Reading meaning in things

Lyra’s Oxford
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.

9 thoughts on “Reading meaning in things

  1. I’ve always wanted to get into Pullman. I had the first Dark Materials book on my shelf for ages but let it go when I realized I wouldn’t be reading it in the near future. Maybe I’ll try again soon. Love the Brontë reference 😁

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    1. It may seem that His Dark Materials is, quite literally, a world away from that of the Brontë sisters, but the more I read the more overlaps — deliberate or coincidental — I see, some superficial, others deeper.

      Lyra is as fierce and independent as any of the girls and young women Charlotte wrote about, and to Lyra’s world of Oxford scholarship I can imagine all three sisters wishing access. Pullman’s heroine’s adventures in strange parallel worlds would I’m sure share much with the paracosms of the Brontë juvenilia; the notions of daemons would be comprehensible, given the Haworth pets; and the supernatural beings that are alluded to in Jane Eyre, Shirley and Charlotte’s unfinished novels, owing something to Tabby’s stories, find their counterparts in Pullman’s worlds too. And I’m hoping there’ll be more specific hints like Zenobia as I read on…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is perfectly so, lmost as if it was designed to do so! Sneakily, the other novelette in this world published about this time implies all will end as well as can be hoped in The Book of Dust because Lyra will have completed her first degree and be applying for an MPhil…

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  2. This sounds intriguing. I did listen to the Radio 4 reading of The Book of Dust, but I think I will need to read it, and a ‘bridge’ to it would be helpful. What I remember from the Radio 4 readings was feeling a little confused about Lyra. She was so different from the way she’d been in the Dark Materials trilogy, and it took a while for me to work out all the clues – possibly this was also to do with not being able to read at my own pace, and check back occasionally.

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    1. It’s a bridge in the sense that we hear a bit more about the teenage Lyra before the twenty-year-old of The Secret Commonwealth rather than necessarily explaining how the changes had come about. But I heard an episode from that Radio 4 series and remember being disorientated, but in a good way!

      An interesting interview in The New Yorker ( has Pullman explaining that she’s growing up. She’s an adult. I don’t use the word “depressed.” It’s a rather depressing word. Melancholy. I think at one point Malcolm’s dæmon refers to her as bearing the mark of “Le soleil noir de la mélancolie,” which is a quotation from a poem by Gérard de Nerval.

      I suspect it’s a reflection of his memories of Exeter College reading English, which hadn’t turned out quite as he’d expected; I myself remember that melancholy from the time I was at uni a year or two later than Pullman. The estrangement between Lyra and Pantalaimon reminds me of that period when I wasn’t entirely at ease with myself, as it were.

      There is another bridging novelette, Serpentine, coming out in October which I very much want to get, hence my sudden ploughing through unreviewed parts of the series before it’s published!


      1. Yes, I remember that end of teens to early twenties feeling too, though I was working. I got to Uni as a mature student, and think that (judging from my observations) might have been the best way to experience it.
        I’m reassured by your experience of the Radio 4 version, Chris. I spent the first few episodes wondering if there were novellas I should have read in preparation.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. A serialised abridgement for radio of a book of around 700 pages would have been a challenge and a half, I would’ve thought, Cath, what do you leave out without loss? That’s why I prefer reading! The bit I heard was some way in — the bit with Malcolm visiting the drugged Oakley Street operative in Turkey, if I remember right — and there are quite complex goings on at this point.

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