sitting on a train departing from London’s Kings Cross station and bound for the north of England—for the next two hours I will watch the English countryside passing by outside the window. To me this is an utterly ordinary morning, a weekly commute from my part-time home in London to my main residence in York. And yet there’s still a glimmer of something more, a hint of magic lingers in my imagination, irrevocably connected to this land of so many beloved stories from my childhood. It’s too late in the year to find witches and wizards catching the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross, but if I look closely at the countryside I’m almost certain I could spot a few fairies, maybe a hobbit hole hidden in the rolling hills.
Earlier this month, I read an article in The Atlantic about the magic of British children’s stories. The magic and cosy wonder of such stories—The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Harry Potter—is inextricably linked with the landscape as well as the culture of the British Isles. Even the legend of England’s national heritage is mystical, King Arthur and Merlin and a magic sword.
I sometimes wonder if my life in England is really a fulfilment of the childhood fantasies inspired in me from such classic stories. My real life in England is far from magical, but there is something here. Even the modern-day population of England honours the power of stories—England is not just a country steeped in literary history, but is a leader in creating new literature and stories (see this). To walk into a bookshop in London is to be immediately immersed in piles upon piles of stories whereas the entrance of a standard bookstore like Barnes & Noble in America is cluttered up with tablets and games and music and colouring books…and the reason is simple, Brits buy books (interesting article here). England has managed to keep their stories alive in modern culture. The BBC Radio 4 (the UK's NPR) broadcasts actors reading various books in instalments every night on the popular Book at Bedtime program. Even the television is literary—the primetime slot on a Sunday night, reserved for the ever-popular Kardashians in America (or maybe an evening football game), is often dedicated to literary adaptations on the BBC like And Then There Were None, War & Peace, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, etc.
England is a land of stories—stories of wonder, not stories of morals (in contrast with moralist tales like American classics Huckleberry Finn, Little Women). I love so much about this country, but this might be the most important part. I first fell in love with England while studying at Oxford, perhaps the most evocative of great stories and fantasy. Whenever friends or family come to visit I insist on spending a day in Oxford, seeking out the most mythical parts of the city—the Eagle & Child pub where Tolkien and Lewis spent their evenings together, the courtyard where Lewis Carroll first told Alice’s story, the great halls and settings recognisable as Hogwarts.
These days I don’t find myself noticing many of the magical parts of England. I’ve settled into the ordinariness of the country, the every-day normalness of tea and shopping and commuting and work. I complain about the weather and public transport. I find in perfectly natural to say things like 'bin' and 'pavement' and 'trousers' and 'queue'. It's not all so quaint as I once imagined. It's just daily life. But I know the secret, magical life of this land is always there just beneath the surface, and I can always find it when I pick up my favourite books. Or when I leave behind the mundane life of the city and return to the mythical beauty of England's countryside.
I count myself very lucky to have had 4+ years in England to make my own stories here. I never tire of reading England's stories and I hope never to tire of living them either. Of course when I move back across the pond (if I ever do), I'll never really leave this place. I wouldn't be who I am today if not for stories like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. England capture my imagination when I was just a little girl and I've been entranced ever since. It's funny how stories can make a place so much more than you could ever guess upon first glance. I guess that's why we read - to discover new places and to feel the magic that we never knew was hidden there.