Sir Philip Pullman’s Bodley Medal Award and Interview

Image Description: Richard Ovenden OBE (left) shakes hands with Sir Philip Pullman (right), who is holding the Bodley Medal

On 9th November 2023, Sir Philip Pullman was awarded the Bodley Medal in recognition for his contributions to literature through his vast body of works, most notably the His Dark Materials (1995-2000) series, which is beloved the world over and has been adapted for TV, graphic novels, stage and film. The self-described ‘equel’ (rather than prequel or sequel) trilogy, The Book of Dust, is still awaiting its final instalment, which Pullman assured eager audience members he was ‘about 40 pages away’ from completing. This will be the final time we see any more of Lyra’s Oxford (and the multiverse beyond it), as Pullman confirms that he is happy leaving Lyra with this last book, dedicating much of his life to her stories.

Having studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature, Pullman confesses he spent more time in the public library reading books he’d rather have studied than sticking to the curriculum. In a previous interview with The Oxford Student, he explains that “I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realised that I wasn’t — it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those.” Just goes to show that the degree you come out with at the end of your time here isn’t everything, as it hasn’t stopped Pullman, who has won many distinguished awards, and in 2019 received a knighthood for his literary accomplishments.

Regardless of his views on the educational merits, Oxford definitely made its mark on Pullman as he pulls from his times here for the setting of the His Dark Materials series, where a similarly rebellious Lyra Belacqua plays amongst the dreaming spires. It is this creative flouting of convention that leads to most of Pullman’s achievements, and indeed much of his controversies, with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), a fictional biography of Jesus, cementing his reputation as defiantly anti-Christian and anti-establishment.

The Bodley Medal is described as “the highest award bestowed by the Bodleian Libraries, presented to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, media and communications, science and philanthropy.” With only 100 made from the old roof of the Duke Humphrey’s, it has been awarded to a variety of significant figures, ranging from Stephen Hawking to Zadie Smith. Pullman recognised that it was undoubtedly an honour, and he acknowledges that his closeness to Oxford, and the Bodleian libraries in particular, made the award especially significant for him. Not only do these libraries feature in his books, but they are also the very places in which he would write several of his first novels.

I was able to have a brief interview with Sir Philip Pullman in the green room before the award ceremony:

In your short story Clockwork, we see first-hand the dangers of starting a tale without knowing how it will end. Do you take this risk when beginning a book, or do you plan thoroughly?

I sort of know, but I don’t want to know everything. With the first novel I wrote, I planned meticulously – it took months of planning – and then by the end of it, I couldn’t be bothered to write it. And then I started writing a book with no idea where it was going, and, well, I’ve done that ever since. I like discovering things – I wouldn’t discover it if I already knew what was there.

In the UK, religion is bound to our state, but we feel more secular than the US, which has religious freedom written into its constitution. Do you think nations like ours can entirely disentangle the working of the state from religious tradition?

I think it should be disestablished. We should disentangle the parliament, house of lords, which contain a number of officials of religion – why bishops? Why not rabbis, why not, you know, shamans? But I don’t think it helps us as a society. 

After the interview, we moved into the Sheldonian theatre, whose elaborate ceiling mural, ‘The Triumph of Truth and Learning over Envy, Rapine and Ignorance’, with its various personifications of the figures of the arts and sciences, felt especially apt for its celebration of an author who has so successfully been able to weave scientific theoretical concepts into his fiction.

The panel was chaired by the critic and author Erica Wagner, who compelled each panellist (Dr Margaret Kean, Cressida Cowell, Dr Philip Goff and Dr Rowan Williams) to reminisce on their first moments encountering Pullman’s work. No matter at what age or in what context, the panellists’ responses all had in common the sense of wonder at the richness of Pullman’s visual imagery and the fantastical worlds he brought together. Philosopher Dr Philip Goff’s interest in panpsychism seemed inevitable, he acknowledged in the panel discussion, when he considered his fascination with Pullman’s descriptions of matter upon first reading the His Dark Materials series. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, met Pullman through a discussion about the religious criticisms in his books, and the two have been friends ever since.

Dr Margaret Kean, who some students may recognise as being a fellow and tutor at Oxford, heralded Pullman’s work as a retelling of Paradise Lost for the modern era. The title of the series itself comes from Book 2 of Paradise Lost, wherein “the almighty maker” ordains “His dark materials to create more worlds”. Cressida Cowell, the author of the How to Train Your Dragon book series, emphasised the importance of the work done by writers such as Pullman to instate a love of reading for younger fans, as children who read are significantly more likely to be successful later in life. As such, both she and Pullman promoted a prioritisation of libraries and literary education, with a greater emphasis being placed on teaching children to enjoy reading, rather than grilling them on comprehension tasks.

Richard Ovenden OBE, the Bodley’s Librarian, then interviewed Pullman onstage, where the two conversed about their relationship to Oxford and its libraries. At the end of the speeches and discussions, Sir Philip Pullman was awarded the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden to thunderous applause. For me, at least, there was a numinous sense of history surrounding this event. It is a rare occasion to witness first-hand such an important literary figure awarded such a prestigious medal. A drinks reception and dinner followed after, the venue beautifully decorated for fans, friends, and family of Pullman to congregate and celebrate the incredible achievements of this wonderful author.