Incidental extras

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

I seem to have abandoned — temporarily, I hope — my original summer reading plans and, instead of the titles I’d chosen for my Ten Books of Summer, other works (mostly rereads) are clamouring for my attention. And as I’ve always maintained that leisure reading should be for pleasure I’ve yielded to the temptation … which is absolutely fine in my book.

So I’ve just finished a reread of The Amber Spyglass and am preparing a considered review of that, followed with a quick shufti through Lyra’s Oxford to refresh my memory of that. Then it’s on — finally! — to The Secret Commonwealth.

While I gather my thoughts on the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy this may be also a good moment to pause and reflect on some incidentals.

Lyra’s Oxford, from the book of the same name

In Lyra’s Oxford (2003) Pullman has included some fascinating extras: a map of the Oxford in Lyra’s world produced by Smith & Strange at Globetrotter House in Beaumont Street; a postcard from former nun Dr Mary Malone to her friend Angela after just moving to Oxford; a two-page extract from a guidebook to Oxford which mentions Queen Zenobia in passing; and part of a leaflet advertising a cruise by the SS Zenobia to the Levant.

It’s extraordinary that the 2003 novelette’s Zenobia references will only be taken up fully in The Secret Commonwealth thirteen years later. This speaks highly of Pullman’s skill in orchestrating his grand design: extracts from documents which, at first reading, make no coherent sense at the time of publication, retrospectively take on the significance intended. In this way Pullman is almost like the figure of Urizen (in William Blake’s illustration The Ancient of Days) measuring the earth with his golden compass dividers, planning its dimensions.

Urizen, by William Blake

Pullman did the same for Once Upon a Time in the North when the extras included letters written by Lyra in preparation for an MPhil in Economic History at St Sophia’s College. The dissertation’s unwieldy title is ‘Developments in patterns of trade in the European Arctic region with particular reference to independent cargo balloon carriage (1950-1970)’ which tells us at least two things: Lyra’s future career direction, and that the incident described in the 2008 novelette with Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison occurs at least 30 years before the first trilogy’s narrative.

And now with the second trilogy, The Book of Dust, we are starting to discern more connections in the author’s vast design. The announcement of a further novelette — Serpentine — to be published in October 2020 will no doubt provide further incidental extras for dedicated fans to pore over.

The sequence so far, excluding the as yet unnamed third volume of The Book of Dust, is as follows (links are to my reviews):

Once Upon a Time in the North (2008)
La Belle Sauvage (2018) TBD
Northern Lights (1995) HDM
The Subtle Knife (1997) HDM
The Amber Spyglass (2000) HDM
Lyra’s Oxford (2003)
Serpentine (written 2004, publication 2020)
The Secret Commonwealth (2019) TBD

Twenty-five years on from the appearance of Northern Lights it’s evident that however much tweaking may have happened over that period Pullman had a blueprint which he has pretty much stuck to. I’m sure sticklers will be well aware of any inconsistencies but I remain in awe of his consistent vision for Lyra and her world, its denizens and its dæmons. These trilogies and their incidental extras have been one classy project, aided by the addition of illustrations by several talented artists (including the author).

So you’ll see my compass bearing for matters literary has been reset. I will of course have managed to read ten books by the close of three months ending August (I’m close to that magic number already) … only it won’t necessarily be all the ones I put myself down for.

10 thoughts on “Incidental extras

  1. Shockingly, I’ve not read either of the novelettes yet – despite owning copies for ages and getting Pullman to sign them! I have the ‘new’ one on order. I think I ought to remedy this too, and then get on with The Secret Commonwealth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got the first hb editions of the novelettes (for which I’m grateful as the pbs are poor cousins in most respects) but unsigned, sadly! I’m enjoying The Secret Commonwealth so far though I’ve seen a lot of disappointed reviewers bemoaning there’s more chat and less magical action than in HDM — but I’m more interested in the human aspect that Pullman focuses on here than in mere novelty.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Apart from anything else it’s impressive that he has maintained his grand design over twenty-five years, but I’ve been enjoying revisiting the original trilogy in rapid succession with the ‘prequel’ and the novelettes.


  2. I am loving this study! I’ve not tucked into the second trilogy yet–I have a feeling it will be the way I survive the coming winter. You’ve struck one of the major reasons I admire Pullman’s work so much–the depth and breadth of his story-world. As you say, he has a grand design at play, which means all that lives and occurs has purpose and drive for that design. As a reader, you know you will not be drudging through minutiae, which is always my dread when I encounter a new fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, all that minutiae is somehow relevant, not fillers shoved in just because he’d invented them but because they’re crucial to character development or because they’ll be reintroduced at the appropriate moment, I so agree, Jean.

      I’m well into the Commonwealth instalment now (my review for The Amber Spyglass scheduled for tomorrow) and am already seeing links with all the preceding publications — it’s quite thrilling, even awesome!

      Liked by 1 person

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