Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman

The prestigious Bodley Medal has been awarded since 2002, in its current iteration, to recognise outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, science, philanthropy and other fieldsPrevious recipients including include novelists Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, and Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. Earlier this month, on a chilly November evening, the Bodley Medal was awarded to author Sir Philip Pullman under the baroque ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre.  

The evening opened with a panel discussion about Pullman’s work, chaired by author and critic, Erica Wagner, along with children’s author and former Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell MBE, Dr Philip Goff, author, philosopher and professor at Durham University and Dr Margaret Kean, the Dame Helen Gardner Fellow in English and Tutor in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

A screen at the front of a lecture theatre with a picture of en engraved circular medal on the left hand side. Philip Pullman and Richard Ovenden stand on a stage in front of the screen looked on by a crowded audience.
Philip Pullman presented with the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Each of the panellists keenly recalled their own experiences of encountering Pullman’s works for the first time, whether as teenage readers desperately grappling with Pullman’s exploration of dark matter, multiple universes, and philosophy, or as adults: parents, critics, or fellow authors. Amongst the varying accounts of each of the panellists’ initial encounters with Pullman’s work, there were commonalities too: an insistence on the deep visual impressions left, the richness and abundance his prose summons, and the expansivity of the works. Erica Wagner, the panel’s chair, noted “the way in which [Pullman] has created a whole cosmology, a whole universe […] for us to enter.” [1] 

The panel discussion was followed by Sir Philip Pullman in conversation with Richard Ovenden, Head of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford and Bodley’s Librarian. During their conversation, Richard Ovenden described Pullman as “a great friend of libraries”, which was more than evident from the clear reverence with which Pullman described his experiences of both public and academic libraries. The first library ticket one owns, he suggested, is an “enormous gift, a key to open a wonderland.” The loss of approximately 1000 branches of public libraries in the last 12 years, and the cuts to funding which have both prompted and accompanied this, Pullman described as a “a slow, quiet, subtle, well-concealed disaster.” In the earlier panel discussion, Cressida Cowell exalted Pullman’s aptitude for storytelling itself, explicitly identifying one of the great qualities of Pullman’s work to be its power in creating generations of readers. Pullman charted his own experience of the Bodleian Libraries from his days as an undergraduate English student (a discipline which didn’t allow him to read the texts he was drawn to). Instead, Pullman found himself magnetically pulled to the public library in Oxford. This roving between the public library and the academic spaces of Oxford’s Bodleian libraries is still evident in Pullman’s account of the power of libraries. Pullman added to this with a resounding defence of the role of the school library, and, particularly, he stated, the need for a school library to be cared for by a qualified librarian. This is an especially desperate requirement at a time when the National Literacy Trust has recently published new research suggesting that children’s enjoyment of reading is at its lowest level in two decades. [2] 


A reading room of the Old Bodleian with book shelves on hte left and right side of the image under an ornately decorated wooden panelled ceiling. In the centre of the image in the distnace there is an ornate arched stained glass window, with someone sat a desk studying in front of it.
Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Old Bodleian, known in Pullman’s works as Bodley’s Library. photo (c) John Cairns

Whilst rooted in the city of Oxford itself, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy expands our perspective outwards to a consideration of a multiplicity of universes. Oxford echoes through the series like a palimpsest, resounding throughout Pullman’s created worlds. The Bodleian Library itself appears in a mirrored form throughout Pullman’s work as Bodley’s Library. It is, perhaps, excellent symmetry then, for Pullman to receive the Bodleian’s most prestigious award, the Bodley Medal itself. The honour, and the event accompanying its bestowal, are both a celebration of libraries and the work done by those who love and promote them. 

For more history on the Bodley Medal, see here.  

[1] Wagner, Erica, “Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman”, Event. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. November 9th 2023. All following quotes unless otherwise stated are transcribed from this event.  

[2] Accessed: November 28th 2023. 


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