My children are now 21 and beyond the age of being reasoned with or read to. This has its advantages: reasoning has never come naturally to me. But I profoundly miss reading to them as they slumped against me in symmetrical warmth (they are non-identical twins). There were some books, it’s true, over which I fell asleep. Reading The Hobbit aloud enabled me to acquire the skill of slicing out three unnecessary subordinate clauses from a sentence without making it look as though I was skipping anything at all. Reading the Alex Rider series made me long to break free of the relentless rhythm of subject, combative verb, object. Or no verb. And add a florid subordinate clause in which dear vigorous Alex might experience an equivocal thought or a complex emotion. Reading the Harry Potter books was torment. Could I yet again suppress the inner groan as the apparently tricephalic hybrid of Harry-Ron-and-Hermione proceeded to do exactly the same thing yet again, or as, once more, I had to recite a tedious recapitulation of the past?
Some books, though, just read themselves – E. Nesbit with her wit and hidden political mischief, C.S. Lewis when his eye was on the story. And then there was Philip Pullman – whom I met first in his delightful retelling of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp (1993), and then in the cosmically ambitious His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000). I am no doubt unusually central to the target zone of fiction that pours Milton into the melting-pot with Blake in a form where the sass and speed of the story keeps the kids happy too. But it’s not just me. His Dark Materials gives you the feel and the fear of living.
Pullman’s daemons play a large part in this. For the uninitiated, these are the animal-shaped talking exterior souls which all humans have in the alternative universe in which His Dark Materials begins, and from which only witches can physically separate by any distance, unless some hideous human violence intervenes. In Northern Lights, the first volume of the trilogy, the sinister General Oblation Board attempts to slice children away from their daemons, which reduces them to pale shadows of themselves. Daemons are at once cues to how to regard people and potentially false friends. A dog-daemon denotes a servant (which as a dog-lover who is aware of the autonomy of those in service to their masters I could never quite accept); snakes indicate, well, snakes; larger beasts tend to connote that their people are creatures of excitement and fear. According to one online test my own daemon is a scarlet macaw. According to another it is a wildcat, although I’m sure it is a German Shepherd. Lord Asriel, the heroine Lyra’s father and the liberating but power-hungry Satan of Pullman’s universe, has a terrifying snow leopard daemon called Stelmaria whose remoteness and violence evokes the excitement of revolutionary power. Mrs Coulter, Lyra’s mother and the other not quite villain of the piece, combines saccharine pseudo-mother with a killer manipulativeness betokened by her sadistic daemon, a golden long-haired monkey which looks at people as though it would like to tear them apart. Children’s daemons alter until puberty, and are now a moth and now a polecat or a mouse or a badger, depending on mood and setting.
The pliancy of children is the big theme of His Dark Materials. Lyra is one of the great creations of children’s fiction because she can lie like a pro and then be invisibly bland and then unutterably charming. Her daemon, Pantalaimon, is the imaginary friend everyone has always wanted. The hero, Will, a teenage boy whose depressed mother is one of the many pieces of near social realism in the trilogy, acquires a ‘subtle knife’ that enables him to cut a window which can be passed through into different universes, some more, some less like our own, but which will snag on the matter between them and break if he thinks of his mother. Will is less changeable than Lyra, more of a dogged fixed point, but still has qualities that combine the trickster and the heroical fighter. Tenacity (which may at times justify lying or violence or theft) combined with a sense of fairness are the main qualities valued in Pullman’s world. This is the reason the most memorable creation in the trilogy is the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. Lyra meets him in her journey north when she is trying to rescue her friend Roger from the General Oblation Board. Iorek’s ferocity and unshakeable instinct for what is true makes him morally terrifying in the way truly admirable creatures are: they make you a little afraid because there are no exceptions or exclusions, and you know that if you don’t deserve their affection you simply won’t receive it.
