Nicholas Tucker Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman
Wizard Books 2003
Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will have been cheered by the announcement of the publication of the (as they say) long-awaiting follow-up entitled The Book of Dust. Like HDM this will appear in three volumes, and the first — titled La Belle Sauvage — will be published in October this year by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books in the UK, and Random House Children’s Books in the US, according to the author’s own website.
Eager to revisit HDM in some shape or form, especially as the series has been around a score of years since I first read the three books (rather less for the two slim spin-offs that appeared subsequently) I looked at Nicholas Tucker’s brief study as a kind of refresher course and to see if it duplicated or complimented Laurie Frost’s encyclopaedic Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guidefirst published by Scholastic in 2006.
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.
Eftsoones out of her hidden cave she called
An hideous beast, of horrible aspect,
That could the stoutest courage have appalled;
Monstrous misshaped, and all his back was specked
With thousand spots of colours quaint elect,
Thereto so swift, that it all beasts did pass:
Like never yet did living eye detect;
But likest it to an Hyena was,
That feeds on women’s flesh, as others feede on grass.
— Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Book III, Canto VII, 22
In Spenser’s extraordinary allegorical epic in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and her government he comes up with striking image after image and kaleidoscopic incident after incident. I’ve only dipped into The Faerie Queene now and again but this incident came to mind when I was reading Philip Pullman’s first follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage. For those struggling with Spenser’s language, here’s a prose version of the circumstances surrounding the creature’s appearance, which includes a young innocent maiden fleeing from perils:
Philip Pullman: Northern Lights Illustrations by Philip Pullman, cover alethiometer illustration by David Scutt His Dark Materials: Book One Alethiometer edition, with additional text by the author
Scholastic Press 2007 (1995)
It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.
Northern Lights is the first, and in some ways the best, of Pullman’s imaginative and innovative His Dark Materials trilogy. Crammed full of ideas and yet never tripped up by them, this starts in lively fashion with a mystery and a murder attempt, then turns into a rollercoaster ride that gets more and more intense, eventually ending with the enigmatic words “and walked into the sky”. Pullman’s skill is that even a sceptical reader can accept cliff-ghasts, speaking polar bears and a sky full of witches at the same time as scientific terms such as elementary particles and technology such as gas balloons.
In fact, the world that’s described sounds so often like something out of a Victorian steampunk vision that it’s often hard to recall that this is also a world with modern concrete structures and even atomic power stations. It is, in fact, a little like the world the author was himself brought up in: born in 1946, Pullman grew up in a postwar England struggling with rationing (which only ended in 1954), a drear world which saw smog frequently devastate London (until the 1956 Clean Air Act began to tackle it, in the same year as the first civil nuclear power station become operational) and during which a paternalistic Conservative government were to be in power for some thirteen of the nineteen years after peace had been declared.
It is into a world like this, then, that we become aware of Lyra Belacqua, a “healthy, thoughtless child” (according to some Oxford scholars), a girl who unbeknown to herself is destined to initiate great and permanent change. The first indication that this is not our world is the mention of her daemon, Pantalaimon, an alter ego who appears in animal form and speaks.
Laurie Frost: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)
Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.
Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.
Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.
A post I wrote recently for Witch Week explored one aspect of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Theory of Binary Opposites, namely that of the nasty and irredeemably dastardly antagonist. Because the week’s theme was Villains I dealt rather less with the figure on the other side of the continuum, the relatively innocent protagonist.
In fantasy fiction written for younger readers that figure tends to be a person one can identify with: whatever their gender they as youngsters usually have to face up to their morally corrupt binary opposite by mostly using inner resources; and often they have to cope without familial — especially parental — help.
A typical scenario might play out in this way: a notional orphan — one who believes their parents dead, or at least missing — is pivotal in a conflict against an evil regime. They spy another world from a wardrobe, cupboard or similar hidey-hole; they are susceptible to abduction but ultimately prove instrumental in releasing other children from slavery or worse; they exhibit quick-wittedness, or bravery, resourcefulness, loyalty or compassion, or any combination of these; above all they are individuals to admire, cheer on and wish well.
Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)
What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)
The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.
The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.
And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.
I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.
But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.
Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.
Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.
I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.
As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.
Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.
The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.
Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.
“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.
The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)
“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’
The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.
At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.