Like any geek worth his weight in back issues of Uncanny X-Men, I have a few obsessions. There are the usuals, the ones I tell strangers about at parties to break the ice: monsters, ocean life, ancient ruins. Then there are the weird ones, the ones I tell strangers about at parties so they’ll excuse themselves to “get another beer real quick”: luggage, Wuthering Heights fan fiction, and coats-of-arms.
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit trolling around Wikipedia for fun coats-of-arms, but they truly can be beautifully evocative. The history of the family, city, or institution is written in the strange jumble of symbols, shapes, even colors. More than that, they reveal the family, city, or institution’s own self-view, what it interprets as its own qualities, its own history. A coat-of-arms as a self-made mirror.
Most coats-of-arms are fairly straightforward and usually not all that creative. A lion to symbolize bravery, a castle for strength, a cross for faith. Royal coats-of-arms are usually more complicated, but not especially interesting. They’re just mishmashes of various ruled realms, a web of lions with axes, eagles with spears, and blue stallions jostling for space on a tiny shield.
Every now and then, though, you come across something truly insane, a product of centuries of tinkering and retconning. A coat-of-arms that is less a self-made mirror, less an amalagation of lesser arms, than a truly organic symbol. An evolving patchwork of symbols and ideas that come together to create a coat-of-arms so weird that it seems to defy the very purpose of the thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the official coat-of-arms of the City of Oxford, England:
Let’s take a closer look. The shield itself makes sense. It’s an ox fording a river for Oxford. Clever! I’ll even buy the blue crowned lion on top, holding up a Tudor Rose like it’s a fancy plate prize on The Price Is Right. I’m not sure why it’s being cut in half by a horizontal barber’s pole, but whatever.
But what in God’s name is happening on the sides of this thing? There are two animals here, and the blue elephant with a gold chain and what looks like tasteful wallpaper you’d find in a suburban house’s half-bathroom for skin is somehow the less weird one! I don’t even know what to say about the blue elephant with a gold chain and tasteful half-bathroom wallpaper for skin, except I cannot even begin to imagine how it came to be a symbolic bearer of the arms of Oxford, England.
Actually, maybe I can. I mean, weird stuff tends to happen in college towns and Oxford’s been a college town for a thousand years, so I imagine somewhere around 1543 a traveling gypsy circus came through town and some drunk undergrads at Merton got a hold of some paint and broke into the elephant cage and the next day everyone had a larff and it was so hilarious by 1543 standards (also hilarious: witch burnings) that they decided to commemorate the prank by putting it on the city’s coat-of-arms.
Or something. There may well be a reasonable explanation for why Oxford, England has a blue elephant on its coat-of-arms, but I’d prefer not to know. I like the mystery. I want to go to my grave knowing Oxford has a blue elephant with a gold chain and tasteful bathroom wallpaper skin on its coat-of-arms, but not why.
Which leads us to the other animal. Now, given its lion-like physique, sharp fangs, and abundant claws, you might initially think this is some kind of large cat, some other African wonder that piqued the ancient city’s fancy in the dusty days of yesteryore. Its sickly green color is weird, but we already have a blue elephant with wallpaper skin up there, so whatever. But now look at its tail. That is no feline tail. It’s a beaver’s tail.
Now, a beaver makes sense as a symbol Oxford. The Thames/Isis and Cherwell rivers both flow through it and the very name, with ford, already has a rivery thing going on. I imagine there are quite a few beavers in the Isis in Oxfordshire. Whoever designed this coat-of-arms probably knew what a beaver looked like (no giggling, please).
But look at that thing! It’s some kind of demon beaver, with its fangs, and claws, and long, feline limbs. With its cadaverous green skin. This is no ordinary British beaver. No, this beaver dams the River Styx and paddles the lava rivers of Gehenna with his mighty tail. Not only that, it also has a golden chain, but unlike the poor blue elephant with bathroom wallpaper skin, the beaver’s chain leads to a golden crown around its neck.
I see two possible explanations for why the Oxford Beaver Demon has a golden crown around its neck. 1.) It is an idiot and does not know you should wear a crown on your head, or 2.) this is a creature so terrifyingly badass it wears a royal crown as a scarf.
Again, why one of the symbols of a city best known as the home of one of the oldest and most prestigious universities on earth is a demon beaver is beyond me. And again, I’d prefer not to know the actual reason why Oxford, England decided to represent itself with a green-skinned beaver with the body of a lion and the audacity to wear a crown around its neck.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, having seen this, I think we can finally declare a winner in the 800-year rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. It pains me to say this, actually, since I spent one of the best summers of my life in Cambridge, but… Oxford wins. Cambridge is a city of profound beauty, astonishing history, and unparalleled intellectual achievement. But Oxford is all that and its symbols are a tastefully decorated elephant and an aquatic hell rodent.
You can’t beat that. You just can’t.