A northern struggle

Once Upon a Time in the North
by Philip Pullman.
Engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2008.

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel.

Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

Aurora seen from the island of Kvaløya in Norway 23.01.2011 (Lars Tiede)

Pullman has a strong moral conscience which emerges in much of his writing. Here it is the corrupting power of big business, an issue which has long been with us but is even more evident in the 21st century. As Lee is informed by a supporting character,

The fact is this, Mr Scoresby: there is a struggle going on throughout the northern lands, of which this little island is a microcosm. On the one hand there are the properly constituted civil institutions […] and on the other the uncontrolled power of the large private companies […] which are dominating more and more of public life, though they are not subject to any form of democratic sanction.
— Lieutenant Haugland of the Customs and Revenue Board, Novy Odense (pp 87-8)

The “little island” is the community of Novy Odense, but Pullman could equally have been thinking of Britain, which some see as in hock to multinationals. The town itself (“New Odense”) is named from the famous Danish town, chosen perhaps because storyteller Hans Christian Anderson is one of the municipality’s most famous sons, and maybe also because Odense itself derives from Odin, Norse myth’s famous wandering god. That combination of fairytale, myth and traveller no doubt appealed to the author’s sense of aptness.

But the story’s the thing that grips, much more than speculation about its possible origins. Lee is the archetypal stranger in town when he arrives in his balloon, reminding me a bit of Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. He soon finds that suspicion is endemic among the inhabitants, compounded by an imminent election for mayor and sly individuals who try to befriend him. This being a fantasy he not only has an animal daemon as his other self but he also makes the acquaintance of a talking bear, one who’s invaluable in Lee’s fight for justice on behalf of a Dutch sea captain. Naturally all the incipient tensions burst out into violent conflict, with a terrific climax in a dock warehouse described in nail-biting detail.

In common with some editions of other volumes in this sequence, Once Upon a Time in the North also incorporates lovely little touches — ‘authentic memorabilia’ like letters, receipts and pages from handbooks — plus a board game called Peril of the Pole, all lovingly recreated by John Lawrence. Without the thrill of the narrative to sustain it they would mean little to the casual reader; but in combination with the tale they hopefully will not only tease any newcomers to Pullman’s multiverse but also encourage them to explore further.

36 thoughts on “A northern struggle

  1. I loved this and His Dark Materials trilogy. Somehow he managed to make them so real. I think the idea of stepping between worlds made it even more so – says a lot for our imagination and psyche as well as his and his writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That dual life we lead — existing in the world but also in our own imagination — is compounded by our ability to inhabit worlds created by the imaginations of other minds, with the pages of books acting as portals to these other realms.

      As you say, Alastair, Pullman has that true author’s knack of making the unreal seem real, and the beings that inhabit it as solid as the humans we daily come into contact with.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I not only went to an entertaining workshop on creative writing by him I’ve actually got the first of the Thursday Next novels autographed and stamped by him, but — to my chagrin — never got past the first chapter for some reason! Must revisit …

          Liked by 1 person

          1. We enjoyed a talk by him at Pontardawe Library a few years ago. The Thursday Next books are very enjoyable reading but very different to the Dark Materials books. Fforde’s Shades of Grey is different again and offers more serious parallels to current society.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. earthbalm

    I love Philip Pullman’s writing (apart from the “Ancient of Days” essay that spoils “The Amber Spyglass”. I too love the add-ons of “Once Upon a Time in the North” and “Lyra’s Oxford”. Such things usually add authenticity and believability to the narratives. Nice post Chris, I’ll be sharing this. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Calmgrove’s Northern Struggle – Earth Balm Creative

