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The Unsettled Dust


To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, the Italian newspaper  La Repubblica is reissuing his books, one a week for twenty weeks. In theory, I have read most of them: when I first lived in Italy, I used to buy them at the newsstand in Rome’s Termini station just before boarding a train to Siena or Florence, back when trips that now take an hour and a half took a good four hours and the conductors would announce our arrival in person, out loud, their Tuscan accent pleasantly interrupting Sciascia’s Sicilian reveries. At that stage of my life, I had never been to Sicily. My Italian was little better than restaurant Italian. It didn’t matter: Sciascia’s ability to evoke an atmosphere and a psychology penetrated all the clouds of unknowing, so that the ugly hotel and corrupt politicians of Todo Modo and the Maltese forger of The Council of Egypt took up permanent lodging in my memories among other fantastic imagined people and places.

Reading the books again, after years in Italy, is almost like reading them afresh. Most of all, perhaps, Sciascia’s present has become a historical past; for readers in their twenties today, the tangible realities of life in the 1960s and 1970s are no longer accessible experiences, not only the long-altered political and economic situations but also the tiny details of existence: telephones that took special grooved tokens, the smell of tobacco and sweat on a crowded bus, the formality, and the modesty, of everyday dress. And with a knowledge of Sicily, I can see now how Sciascia’s urge to tell a certain kind of story has emerged from the same sere, eroded volcanic landscape as the works of Luigi Pirandello and Andrea Camilleri, a terrain where implacable nature has contended in combat stupendous with deep-rooted culture: the region around Agrigento, once the great Greek city of Akragas, its splendid panorama now blighted by cheap, shoddy high-rises, yet still one of the most beautiful, mysterious places on earth. Now it is easier to catch the barrage of sly, oblique comments Sciascia makes as an author. They passed me by on first reading, and not only because my Italian was so raw; only older people have the restraint to express their insights with such world-weary economy. I missed Sciascia’s caustic wit back then not only because I grew up in another country, but also because I was young, or distracted by the fact of riding on a train: interrupted by the ticket collector, or by the luminous view out the window of twilight in the heart of Tuscany.

The best books need to be read in a variety of ways, and reward reading more than once: both in a rush of adrenaline and slowly, closely; as a young person and as an older person; when times are hard and when times are hard again, perhaps under different conditions of hardship, perhaps hewing to the same old unchanging patterns. When my professors in graduate school decided to challenge me by giving me four months to study for my doctoral exams rather than the usual year, I had to read one Greek tragedy a day for a month and add in a second tragedy a couple of times a week. (I reserved the double-headers for Euripides’ crazy melodramas.) I split another month between all the comedies of Aristophanes and Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta, reading so fast that I began to dream in ancient Greek, and the little words, called particles, that signal the nuances of an ancient Greek sentence took on the vividness of living language. I had been to Athens and Sparta when I read Thucydides in Rome for my exams, in a state of abject panic and manic illumination, not quite aware yet of the extent to which his history finds its real dramatic center in Sicily, in Syracuse, a place as lush as Agrigento is pitiless. One of Sciascia’s Agrigentine characters declares that people from the province of Syracuse are stupid, implying that life is too easy in that southeastern corner of Sicily. But fertility brings its own perils, as Syracuse has discovered time and again: perils like an Athenian fleet appearing on the horizon with plans to invade you before moving on to conquer Carthage, back in the days (415 BCE) when the Athenian fleet was the most powerful in the Mediterranean world. Two years after that glittering epiphany, however, Thucydides shows us the remnants of the Athenian army (the ships of the fleet have all been captured, sunk, or incinerated) as they beat a miserable retreat through the farmlands and gullies to the west of Syracuse. When the stragglers come to the river Assinaros, they are so exhausted and so thirsty that they swarm into the water to drink and there they are cut down en masse by the Syracusan cavalry, greedily gulping down the river’s water even when it turns red with their blood and muddy from the churning of horses’ hooves. Thucydides had long since suggested that the war between Athens and Sparta had become one great atrocity, but this scene is the most atrocious of them all. The survivors of the slaughter were thrown into the quarries of Syracuse, in the shadow of the theatre where Athenian tragedies played, then and now, and prisoners who could quote the latest play of Euripides were allegedly released. Almost exactly two hundred years later, a very smart Syracusan, Archimedes, would be struck down in his home by an invading Roman soldier after holding off the Roman fleet for two years with the world’s most ingenious array of catapults, another utter foolishness of war.

