by Philip Pullman,
engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2003
“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— William Makepeace
The title enshrines a dichotomy. Superficially it asserts that this is a city from the world Lyra inhabits, a world both like and unlike ours, that ambiguity given visual force by a wonderful fold-out map in the first edition hardback depicting the moody streets of Oxford overlooked by an airship at the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station.
But by the final pages it becomes clear that it’s Lyra herself who is this world’s Oxford to keep: “The city, their city — belonging was one of the meanings of that, and protection, and home.” There is a feeling that Oxford is looking after her and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a sense that will last her through the rest of her teenage years. Will that protection last through the central events of The Book of Dust?
In this novelette — less than fifty pages in this edition — Lyra and Pan rescue a witch’s dæmon from a seemingly murderous murmuration of starlings. The Witch Yelena Pazhets, according to her dæmon, is ill and requires help seeking an Oxford alchemist called William Makepeace. But in making their way from Lyra’s school St Sophia’s across town to the alchemist in Juxon Street the teenager finds that there are inconsistencies in the tale that’s been spun to her and that her life is in danger.
Though this is such a slight story there is a definite sense of intrigue and peril that helps it stand on its own merits, aided by John Lawrence’s striking engravings. But it is as a stepping stone from the His Dark Materials novels to The Book of Dust that it holds inestimable value.
Here we come across Malcolm Polstead for the first time, a character whom we hear a lot about in La Belle Sauvage (2017). Here too are hints about where Lyra might be travelling to next in The Secret Commonwealth, with extracts from a leaflet advertising a cruise on the SS Zenobia through the Mediterranean and on to the Levant; there are promises of a world of romance and sunshine, accompanied by fine dining and music to dance to, aboard “the most up-to-date and comfortable cruise liner afloat.”
And there are backward looks too, with a postcard from Dr Mary Malone from when she first comes to Oxford, and an extract from an Oxford guidebook listing interesting sites to see in the Jericho district. By such strands does Pullman link the past and the future, and different places with words such as Jericho and Zenobia; the latter was in fact a 4th-century Syrian queen who challenged Rome and whose name indirectly inspired Zenobia Ellrington, a proactive character created by the young Brontë sisters in their juvenilia.
We know this is a sort of roman à clef from the alchemist’s statement that it should be possible to read meaning into everything. Maybe even his name is significant, hinting as it does at Thackeray’s first names, for I note that the Victorian novelist wrote a travelogue entitled Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1845); his voyage took him via Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, Rhodes, Smyrna, Constantinople and Jerusalem, “performed in the Steamers of the Peninsular and Oriental Company” and this is similar to the route taken by the fictional liner.
But when it comes down to it, Lyra’s Oxford features the irresistible Lyra, whose importance to the saga is indicated by her name being the first and last words of the His Dark Materials; and it’s her natural impetuosity, combined with an innate generosity, that both initiates and concludes this intriguing episode. This little miscellany, the size of a pocket book, is one to treasure.