Lyra’s Oxford

Update: I’ve added a large amount of text throughout this article with my recent findings; the additions are all in italics.

A few minutes ago I just finished reading Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, a very short story set in the His Dark Materials universe. The story was pleasant enough, but the really interesting thing about the book (it’s a little cloth-bound hardback book) is the foldout map of his imaginary Oxford and the articles and adverts scattered, unacknowledged, throughout its pages.

These ephemera at first appear to be mostly unrelated to the story and consist of the map, a two-page excerpt from a historical guide to Oxford, a postcard sent from our Oxford by a scientist and an advert for a cruise to the Levant.

The simplest explanation is that Pullman wanted to use these things as extras, to enrich his universe. However, there are two very strong reasons for believing that there is more to it than that. In his introduction, he talks about how,

‘All these tattered old bits and pieces have a history and meaning. A group of them together can seem like the traces left by an ionising particle in a bubble chamber: they draw the line of a path taken by something too mysterious to see. That path is a story, of course. What scientists do when they look at the line of the bubbles on the screen is work out the story of the particle that made them: what sort of particle it must have been, and what caused it to move in that way, and how long it was likely to continue.’

He then goes on to say that the postcard – from ‘our’ universe – is also part of the mysterious story. Interestingly, he hardly mentions the story within the book, called ‘Lyra and the Birds’ at all. So that’s reason number one.

Reason number two, which is really a number of sub-reasons, is more apparent to me than it might be to other people, perhaps because I played the AI game, replete with meaning and codes and mysteries. This second reason concerns all the ephemera in the book.

Mapping the Unknown

Let’s start with the foldout map. One side of it is an old-style streetmap of his imaginary Oxford, which is simple enough and is a wonderful thing for me to marvel at because I recognise all the places and subtle differences in it. It’s amusing to see that the coach station in our world is inhabited by the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station in theirs.

The other side of the foldout has a map of Oxfordshire, which merely shows the outlines of the different regions within it. This map has a grid on it, and tellingly, parts of Oxfordshire are packaged up into different boxes that do not correspond to the grid. I suppose they could represent possible administrative areas within Pullman’s universe, but it doesn’t seem that way. If playing the AI game has taught me anything, it is that you don’t go and produce a map like that in an expensive book for no reason. There is a reason for it to be there, and I think the boxes may have something to do with it.

On the sides of the foldout are three panels. The first panel has a list of other maps that you could buy, all with intriguing names like ‘Mejico and the Isthmus’, ‘Magyar Republic’ and ‘The Austral Empire’. I wonder if these are significant. The second panel is ‘A Selection of Catalogues offering articles of great use to the Traveller’, including things like camping equipment and artist’s materials. The final panel is a list of books on travel, archaeology and related subjects, with titles such as ‘The Proto-Fisher People of L’Anse aux Meadows by Leonard Broken Arrow, D.Phil, F.R.A.S.’

I do think there is something going on with the map, and also with its publishers, Smith and Strange Ltd., who are based in Oxford.

An excerpt from a Parallel Universe

The next piece of interesting material is the excerpt from the guide on Oxford. This excerpt concerns a small area northwest of the centre of Oxford called Jericho (which is a real place). The most interesting passage in the excerpt is about a historical person who bears a great resemblance to someone in Lyra and the Birds, but I won’t go further than that (you can buy the book yourself!). But the majority of the excerpt talks about The Eagle Ironworks, The Oxford Canal, the Fell Press and The Oratory of St. Barnabas the Chymist. There’s an awful lot of information and details packed into those two pages which could hide anything.

Update: I have done a spot of research on this, which has uncovered some interesting facts. There is also an Eagle Ironworks in our world, occupying the same spot, but interestingly, it’s referred to by many people as ‘Lucy’s Ironworks’. It was founded by a W. Lucy in 1825; a different person and date than in the ‘other’ Oxford. Sharp-eyed readers will note that the alchemist referred to in the excerpt is also called Lucy, and his daemon was an eagle. On my search, I found a book called The Eagle Ironworks Oxford : the story of W. Lucy and Company Limited by P.W.S. Andrews, written in 1965. It’s available in several Oxford libraries and I may go and have a look some time.

As for The Fell Press, this is known as the Oxford University Press in our world. In an interview, Pullman commented mischievously, “Dr Fell, the origin of the rhyme �I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell, but this I know and know full well, I do not like thee Dr Fell�, was one of the original directors of the Oxford University Press and it was named after him. But you may read it as you like. Everything has meaning!”