One of the great joys of rereading any book at a later stage of life is the freedom to draw one’s own conclusions. It is easier to read freely when fortified by the twin bastions of age and familiarity, two immemorial guarantees of authority. (One of the professors who eventually sat on my Ph.D. committee complained that as a graduate student I wrote like someone looking back on a long life in the classics, but I was only twenty-three.) But the only way any of us reads at all is by starting from nothing, and sometimes the absence of preconceptions about what we read can be as liberating as long intimacy. Insight, after all, is unpredictable. Anwar el-Sadat discovered his mission as a statesman with the help of an article he read in a prison copy of Reader’s Digest (see Jehan Sadat, A Woman of Egypt, p. 86).

Last semester, confronted with Thucydides for the first time, one of my students asked why the ancient Greeks were so violent. That same question has led to one of the most powerful recent retellings of a Greek tragedy: Yaël Farber’s Molora, which appeared in 20007, takes the Oresteia of Aeschylus, transposes its action from Bronze Age Greece to South Africa during the years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has a chorus of Xhosa women preempt the trilogy’s climactic act of vengeance, Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra (but not until Orestes has done a spectacular sword dance around a bonfire). The same motive lies behind Plato’s decision to expel the epic and dramatic poets from his ideal Republic, for by showing the gods and heroes as violent and base, these writers have set a bad example for the young. His discussion has often been condemned as censorship endorsed by a hidebound conservative, though it is hard to see what is conservative about an ideal state that abolishes the family and grants equal rights to women. It may be more useful to read these sections of the Republic as an account of Plato’s own struggles with deciding what and how to write. As a young man, he had composed tragedies, but the political turmoil that engulfed Athens at the end of the war with Sparta drove him to abandon traditional literature. Instead, he invented an entirely new kind of drama: the philosophical dialogue.

As for the expulsion of the poets, I came over to Plato’s side after hearing a lecture some years ago by a distinguished classicist. He began by conjuring up the climactic scene on which the Iliad hinges: in what is in effect a journey through hell, King Priam of Troy has crept by night across the battle lines to beg the Greek hero Achilles to give up the body of his slain son, Hector, which Achilles has been dragging behind his chariot, an act that even the violent Greeks found repugnant. For a moment Achilles sees his own father mirrored in the elderly king, and agrees to release Hector—but warns Priam to withdraw quickly because he might change his mind at any moment. “This,” proclaimed the venerable scholar, “is what it means to be a man.” Women, it was easy to surmise, were incapable of rising to similar heights of manhood in his view, that is, to attain the twinge of empathy that shot through the shaggy breast of that capricious brute Achilles, and induced him, finally, to leave off mutilating the corpse he had been playing with for days. All I could think of in that instant was Plato imitating my undergraduate classics professor, Harry Carroll, who once shook his finger at a favorite student who had used the word “pissed” in his presence and repeated, “Out, out, out, out, out,” until the student had backed out the door of Harry’s office.

Like Farber’s Molora, Plato’s Republic suggests that we might hold ourselves, not just men, to a higher standard of existence than Achilles’ temporary exchange of compassion for slaughter, and he does so by wielding the mighty weapon of humor. In the third book of the Republic, Socrates and Plato’s sardonic brother Adeimantus sling an impressive series of poetic quotations at each other, each one beautiful of form and pernicious in its implications for the basic character of gods and mortals. As the crescendo rises, we readers end up being swept along with the two of them into agreeing that Homer’s best — or, better, the atavistic “this is a man” reading of Homer’s best — is simply not a worthy model to live by. Socrates and Adeimantus are men who nurture other aspirations than snatching women, sacking cities, and skewering each other with spears (though they both did distinguished military service for Athens), and they prefer gods who behave in ways more evidently in harmony with the order of the universe than the capricious deities of Homer. Achilles may have sung “the glories of men” to the percussive rhythm of his lyre, but he was mean and slightly slow-witted, and so are the Homeric gods.

