Review: Lyra’s Oxford

Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

I really enjoyed revisiting His Dark Materials, even if I didn’t quite enjoy the second two as much as the first. Lyra is just such a fantastic heroine—clever, good-hearted, and sneaky. For the most part, the current run of Journey Into Mystery has been keeping me well-stocked with a similar hero (kid Loki would definitely give Lyra a run for her money; and, given the laws of the Internet, I have just summoned that fic into being), but sometimes, you just have to go back to the original. Plus, I’ve been meaning to revisit Pullman’s works, and I rather like the idea of getting through the new His Dark Materials stuff before revisiting the Sally Lockhart trilogy. (Via audio, of course.)

Lyra’s Oxford is a book containing the short story “Lyra and the Birds”, where Lyra, now fifteen, and Pantalaimon, her daemon, find a witch’s daemon searching for the mad alchemist Makepeace, whom they decide to help, despite the fact that the daemon is being attacked by the wildlife of Oxford. It also contains a handful of items from Lyra’s world and our own; a map of Lyra’s Oxford, two pages of a Baedeker guide to Lyra’s Oxford, a postcard from Mary Malone to a friend, and a brochure for the cruise ship Zenobia, with a mysterious date circled on it…

Lyra’s Oxford is very much the same as The Tales of Beedle the Bard; in a sense, it’s the precursor, as Lyra’s Oxford was published in 2003. Like The Tales of Beedle the Bard, this isn’t for someone who has never encountered the original series before, although it does give a better overview of character than the former. I really loved the idea of making literal some ephemera from the worlds of His Dark Materials; the map of Oxford is great, although I can’t seem to locate Jordan College. There’s ads for explorer things on the back of the map, too, which is printed on gorgeous paper. (Well, I was quite taken with it.) And the brochure for the cruise ship has a huge clue on it that, I’m sure, will be relevant either in Once Upon a Time in the North or The Book of Dust (whenever that comes out). From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s a nice little gift book.

The meat of Lyra’s Oxford is the short story “Lyra and the Birds”. In it, Lyra and Pan encounter a witch’s daemon being attacked by starlings and help him in his quest to find William Makepeace, a man accused of manslaughter (which, of course, does not phase brave and kind of amoral Lyra), but it turns out that something else is underfoot. Obviously, as a short story, it’s pretty brief, but I was impressed with what Pullman managed to convey about Lyra, her journey, and her world in such a short amount of time. (Perhaps the film adaptation, which introduced its worldbuilding so clunkily, made me forget that Pullman does it so effortlessly.) This is Lyra as a young woman, not as a little girl on the cusp of adulthood; some of her slang has been ironed out, but not her spirit. In a remarkable economy of detail, we’re told that close socializing at her all-girls school, St. Sophia’s, isn’t exactly encouraged, implying that her fervent faith in the goodness of witches might be due to the fact that she doesn’t really have close female friends. On top of that, she’s dealing with the loss of Will in her own way, which is to say quietly.

But I think the best part of the short story is the fact that it manages to get across the key theme represented by the alethiometer without having to introduce the thing. (It’s mentioned at the end; I was a bit disappointed her studies with it ) As Lyra and Pan puzzle over the significance of the starlings’ attack on the witches daemon, Pan proposes that perhaps it doesn’t mean anything; Lyra snaps that everything does mean something, they just don’t know how to read it yet. And it’s that intellectual curiosity that I’ve always loved about the series, a determination to understand, even when others (or even yourself, in Lyra and Pan’s case) tell you not to bother. They don’t ultimately discover what it means, although they make some progress, but the question it raises about Lyra’s importance to the universe is quite tasty for something so short.

Bottom line: Lyra’s Oxford is a nice little gift book, and “Lyra and the Birds” is a short story that manages to get across character development and one of the main themes of the trilogy. A nice treat for fans, but not really for anyone else.

I rented this book from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Review: Lyra’s Oxford

  1. I haven’t read anything by this author, though I saw the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass. I thought the movie was just O.K. (I’m guessing the novel is much richer). However, my 8-year-old loves it and has watched it a zillion times. *LOL* I thought the messages about the destructive effects of organized religion, in the movie, were heavy handed. I’m guessing this theme was developed more effectively in the novel.

    Do you think Lyra’s Oxford would be a good read, even for someone who hasn’t read the series?

    • I’m fond of the film for design reasons, but it’s really an awkward treatment of the novel, which is much better. The first novel is very light in its treatment of religion and it gets heavier as the series wears on.

      No, not really—it’ll just be a mildly interesting short story instead of an elegant end-cap. You certainly can and not be lost, but I’d wait!

  2. I loved His Dark Materials and I’ve wanted to read Lyra’s Oxford for ages. Great review – its given me the kick up the bum to borrow it from the library! xx

  3. Ahh, hooray for Lyra and Pan. I’m glad “Lyra and the Birds” stays faithful to them. (I think one of my least favorite things is when an author goes back to old characters and changes them in some ridiculous, painful way that can’t be ignored because it is now official and canon. That is the /worst/.)

    Also, it seems like it’s probably okay for a book like this to only be accessible to people who’ve read HDM before…it doesn’t promise to stand on its own, and maybe it shouldn’t have to. Dunno.

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