Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
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.
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.