Pilgrimage to Lyra and Will’s Bench in Oxford

The bench – taken 5/13/18 by August Lindgren-Ruby

[spoiler warning for His Dark Materials, esp. the italicized quote]

In The Golden Compass, Lyra spends much of the first half of the book wandering around an alternate-reality Oxford, existing undetectably alongside our own. Philip Pullman fictionalizes details, geography, institutions, and technologies, but the city is recognizable. The parallel worlds overlap one another, and some details at all scales are preserved; for example, Lyra notices a tiny piece of romantic graffiti on the same cobblestone in both Oxfords. Philip Pullman’s depiction of Lyra’s Oxford is lovingly idealized, which must come from his time there as a student at Exeter College– fictionalized as the Jordan College where Lyra is raised.

The book has grown up alongside me, like it has for many of Pullman’s readers. His Dark Materials captivates at first with its rich imagery, its tantalizing alternate history and technologies, and of course its vital, fierce, relatable heroine, Lyra. Later I grew to love its rich depiction of a struggle for justice against a religious and political hegemony. Lyra and Will’s romance is always beloved and heartbreaking, but as an older reader, the meaning behind its biblical symbolism became more comprehensible.

All of this to say, wandering around Oxford, I loved the feeling that I was adding real-life images to the imaginative storehouse I’ve been building for nearly 13 years. On Sunday 5/13, the streets were sunlit, bursting with students and travelers, and blooming with new greenery and flowers. At the Pitt-Rivers museum, which inspired the location where Lyra tests her alethiometer, I stumbled across the trepanned skulls that (in Pullman’s universe) attract Dust.

The real Oxford Botanic Garden, which I visited with three other Carls during our Sunday afternoon in Oxford, is in the Southeast of the town, and is very similar to Lyra’s. It includes several sprawling greenhouses organized by climate and a network of paths through diverse gardens, some of which are still harvested medicinally for study at the University of Oxford. A large stone gate leads out of the rectangular Walled Garden into a section bordered by the river Cherwell, and passing a fish pond, the trail leads directly to a bench that matches Pullman’s description perfectly. Sitting there, Dylan read a passage from the end of The Amber Spyglass:

“Will, I used to come here in my Oxford and sit on this exact same bench whenever I wanted to be alone, just me and Pan. What I thought was if you – maybe just once a year – if we could come here at the same time, just for an hour or something, then we could pretend we were close again – because we would be close, if you sat here and I sat just here in my world -“
“Yes,” he said, “as long as I live I’ll come back. Wherever I am in the world I’ll come back here -“
“On Midsummer’s Day,” she said, “At midday. As long as I live. As long as I live…”

The bench is dense with carved graffiti, mainly variations on “W+L”, and has a lovely view of most of the garden and rising above, a nearby college tower. The overhanging tree secluded and shaded; the river passing by delivered occasional punters. The four of us sat together on the bench in silence for 5 or 10 minutes (which I encouraged, collecting a field recording on my Zoom for my independent project). The space between worlds felt incredibly thin. A bit like the feeling of staring at the top of a very blue sky, and realizing that the faint darkness you sense is space.

The trilogy has stayed by my side since I bought the hefty paperback edition to reread as a 9-year old; the same copy was already battered by the time my 5th-grade class read it, and was positively falling apart by the time my A&I examined it as a reinterpretation of Paradise Lost. I’m confident it’ll find a place on my shelves again this fall, and (despite its size) I’ll cram it into my suitcase wherever life takes me after Carleton. If you find yourself with a London afternoon to spare and £12.50 for a round-trip train ticket, I highly recommend zipping off to Oxford and sitting awhile on the bench.

P.S. It turns out the National Theatre put on a 2-part stage adaptation of HDM awhile back, and apparently it got great reviews– hopefully a future London program will catch it if it’s put on again!

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