  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    I still haven’t read this novella (or Lyra’s Oxford) despite owning signed copies. It really sounds lovely.I really should get my act together before the new one comes out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I possibly enjoyed this more than Lyra’s Oxford — it was more self-contained than that sequel (‘postquel’ is the ugly word I’ve seen used by some fans, yugh), probably because I wanted more about Lyra than was offered. But the ‘authentic memorabilia’ for the sequel was even more enjoyable than this one. Yes, do give them a go, and soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have had a surprisingly hard time getting a copy of this book. No local bookstores carried it. I looked for it a few months ago online and only found a used copy going for about $50. I just checked Amazon again after reading your blog, and it looks like it has been reissued in anticipation of Pullman’s new book. I’m ordering it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was sensible and acquired a first printing of the first edition when it was first issued! (Or perhaps it was a birthday present — much more likely.) Am I glad I hung on to it. 🙂 Did it not get issued in paperback later? Or is that my imagination? Anyway, hope you enjoy it!


  6. I have only read the trilogy and realized only recently there is so much more Pullman wrote about this world. This book sounds intriguing to me, because when I read something I like it is wonderful to find supplemental books or books that stand up in their own right that are connected

    As an aside, Iorek Byrnison is one of my favorite characters in HDM and I am happy to know there is more about him!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Iorek is a wonderful creation, isn’t he? (Though I wish I could now lose Ian McKellern’s gruff if otherwise mellifluous voice in the disappointing movie.) Do hope you find a copy of this slim book and find it all I’ve hyped it up to be!


  7. I love Philip Pullman’s writing and – as you highlight in your review – his suspiscion of those in power, whether in business or in organised religion. That the man wishes to communicate this healthy scepticism to young people in such an entertaining way just makes the man a champion for good. Haven’t read this but of course I remember the characters from the Dark Materials trilogy. They’re the kind of books you enthuse about to others and can’t understand anyone else not being hungry to read them.
    Lovely review Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m anticipating a reread of the trilogy before October and the first part of The Book of Dust, but given my lethargy who knows if I’ll achieve that?! But yes, I personally think Pullman steers a fine line between preachiness and a good story, but as all narratives imply an authorial stance and as I happen to largely share his values that’s no bad thing — just bad if you happen to disagree with his politics and views on organised religion!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Excited about the Book of Dust and the Beeb’s adaptation of his Dark Materials – whenever that might be screened. And yes, I’m sure he’s a very irritating man for many, with his views on the despotic power of organised religion, which is probably why Hollywood has shied away from faithful adaptations of his work.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d imagine the BBC’s HDM will begin around Christmas, and that they’re in post-production right now. They’ve really kept it well under wraps, but I know it was being filmed in South Wales. Like you, can’t wait to see how they deal with the Church aspect.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I heard it was filmed in Wales by a Welsh production company I think. I read an article about it some time ago and they did say they’d be more faithful to the books than the Hollywood attempt. Be fantastic to see the books done well.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. A strange thing with Pullman is that when I was introduced to his Dark Materials books by wildly enthusiastic elder grandchildren I just never took to his writing. I can’t even tell you why. The books simply don’t gel with me and I find them boring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He can be quite dark (which may not be to your taste) and seemingly devoid of humour (though less so in his work for younger readers). Some also find the profusion of ideas a bit too indigestible. As I contemplate a reread in the near future I may be in a better position to assess it more critically. Possibly.

      Notwithstanding all this, I think this novella may have more appeal for you: talking bears and daemons aside, this is in many ways a straightforward action yarn, as if The Riddle of the Sands was set in the tundra.


    1. Yes, those retro illustrations are wonderful, my favourite is the map of Lyra’s Oxford in the novelette of the same name. I’m not sure if it’s even included in subsequent editions, sadly.

      And I’m unsurprised you like the fictional Arctic settings — you wrote a post about it recently, didn’t you! What about Antarctic settings? I reviewed Jenny Diski’s revealing memoir ‘Skating to Antarctica’ last year, worth a read. And an A S Byatt’s novella I read is partly set in the Arctic, can’t remember the title — I’ll look it up now.

      Liked by 1 person

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