Interestingly, the poetic citations that Socrates and Adeimantus throw at each other often differ from the texts we have now. Did Plato and his contemporaries read slightly different versions of Aeschylus and Homer than we do today, or did the philosopher enjoy catching, and immortalizing, his teacher and his big brother showing off their prodigious memories while slyly noting that memories are fallible? It is tempting to imagine Plato reveling in his elders’ senior moments and Freudian slips as he shares their glee at sending up that dreadful old Homeric model of “what it means to be a man.” All three of them knew perfectly well that the Iliad ends not with Achilles’s fleeting change of heart, but with a funeral: with the women cleaning up the mess the men have made, and weeping at all the useless carnage.

Asking the ancient questions about who we are, and discovering new answers, are just some of the reasons that everyone, anyone, should be able to read the classic writers, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Babylonian, and read them again and again. For all its cruelties and its limits, neither Plato nor I would ever renounce the reading of Homer’s Iliad, a poem that emerged in its magnificent coherence around 750 BCE, as the relics of the collapsed Bronze Age pulled together to forge another culture of international resonance. As a human being, Achilles is a mass of brutal confusion, but Homer, by contrast, is a storyteller of masterful discipline and ingenuity: he restricts the subject matter of the Iliad to Achilles’ brief temper tantrum toward the end of the ten-year Trojan War, and yet manages to tuck the whole history of that conflict in between the lines. We can easily grow beyond Achilles as an exemplar of “what it is to be a man”; it is much more difficult to grow beyond Homer as an exemplar of what it is to be a poet.

This freedom, this curiosity, this search for wisdom wherever it might be found, does not have to imply the moral or political endorsement of the societies that produced these works of literature — writers themselves are often the most trenchant critics of their own societies. Homer provided the model for Greek education in Plato’s childhood, and Plato, as an adult, overthrew that model, along with much of the rest of the Athenian social structure as he knew it. From the standpoint of justice, all societies have been to some degree culpable, there is evil everywhere, and all cultures have shown prejudice and ignorance and intolerance (including the cultures of the oppressed). Should we, then, study nothing and rely only on our wonderful selves? Both Homer and Plato may have known slavery first-hand: homeros in Greek means “hostage,” and Plato, in his thirties, was sold on the slave market by a treacherous Syracusan sea captain. His purchaser knew who he was and set him free immediately, but he never forgot the experience. It may be one of the reasons that neither he nor Homer could imagine a human society free from slavery or war.

When Socrates and Adeimantus decide to expel the poets from their Republic, they do so from intimate knowledge, and they are fantasizing. But when the communications office of my university insisted in a recent mass email that education went beyond “dusty archives,” they were using an empty cliché, like “dead white males” to refer to immortal authors whose skin was mostly Mediterranean brown, and, in such cases as the Roman playwright Terence and St. Augustine, may have been considerably darker than that. There are few experiences more intoxicating than being in a place like the Vatican Library amid relics of millennia of human endeavor. The dust has not settled on those old tomes. They are as volatile and subversive now as ever — which is exactly why certain kinds of putative “educators” want to keep them out of your hands.

We should be able to read, and reread, whatever helps us wind our way through the labyrinth of life. Thucydides helps me through humanity’s worst precisely because he endured the worst: plague, exile, war, the degeneration of democracy into tyranny. Plato, who saw these same terrible things in his own life, and many more, including treachery and slavery, provides unflagging hope that we can do better. And he hands the ultimate spiritual revelation of his intoxicating dialogue, the Symposium, to a woman, the priestess Diotima. Despite the fact that generations of self-absorbed men have continued to misread Plato in search of “what is it to be a man,” more careful reading will reveal a visionary of a far more lofty order.


I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a thirteen-year-old. It was an unsettling tale for a teenager: unlike fairy-tale heroes, Frodo Baggins returns from his quest physically and psychically damaged, and the world he has struggled to save is no longer the same world at all. Tyranny has degraded its wild lands, erected monstrous buildings, and eroded the souls of every kind of living thing: birds, horses, spiders, trees, knights, kings, gossipy neighbors. For a young person, the end of the books presented a troubling anti-climax, but there was no way to stop reading before that puzzling end — the suspense was too unbearable.

