On the His Dark Materials trilogy

Unreal City

By Elizabeth E. Wein

I’d like to be a tourist in Lyra Belacqua’s Oxford. I’ve got a couple of unreliable maps and the dubious authority of having once circumnavigated the city in a punt1–twenty-two miles up the Isis, then the Oxford Canal, and finally down the River Cherwell. Lyra’s Oxford seems familiar. I recognize the waterways, the street plan, and many of the buildings. But Lyra’s city also contains unexplored territory for me. Where are the Claybeds that are her battlefield? How come I can’t find the real Jordan College? What’s real in this city, and what isn’t? By comparing Philip Pullman’s visions of Oxford in His Dark Materials with each other, and with the real Oxford in our own world, you can see how cunningly a fiction writer makes an imaginary world convincing. You, the reader, are teased into thinking that you recognize it. And because you recognize it, you believe in it.

I have two maps spread open in front of me as I plan my tour. One is a map of the “real” Oxford, called A Souvenir Map and Guide to Oxford and published by Postermaps; the other is a map of Lyra’s Oxford, called Oxford by Train, River, and Zeppelin and “published” by Globetrotter. You could hang them on the wall and they’d make pretty posters. Each shows colorful, two-dimensional artistic drawings of stylized landmarks, rather than a straightforward grid plan. Both are decorated with areas of woodland, with detailed boats and trains representing river and railroad traffic. The Postermap doesn’t  …

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