This map plots the settings and references in Northern Lights

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Oxford
All Souls College
GNU Free Documentation LicenseAll Souls College - Credit: Richard Gallagher

The first part of the book takes place entirely in an old university city which retains many of the features of the Oxford in our world.

Oxford is a city in the English county of Oxfordshire. It is also known as the "city of dreaming spires", a term coined by the poet Matthew Arnold to describe the dramatic architecture of the city. This is especially relevant to Northern Lights, where the traditional architecture of the city adds so much to the tone of the novel and helps invoke an otherworldly feel.

St Hugh's College
Creative Commons AttributionSt Hugh's College - Credit: Fittoprint

Lyra lives at Jordan College which, although fictional, seems to be based on Pullman's own Exeter college. Many of the other colleges mentioned in the novel are real, such as St. Hugh's, where several of Lyra's friendly rivals hail from. The architecture of the university is grandiose and spectacular, yet traditional. Our adventurous heroine roams all over the city, including onto the Library roof where, she confesses to her uncle, she and Roger often play.

 

Tadpole Bridge - River Thames
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeTadpole Bridge - River Thames - Credit: Nigel James

Another feature of Oxford that is integral to the plot of Northern Lights is the network of rivers. These provide a highway for the riverboat-dwelling Gyptians, who will become valuable allies to Lyra as the story progresses. The main two rivers running through Oxford are the River Thames (called the Isis where it passes through the town) and the River Cherwell.  In the book, canals are also used by the Gyptians in their narrow boats.