Thirteen-year-olds are unlikely to bother with literary analysis, but they are certainly susceptible to a well-structured plot. Tolkien’s epic tale begins in the exact antithesis to an epic setting: a placid village in the comfortably named Middle Earth, a fantasy version of the classic English countryside, green, prosperous, isolated from any forces more complex than the occasional tensions of village life and the round of the seasons, inhabited, as the English countryside always has been, by fantastic little people of human form but not quite human customs. In the 1930’s Tolkien invented his own set of little people for his three young sons: hobbits were child-sized individuals who walked about on large furry feet and lived in burrowlike houses, conservative in their ways and scrupulously tidy in their lace-curtained housekeeping. He enshrined them first in a charming book about a more adventurous member of the breed, the Hobbit, which appeared in 1937 and was immediately regarded as a classic. 

The hobbits in the Lord of the Rings, the much longer narrative that he published in three volumes in 1955, became more complex as its target audience, the Tolkien boys, grew into adult readers. These hobbits are revealed as naïve isolationists in a much larger real world, and they ignore the forces beyond their borders at their own peril. Tolkien may have been writing in the mid-twentieth century, but, given the opportunity, his hobbits in their pastoral Shire would have voted eagerly for the equivalent of Brexit, with the same devastating results. As a South African who moved to England in childhood, Tolkien knew that the world was vast and that he was different from most of his neighbors.

The hobbit stories address a child’s contradictory longings for stability and adventure, like the children in the Narnia series by Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, who can climb through a wardrobe and become kings and queens on the other side. There is something eminently twentieth-century about the idea of launching an epic tale from the midst of middle-class comfort.  Most heroic sagas begin in the midst of hardship: Virgil’s Aeneid with a shipwreck, Homer’s Iliad with a battle-field, Dante’s Divine Comedy in a darkened forest. Both Tolkien and Lewis are clearly inspired by the Odyssey, an epic that is driven by a similar longing for home, and reveals, like the Lord of the Rings, that home will require a good scouring before it truly becomes home again. Yet after it has been well and truly scoured, home will still be forever different from what it  was, and the hero will leave again for yet another quest. The Odyssey provides its own trenchant critique of the Iliad’s version of “being a man.” Jean Cocteau’s twentieth-century Orpheus walks through a bourgeois bedroom mirror into  the netherworld.

What I remember most about that adolescent reading  of the Lord of the Rings is a feeling of dread that quickly turned  into abject terror. Like that first dying rat in Camus’ The Plague, the initial seed of foreboding is planted by an apparition that, as the hobbits put it, seems “queer” rather than openly menacing. In chapter three of the Fellowship  of the Ring, the first volume in the series, Frodo Baggins and  his friends have taken to the road when they realize that they are being followed:

Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great  black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the  high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed  and invisible. When it reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent;  the head turned from side to side of the road. 

The hidden face, the doglike sniffing, the odd posture, and the swaying motion already give the Black Rider an unearthly aura. Shrewdly, however, Tolkien fleshes out that intimation of wickedness without rushing the pace of his ample narrative. We assemble information about the Rider from brief glimpses, sometimes when he appears in person, sometimes, to great effect, when we only hear of him by rumor. We learn at second hand that he has been searching for “Baggins,” and that he has a foul temper: “He seemed mighty put out, when I told him Mr. Baggins had left his home for good. Hissed at me, he did. It gave me quite a shudder.” The Black Rider is almost animal at times, sniffing like a bloodhound, hissing like a snake. In his second appearance, he stoops down and crawls on all fours:

The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched, he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the place where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground and began to crawl towards them. 

At the sound of voices, the shadowy horseman retreats again, but by this time we know he will be back — as Chekhov warned, that one must never place a loaded rifle on stage if it isn’t going to go off. Tolkien places his loaded rifle early, and returns to his Black Rider, to increasingly terrifying effect, throughout the course of his epic tale. Soon that literary loaded rifle turns out to be a whole arsenal: that first, evil-tempered “he” is quickly revealed as a “they” when a Black Rider appears dramatically on an isolated crag, and lets forth an eerie scream — answered in kind by another scream. The dark horses start out as earthbound creatures, and then take to the skies. Bit by terrifying bit, the Black Riders shed their earthbound qualities of snake and bloodhound to resemble, more and more vividly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Conquest, War, Famine and Plague) — but there are nine of them, who serve the Prince of Darkness (under the reptilian name Sauron) as loyally as the four horsemen in the Book of Revelation.

