Exploring Lyra’s Jericho

Lyra on a canal boat
Lyra on a canal boat

Lucy Sholl talks to Philip Pullman who uses Jericho as a setting in his series of best-selling fantasy novels

Posted - June 02, 2004

Jericho has inspired authors for centuries, from Thomas Hardy to Colin Dexter. Philip Pullman is the latest to find inspiration here, in Northern Lights, the first in his famous His Dark Materials trilogy, and Lyra’s Oxford.

Although these books are set in a different, fantasy world, it is still unmistakably Oxford. Jericho is still called Jericho, and St. Barnabas Church, Walton Street and Juxon Street all keep their names. At the same time, this is fantasy and much of the dialogue is between the heroine, Lyra, and her ‘daemon’, an other-worldly companion who follows her at all times, continually changing shape and becoming everything from a wildcat to a sparrow.

For those of us who know the area, this mixture of familiar landmarks and fantastical happenings make these stories riveting. Pullman’s choice of Jericho as a setting for sections of his books was prompted by many years of walking around Jericho and the canal. He described Jericho to me as a fascinating place with “history on every corner”.

Intrigued by Jericho’s past as a thriving, colourful community with a working canal, the place he describes in the first part of Northern Lights is a mixture of what he imagines Jericho could have been, and pure fantasy. I asked him if he had done much research into the history of the area before writing the books, and he said that the perk of writing fantasy was that you didn’t need to spend hours checking facts in libraries. Instead he picked and chose what inspired him about the area and created an imaginary, brilliant world around it.

Here the boat-dwelling ‘gyptians’ live on and work the canal, their children running riot, perpetually at war with town children and the children of the university. The community he imagines is similar in some ways to the descriptions we hear of Jericho life a century ago, where children could play in the streets, their parents confident that in such a tight-knit community someone would be watching out for them (a way of living many of us with children look back to wistfully!). But in Northern Lights, this world becomes threatened by the kidnapping ‘Gobblers’, and this is where the drama of the book really begins.

Pullman may claim that he avoided any arduous historical research for his books, but Lyra’s Oxford in particular shows a real interest in and knowledge about Jericho. This is a very short book, easily read in an afternoon-more a short story than even a novella. It is also a lovely book to own, beautifully bound, with pull-out maps and printed postcards which tie in with the story. It is here that we see quite how much Pullman enjoyed constructing his fantasy Oxford. The story is set almost entirely in Jericho, which is made into an exciting underworld, where alchemists concoct their elixirs, and witches lay traps for young girls in Juxon Street.

As a Jericho resident, it is the extras and pull-outs which I most enjoyed, and where Pullman has the most fun. My favourite is a two page extract from a fake guidebook to Jericho, fitting the genuine history of the area with the fantasy one. I was amazed to hear that many readers don’t spot it is a fake, particularly given the references to the famous alchemist Randolph Lucy, who, along with his eagle-daemon was ‘a familiar sight in the narrow lanes leading down to the river during the latter part of the seventeenth century’.

When describing the history of the ‘Fell Press’ (his version of OUP) Pullman plays on Jericho’s reputation as a former red light district with a tavern on every corner. He constructs a wonderful fantasy, in which “Lolly Parsons, a notorious woman of easy virtue, operated a tavern in the very press itself during the hours of darkness, unknown to the pious owners”. I half hoped that this might be based on fact, and that Pullman had dredged up OUP’s sordid past. Disappointingly, he could only say that if it wasn’t true, it should have been.

Though he has never lived here, Philip Pullman’s affection for Jericho shows. Like so many of us, he has been dismayed to see more and more new blocks of apartments being erected, and worries that the unique history of the place is being eroded.

Although originally published for children, Pullman’s books are sophisticated enough to intrigue an adult reader. Apart from the full trilogy, Lyra’s Oxford stands up on its own, and is worth reading for the guidebook entry alone.

Did you know?

The history of the Phoenix?

There has been a cinema here since 1913. Orginally it the ‘North Oxford Kinema’, since when it has passed through many hands and names, including the Scala, the New Scala, the Studios 1 and 2, Studio X (a club showing soft porn) and finally in 1977 the Phoenix.

The origins of Walton?

Walton is derived from “wall town” which was used centuries ago to indicate a location outside the Oxford city walls. The ancient manor of Walton was certainly in existence before the Norman conquest in 1066.