Sir Philip Pullman has been awarded the Bodley Medal in a ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre.
The medal is awarded by the Bodleian Library “to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, media and communications, science and philanthropy”. Speaking to Cherwell, Sir Philip said that receiving the award meant “A great deal! I’ve been using the Bodleian Libraries for fifty-odd years now, so I really am humbled.”
Philip Pullman is a celebrated author, having been named as one of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008. He is most notable for the His Dark Materials trilogy and has received various other awards, including the Carnegie Medal in 1995. Sir Philip is also an Oxford alumnus (Exeter 1965), and when asked about his time at Oxford he told Cherwell: “Things have changed enormously since I was a student. You had a grant to live on, there were no fees, it was a time when this country was civilised and they thought it was a good idea to send people to university. Now you’re in debt for your whole lifetime. I felt privileged to be here.”
There was a discussion by a panel that included authors Erica Wagner and Cressida Cowell, academics Dr Philip Goff and Dr Margaret Kean and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. In 2004, Dr Williams notably praised a National Theatre production of His Dark materials, which received backlash at the time from those who perceived it as ‘anti-religious’. Sir Philip was then joined in conversation by Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian. They talked about Sir Philip’s life, his work and views on the importance of literature.
When asked if people still treasure books as much as they should, Sir Philip told Cherwell that “people who do will always treasure the books they have, and probably always have since they were first able to hold a book in their hands and make out what it was saying. There’s a magic about that which you don’t get from any other media.”
He was quick to emphasise the importance of library access, an issue he has campaigned on in the past, arguing that “the most important thing” is to “make sure that books are available in every school from the smallest primary school to the largest secondary school, with a decent library that’s properly funded and looked after by a qualified librarian”. He added that “we need to read books for pleasure but you can’t do that if the books aren’t there”.
On the subject of counteracting the decline of the country’s public libraries, Sir Philip told Cherwell “Don’t vote Conservative, it’s that simple. It’s all part of the general tendency that’s been around since the 70s that ‘public is bad and private is good’, but we must change that, I think it’s changing and people are seeing it.”
The conversation followed by an audience Q&A before Sir Phillip was presented with the Bodley Medal. The Bodley Medal is the Bodleian Libraries’ highest honour, and previous recipients have included Zadie Smith (2022), Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (2019) and Sir David Attenborough (2015). The original medal was struck in 1646 in honour of Thomas Bodley, and 100 replicas were struck by the Royal Mint, using the copper from the old roof of Duke Humfrey’s library. The first of these was awarded in 2002.