On one of my first meetings with Philip Pullman, he led me to the crenelated tower of Exeter College, in Oxford, and pointed out the room he lived in as a student. More than 50 feet up from the ground was a tiny attic window. To visit friends living in rooms on the adjacent staircase — accessible only at ground level — Pullman, a tall, sturdy man with a head like a boulder, would clamber out his window, shimmy along a gutter and propel himself through a window into a bathroom. From where we were standing, the feat looked unlikely, and unwise. Pullman was self-deprecating. “It was less precarious than it seems because it’s actually quite a large gutter, and it’s quite deep,” he said. “And I was drunk. So.”
Oxford has always been an incubator for fantasists: Lewis Carroll dreamed up “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” here. J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Lord of the Rings”) and his friend C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) met weekly at a pub down the road to discuss their books. Pullman has followed in their wake: 30 years after his tipsy progress along the gutter, he returned to his rooftop on the page. “Lyra barged open the door, dragged her rickety chair to the window, flung wide the casement, and scrambled out,” he wrote in the first volume of his epic trilogy, “His Dark Materials.” “The room I gave to Lyra,” Pullman said, looking up, “was the room I had myself.”
Lyra Silvertongue, Lyra Belacqua, but really just Lyra: one of those characters in literature — Pip, Emma, Lolita — who is on first-name terms with her public. Pullman has written 35 books, mostly for children and young adults, but Lyra stands foremost among his protagonists, a plucky scamp of mysterious origins who lives among Oxford academics and is accompanied through life, like almost everyone in the universe of “His Dark Materials,” by her dæmon, a shape-shifting animal self.
Over the three books — 1995’s “Northern Lights” (published in the United States under the title “The Golden Compass”), 1997’s “The Subtle Knife” and 2000’s “The Amber Spyglass” — Lyra embarks on a multiverse-crossing quest that starts as an attempt to find a missing friend and becomes a battle against the dark forces of a totalitarian religious government, the Magisterium. They can be read as pure adventure, escapade after escapade, but they’re also a philosophical exploration of what it means to be alive, and an inverted reading of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” (In Pullman’s version, original sin is cause for celebration.)
Read more at The New York Times Magazine.