In Tolkien’s world, the Black Riders are finally identified as “ringwraiths” or Nazgûl, once noble knights who have sold their souls for the sake of power and have existed ever after in a border zone between life and death.  They have bodies, but those bodies are utterly invisible; their lust for dominion has literally turned them into servile nobodies. When I was thirteen, the stealthy irruption of these frightening half-men into the apparent peace of the hobbits’ comfortable Shire scared me as much as the prospect of a California earthquake in my placid Corona del Mar, and no rereading of the Lord of the Rings has ever matched the sheer thrill of that primal terror. The Black Riders are one of Tolkien’s most enduring creations. Their power of suggestion has been so great that an ant, a crustacean, and a wasp all bear Nazgul as part of their scientific names, and at least one respectable American historian’s panoply of extracurricular talents includes a Nazgûl scream that she perfected in adolescence.

I was not perfecting my Nazgûl scream; I was looking skyward for flying horses. When I first read the Lord of the Rings in Southern California in the mid-1960’s, my own skies were filled with amphibious helicopters, bound for Vietnam from the El Toro Marine Air Station, and undoubtedly my own imaginary picture of the Nazgûl was conceived in their image. When Frodo complains about having a Black Rider upset his peaceful travels within “my own Shire,” Gildor the elf retorts that the Shire is not his at all, and furthermore, “The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in: but you cannot forever fence it out.” The Marine helicopters that chopped their way westward from El Toro reminded everyone in their path that the wide world reached deep into our sleepy beach town, and it was that same idea of connection with the outside world and the immanence of its tribulations that made the Nazgûl so scary for an adolescent. For most readers of the Lord of the Rings, the Black Riders lodge in the imagination in their final airborne form, screaming back and forth as their steeds flap leathery wings; it is hard to remember how slowly and cleverly Tolkien builds up this dread vision across hundreds of pages before he completes it.

Thirty years after that first reading, I began to wonder whether the scream of the Nazgûl might really be the scream of the V-2 rockets that rained down on Britain in 1944-1945. Tolkien himself rejected any simple connections between his work and the Second World War. In his foreword to the second edition of the Lord of the Rings, he protested that his “prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” But the screaming rockets of Wernher von Braun must have crossed his mind, for in the same foreword he describes his process of composition: “It was during 1944 that, leaving the loose ends and perplexities of war which it was my task to conduct, or at least to report, I forced myself to tackle the journey of Frodo to Mordor [that is, his hobbit hero’s confrontation with absolute evil, with all nine Nazgûl zipping about in full regalia, mounted on pterodactyls]. These chapters…were written and sent out as a serial to my son, Christopher, then in South Africa with the RAF.” Still, he also warns that “an author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” Whatever sound the Nazgûl scream made inside Tolkien’s head, it was no less effective inside mine at the age of thirteen, piercing through the staccato whap of the rotors of Boeing CH-46 Sea Knights.

I have reread the Lord of the Rings at least three times since that first immersion, and the Black Riders have never stirred up such vividly immediate fears as they did in my adolescent imagination. The fear they inspire now is a thoroughly adult fear, because the Nazgûl still move among us, creeping, snuffling, hissing, foul of temper and fouler of temperament. Today they tend to be dressed in suits rather than cloaks, with names like Mitch and Ted and Mike rather than Khamûl, with titles like The Senator from Kentucky and The Former Vice President rather than The Witch-King of Angmar, but their story is always the same, and sadly eternal:

They were once men. Great kings of men. Then Sauron the deceiver gave to them nine rings of power. Blinded by their greed, they took them without question. One by one, they fell into darkness and now they’re slaves to His will. They are the Nazgûl, Ringwraiths. Neither living nor dead.

And unfortunately, our Nazgûl, unlike Tolkien’s cloaked and crowned voids, show us the faces on which their iniquity has been written.


