World-renowned and beloved Oxford author Sir Philip Pullman was on 9 November presented with the Bodleian Libraries’ highest accolade, the Bodley Medal, for his outstanding contribution to literature, in a special presentation at the Sheldonian Theatre.
The event began with a panel discussion about the acclaimed author’s work and its cultural significance, chaired by author and critic Erica Wagner.
The panel, featuring children’s author Cressida Cowell, philosopher Dr Philip Goff, Dr Margaret Kean, whose current research focuses on Pullman’s work, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, discussed topics including Sir Philip’s enduring appeal and his gift for writing for audiences of all ages – including, perhaps, the most brutal of audiences, children.
Cressida Cowell, praised Sir Philip’s way of engaging young people with complex themes without ever condescending them. Referring to the famous E.B. White quote, she said: ‘You have to write up for children, not down – and Sir Philip does this better than most. At a time when we really need children to be curious and socially aware, his works inspire them to really connect with the world around them. They encourage empathy, creativity, bravery compassion, courage, and so much more.’
Following the discussion, Sir Philip sat down with Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden for the final presentation, which included discussing his life and work and his recipe for writing success.
‘Habit is your best friend. Habit has written more books than talent ever has,’ shared Sir Philip, in his characteristically modest, self-depreciating style.
The Bodley Medal is the Bodleian Libraries’ highest honour, awarded to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, media and communications, science, and philanthropy. First presented in 2002, previous recipients have included PD James and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (2002), Dame Hilary Mantel (2013), Professor Mary Beard (2016), Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (2019), Zadie Smith (2022), and most recently Colm Tóibín (2023).
Pullman is an award-winning writer and one of the world’s most influential storytellers. His body of work, which amounts to over 30 books, encompasses titles for both adults and children, and have sold in their millions worldwide.
His celebrated trilogy His Dark Materials, which was most recently adapted for television in 2019, starring Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy, had been accompanied by a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which was launched in the Bodleian. The books of the series have received several awards, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (now known as the Costa Award).
The Amber Spyglass remains the only children’s book nominated for the Booker Prize. The Times named him one of the '50 greatest British writers since 1945′ in 2008, and he was made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire for his services to literature in 2019.
Pullman’s connection with Oxford and the Bodleian is well-known: the city has been his home for decades. He was an undergraduate at Exeter College and became a teacher in the city and he has frequently engaged with the Library’s programme, including last year’s Oxford Reads for Rushdie event. It is therefore no surprise that both Oxford and the Library feature prominently in his fantasy trilogy and accompanying volumes, and it is the Bodleian Library itself (or Bodley’ Library, as it is referred to in the books) that in the novels hosts one of the famous alethiometers as well as the texts that the fictional scholars used to conduct their research. A replica of the alethiometer, which was commissioned by Pullman from artist Tony Thomson in 2008, was also recently included in the Gifts and Books exhibition hosted at the Weston Library.
Speaking of his award, Pullman said: ‘I couldn’t be more pleased, and startled, and proud, and humbled. The Bodleian Library is an institution I’ve revered since I first swore not to start a fire inside it back in 1965, along with all my fresh-faced contemporaries matriculating that year. I’ve never kindled any flame inside these majestic buildings, nor been tempted to; and to find myself the recipient of this magnificent award is a great honour. I am profoundly happy to have been chosen this year to receive the Bodley Medal.’
Richard Ovenden commented: ‘Philip Pullman is quite simply one of the greatest writers of modern times. He works combine powerful story-telling with profoundly intelligent perspectives on the human condition and on the interplay between great forces and individual people. His work transcends traditional boundaries between what is considered writing for children and for adults, and combines major critical acclaim with huge popular appeal. His writing is so firmly rooted in Oxford, and brings together the city and the University that he is the perfect recipient of the Bodley Medal.’