St. Barnabas Church also exists in our world, and its architect, Sir Arthur Blomfield, remains the same. I can’t figure out who St. Barnabas is supposed to be though; in our world, he was one of the Apostles. He certainly wasn’t alive in Palmyra in the 3rd century. Perhaps this isn’t surprising though, since the excerpt refers to the ‘lesser St. Barnabas, a saint otherwise little celebrated’; I wouldn’t be surprised if this person just doesn’t exist in our world. I suspect Pullman is playing a little trick here by reusing Barnabas’ name.

The Beguiling Postcard

The postcard is an interesting puzzle. It appears to have been written by a newly arrived scientist in (our) Oxford to a friend. The scientist is Mary Malone, a familiar figure to readers of His Dark Materials.

Why is the postcard a puzzle? Because the photos on its front are of a bench in the Botanic Garden (I walk past it almost every day), the University Science Buildings, a row of trees on a street and a house. In other words, the photos make absolutely no sense whatsoever; no-one in their right mind would choose them for an Oxford postcard. Mary herself spends most of her writing space on the postcard remarking about the photos. Curiouser and curiouser…

Update: Andrew Cunningham has pointed out that the bench is Lyra and Will’s from The Amber Spyglass, the University Science buildings probably represent where Mary discovered Dust, the row of trees was where Will cut his first portal and the house is Will’s. Yet I still wonder if there is more… perhaps the locations of these places in the ‘other’ Oxford has significance?

A Meeting in Smyrna

The final piece of the mystery is a three page guide to a ‘Cruise by S.S. Zenobia to The Levant’. It has the usual advertising bumph of the wondrousness of the Levant and so on. What we’re interested in, though is the list of dates and arrival and departure times in the various cities the ship visits. One particular city has been circled – Smyrna, on Monday, May 11, 8am. Pointing towards this circle is a bit of handwriting that says ‘Caf� Antalya, Suleiman Square, 11am’.

Update: The name Zenobia also crops up earlier, in that the lesser St. Barnabas was an experimental theologian living in Palmyra, and the perfumer-in-chief to Queen Zenobia. There really was a Queen Zenobia who ruled Palmyra from 267 to 272. In 269 she proclaimed herself as Queen of Egypt and many believe that she was descended from Cleopatra VII; there’s more at Wikipedia. Palmyra is now known as Tadmor, in Syria.

I believe Smyrna (now Izmir, in Turkey) is in the same area as Palmyra. Izmir is home to the shrine of the Virgin Mary, where she is said to have spent her later days. Antalya is also the name of a city on the south Mediterranean coast of Turkey. According to Wikipedia, the Levant is an approximate geographical term referring to an area roughly bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and the Zagros Mountains in the east.

Is there a cafe called Antalya in our Smyrna (Izmir)? Not as far as I can tell, and I can’t find a Suleiman Square either, but I certainly could be wrong. Is there any significance to the date of May 11th? Again, no.


Why is that city circled? Why is there an apparently empty map of Oxfordshire taking up a huge amount of space in the book? Why do the photos on the postcard make no sense?

There is a boring explanation, and there is an interesting explanation – just like everything in the world. The boring explanation is that they mean nothing, or at most, they are only related to events in Pullman’s next book called The Book of Dust, whose release date no-one wants to guess about. This would make some sense because Lyra and the Birds was originally part of The Book of Dust until Pullman decided to publish it as a separate short story.

If we were to believe this explanation, we would just read the story, be puzzled by the ephemera and forget about the whole thing.

But I don’t believe it. Pullman spells out in his introduction that ‘all these tattered bits and pieces have a history and a meaning’. They tell a story that is hidden yet apparent. In Lyra and the Birds, Lyra struggles to find the meaning of a series of events that seemingly have none; she eventually succeeds (she thinks). Pullman says at the end of his introduction,

‘The story in this book [Lyra and the Birds] is partly about that very process.’

and the process he speaks of is of scientific investigation, and of considering things that we don’t understand.

Lyra’s Oxford is more than just a short story and a collection of colourful extras. Pullman has set us a mystery, and judging by his past works, it’s going to be interesting.

Update: Everything points to something happening in Palmyra or Smyrna in the past. I think that in the other universe, there was a lesser St. Barnabas who somehow changed events and got caught up with Dust, and also with Queen Zenobia (she seems rather more prominent in that universe than in ours). I’m now pretty sure that The Book of Dust will concern itself with these events. I’m not sure if there is any more to find out…

2 Replies to “Lyra’s Oxford”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m really into puzzles and I’ve been trying to figure out the meaning of the random postcard, clipping, and brochure. This helps significantly. 🙂

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