One of the reasons that the first Star Wars film left my youthful self unimpressed was the obvious derivation of its bar on the edge of the galaxy from the bar in one of the most famous episodes of the original TV show Star Trek, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” The futuristic furniture, the customers from all corners of the galaxy exhibiting every variety of body type and speaking every kind of language, these had already been done to brilliant and humorous effect, and the fact that they were done for a tiny screen in cheap materials in black-and-white had made no difference to me: the idea was the thing. Star Wars, of course, meant to restyle the intergalactic bar for eyes accustomed to color, wide screens, and digital special effects; in the eyes of a moviemaker, these matters of superficial form defined an absolute distinction where my censorious young self saw an act of plagiarism. I was too young then to recognize that in any case the intergalactic bar was only a recent manifestation of an immemorial archetype, the inn at the border between one place and another, the diversorium, the caravanserai, the frontier saloon.  Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe is no different in its way from the tavern on the River Mincio where Verdi’s Rigoletto meets the assassin Sparafucile to plot the death of the Duke of Mantua, who appears at the same inn in disguise to sing “La donna è mobile.” Inns have always catered to different social strata as well as different geographies, and there is often something disreputable about them because they exist where the usual limits that define society turn flexible.

In both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, that border saloon is a pub called the Prancing Pony, situated just over the human side of the border between the Shire of the hobbits and the world of men, in a village called Bree. The Prancing Pony caters to guests and animals who come in two different sizes: hobbit and human, pony and horse, and, on one memorable occasion, a hit squad of Nazgûl who end up stabbing pillows rather than Frodo and his friends. The Nazgûl, it seems, have not only surrendered their souls to greed, but also a good bit of their common sense. They are a singularly dimwitted lot — but then they had to be dimwits to sell off their principles in the first place. As Thucydides, Dante, and Machiavelli will happily remind us, people who choose to keep their souls and their principles also tend to keep their intelligence as well, albeit at the price of exile.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and a group of literary friends who called themselves the Inklings used to meet at an Oxford pub called the Eagle and Child, at the edge of town on the road from Oxford to Woodstock. Just beyond this establishment (wags call it the “Bird and Baby”), a little farther up the road out of Oxford, is the Catholic church of St. Aloysius, where Tolkien was a parishioner. Built by the Jesuits in 1875 to serve the city’s Catholic community, St. Aloysius faces an explicitly anti-Catholic monument erected in 1843 to commemorate three bishops of the Church of England, all burned at the stake in Oxford during the reign of the Catholic queen Mary Tudor. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley died as heretics in 1555 in the city’s Corn Market. A third, heretic, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, watched their excruciating demise (Ridley took a long time to ignite) from a tower prison nearby and was burned himself the following year. As he mounted the scaffold, Latimer is said to have exhorted his friend, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The Martyrs’ Monument on the road out of Oxford rose as a local protest against the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement that had begun to flourish in the 1840’s; in effect, it marked the border between town and country by affirming Oxford’s Protestant identity, secured when Elizabeth I succeeded “Bloody Mary” in 1558, and resisting any attempts to heal the centuries-old hostilities between Catholic and Anglican.

But if the Martyrs’ Monument and the church of St. Aloysius represented an ancient Oxonian religious conflict, Somerville College, a little farther out than the Catholics on the road to Woodstock, presented an entirely new challenge to Oxford when it was founded in 1879: the college admitted women, for the first time in the eight hundred years since the university was founded.

A few years ago, at a conference at this same Somerville College, a Danish friend and I went out to find some dinner. We walked the length of Somerville, passed St. Aloysius, passed the Martyrs Monument, and turned into the first pub we saw: none other than the Eagle and Child. We were thrilled to sit with our pints where the Inklings had once sat before us, there on the borderland between traditional Oxford and the wild unknown of Catholics, women, and countryside. He suddenly grinned and exclaimed, “We’re in the Prancing Pony!” And of course we were. Physically, the Prancing Pony of Bree is said to be have been modeled on the Bell Inn of Moreton-on-Marsh, where Tolkien was also a regular, and the town of Bree is itself a thin disguise for the village of Brill, which stands on the border between Oxford and Buckinghamshire, but there is no doubt that the Eagle and Child (at least up to its present remodeling, now in progress), is, or has been, a classic Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where minds meet and ideas fly free on wings of conversation.

In ancient times, travelers arriving in Athens from the south passed by a verdant grove, dedicated to the hero Hekademos, before reaching the city walls. Eventually Plato took over responsibility for this property, and turned it into a school, his Academy, a Prancing Pony whose Inklings included, among many others, his nephew Speusippus; Dion, a Sicilian prince; two women students, Axiothea and Lastheneia, and a flashily-dressed, bejeweled beach boy from the north of Greece named Aristotle. No one could enter without knowing geometry, Plato’s idea of what it meant to be — not a man, but human.