Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)
Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.
This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?
Clockwork is a superb novelette, a literary fairytale with a Gothick flavour in the tradition of The King of the Golden River and Pinocchio. With working automata — one of which becomes human — prohibitions, magic words, suspense, compassion, a sinister “philosopher of the night”, cowardly townsfolk, moral decisions to make and, of course, a royal family, Clockwork has the toolbox of motifs and situations to satisfy pretty much all one’s expectations. Add to that appealing illustrations by Peter Bailey and authorial asides in the form of text boxes (full of informative details and improving advice) and this is a book with very broad appeal, from pre-teens who like shivers down their backs to adults who appreciate intertextuality, metafictional devices lightly done and quiet punning.
This adult, then, liked the allusions to Greek mythology: Talos was the brazen robot in Jason and the Argonauts who may be referenced by the mechanical knight with the sword, who menaces any speaker who utters one specific word. The single way to halt this murderous approach is similar to that used by Medea to nullify Talos — by chanting a spell. Further, the Dr Kalmenius who creates these quasi-living automata is like Victor Frankenstein, but he also resembles Geppetto, who carves the puppet Pinocchio out of wood. The only thing Kalmenius cannot do is to fashion a living heart, one that can drive his creations for longer than a few years; there’s only one way that he knows of, and he’s not the person to accomplish that.
Thus Clockwork is about creation, and the distinction between manufacturing and engendering, between the inanimate made animate for a while, and true animation which involves the anima or soul. This is the heart of the novelette, both literally and quintessentially. But Pullman wraps this all up with a rattling good narrative, a winter’s tale that displays mock solemnity without wearing its heart on its sleeve. To find that heart you have to put in just a little effort.
Clockwork is another post loosely themed with Lory’s blog The Emerald City Book Review Witch Week focus ‘Dreams of Arthur’. After all, it’s a ghost story with a knight in it …
Some images from The Clockwork Moth’s production of Clockwork as a shadow puppet play can be seen here.