fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLyra's Oxford Philip Pullman reviewLyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Everything Means Something…

First of all, if you have not read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, then don’t attempt to read this story, as you’ll be utterly baffled. But if you have, you’ll be treated with another glimpse into the parallel Oxford that Pullman so vividly created and explored in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

The book itself is beautifully presented, bound in cloth and filled with engravings of the city by John Lawrence, a style of art that perfectly matches Pullman’s atmosphere of a gritty, turn-of-the-century English city. Included in the book is a quote from an Oxford guide, an introduction, the short story itself entitled “Lyra and the Birds”, a map of Oxford, and then a collection of bits and pieces that may or may not mean anything: a page from a directory, a postcard from Mary Malone, and a pamphlet and timetable from a cruise ship.

The story itself is set mainly at Jordan College, two years after the events that transpired in the trilogy. Lyra is on the roof of the college when she and Pantalaimon spot a witch’s daemon being attacked in the sky by a flock of starlings. Coming to its rescue, the daemon (named Ragi) claims it has come seeking her help. Its witch is very ill and only the gold elixir of the alchemist Sebastian Makepeace can help. Lyra promises to help, but there may be more going on here that she’s aware of…

The story is short and sweet, with several familiar names and faces popping up, and concerning the theme of “meaning” that Pullman explores throughout the book. But primarily, Pullman seems happy in extending and exploring his marvelous Oxford — describing the streets, the architecture, the feel of the place, and I had no complaints in this regard. Pullman’s Oxford is one of the most detailed and interesting created worlds in literature.

Pullman tells us in his introduction that all the things included in the book “might have come from anywhere. They might have come from other worlds” and that “all these tattered bits and pieces have a history and a meaning.” That is the reader’s challenge when they explore this small volume — to watch out for clues and connections within the words that may point to other subjects Pullman has touched on before.

For instance, we are told that Mary Malone’s postcard was written before her involvement in the apocalyptic battle of the trilogy — and therefore the presence of the hornbeam trees on her postcard would mean nothing to her. But do they ring a bell with you…? Likewise, on a list of reading material found on the back of the map “Marisa Coulter” appears as an author, and make sure you read the page from the directory carefully — it has mention of another alchemist in it, and another strange occurrence involving him, a witch and the birds of the city…

Does all this point to more books concerning Lyra? I’m not sure. At times I thought for sure that he was hinting at something bigger to come, whilst other times I believed that the book existed simply for its own purposes. I guess only time will tell.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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