At Brasenose College at the University of Oxford there is a famous chapel with an unknown secret door. It’s in the high wooden wall that separates the entrance narthex from the chapel proper, to the right of the stairs that lead up to the massive organ that rises to the gorgeous fan-vault ceiling.
You can’t see the hidden door. It’s seamless within the rest of the panels, but if you look really closely there’s a tiny latch.
Inside, you see that it’s a small closet, also made of wood. Nothing special — storage for cleaning supplies. You see a broom, a mop and spray bottles.
But look through to the back of it. The closet is surprisingly shallow.
See the light coming through? See the thin line that runs up, and across, and down? It’s another door. A second one, that leads to the outside. It accesses a narrow alley that runs alongside the south side of the chapel to a street called St. Mary’s Passage.
I was told that the closet was installed long ago for a certain principal of the college who was chronically late for Sunday chapel. The hidden passageway allowed him to slip in during services unseen.
And you know what else that closet is? Let me give you a clue. C.S. Lewis spent years at Oxford. He was a teaching fellow at Magdalen College, and I was told he knew all about this secret passageway.
So, on that day last summer, I found myself standing at THE closet. The one that inspired C.S. Lewis to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
And I was looking at exactly what he saw.
The tourists don’t know it, but this closet is located just steps away from that other famous door — the heavy, carved one with the lion’s head on it, the one that’s on every tour of Oxford. There are pictures of it everywhere, the inspiration for the “lion” part of the story. But this hidden closet is only whispered about within Brasenose College, and I had been given the gift of it by someone there who had just learned that I am a novelist.
That summer day, as I stood with goosebumps scampering up my arms, the same goosebumps I had felt at Thomas Riddell’s double grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard, I realized that inspiration comes from anywhere, and it can be some one, single, small thing. It can have the lightest footprint in our tactile world, but from such little things a great writer can conjure a universe whose blood pulses as if it really existed. That is, if the writer has an imagination that soars.
All the research for a story is great, but there comes a moment at last when it’s nothing but blank paper and pencils and the unreasonable hope that some small talisman will ignite an alternate world. It’s sometimes — if you’re lucky — just barely doable if there’s also enough windless mental space for take off.
Oh, and a good pencil sharpener. Maybe a couple of them.
Thank you, Brasenose College.