Perhaps the episode that best shows Pullman’s ability to take a familiar generic trope and twist it anew is the set-piece death of the aeronaut Lee Scoresby in the second book, The Subtle Knife (in Lyra’s world Zeppelins and balloons replace planes). It’s a classic shootout at the pass (the chapter is called ‘Alamo Gulch’), where Lee, a buccaneering wild-westerling whose daemon is an arctic hare called Hester, fights off attackers in order to help Lyra’s rebellion. It’s Boy’s Own with naphtha and balloons instead of petrol and aeroplanes; but when Lee and his daemon are finally about to die – well, it’s pretty hard to read aloud without a choke in the voice. ‘We held ’em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra,’ Hester says. ‘Then she was pressing her little proud broken self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died.’
Pullman’s range of emotional registers is immense. He can describe and attach value to tidying up your room, as when Lyra runs off with the Gyptians (who travel in long-boats) and has to keep her cabin shipshape; and he can evoke the gulf of pain that opens up when a character has to move too far away from the daemon that is part of herself. He can also do a sexy witch. And he can make it clear that for children to think rebelliously they must also make efforts to think fairly. Underlying it all is a love of craft and making: Iorek the armoured bear has at one point to reforge the subtle knife, which Will has broken by thinking of his mother as he slices between worlds. Iorek’s precision and exactness at work (‘watching closely, his paw held ready to snatch the pieces out’) is the kind of concentrated labour that Pullman identifies with the chief goods of the universe, where you focus all your attention and skill, and make something.
There are moments when Pullman’s own skill as a maker is pulled off course by thoughts from outside. The metaphysics of the whole story depend on the existence and detection of Dust, with a capital ‘D’, which is a sentient form of matter that is attracted by intentional and skilled actions, but which is also identified in a more or less explicitly Blakean way with Experience. It starts to cluster around humans as they reach puberty. Dust is regarded by the Magisterium, the church authorities in Pullman’s ecclesiarchical world, as a bad thing, and is identified with original sin. As the oppressive hold of the Magisterium on the multiverse tightens, it is discovered that Dust is flowing out of all the different worlds and into a void. Towards the end of The Amber Spyglass, the last book in the trilogy, this deadly flow of creative intention away from the universe is reversed by Lyra and Will. After they have brought about the end of the Authority (a crinkled God figure whose power has been usurped by evil angels), Lyra and Will are reunited in a paradisal universe populated by elephant-like creatures that run on wheels, and in this garden of Eden they acknowledge their love for each other. This is a moment that was prophesied by the witches and feared by the Magisterium, and represents a second Fall of Man, in which an innocent girl and an innocent boy acquire experience in a way that is supposed to be at once morally beneficial and cosmically significant. They eat fruit and kiss. Pullman goes a bit coy about what happens next: ‘Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.’ Then Dust starts to reverse its flow back from the void.
The mythic framework at this point gets carried away with itself and the fiction begins to break down: the desire for a neat inversion of the biblical Fall leads to a version of it that doesn’t quite make sense. We’re supposed to think that children and their freedom and transformative potential are good (their daemons are playfully free); yet suddenly we’re also supposed to think that the creative energy of Dust, betokening experience and practical skill and sexual activity, is also a good thing and that one particular pair of now grown-up children can bring it back into the world, provided they first kill the Authority. All this is a bit like the revival of Aslan at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle – a book for which Pullman expresses a strong dislike in one of the essays in Daemon Voices, and which is indeed enormously inferior to Prince Caspian as a direct result of its obtrusive self-allegoresis. The Amber Spyglass is flawed by its author’s desire to move outside fiction into a world in which myth is made to become a vehicle for higher moral truths. And the real sign that this is happening is the way that at the end of the book we’re suddenly introduced to a whole new set of rules about the universe, of which there has been little sign before. Will and Lyra are from different worlds. We learn that it’s only possible to live for a short period in a world which is not one’s own, and so they can’t stay together. We also learn that each time the subtle knife cuts a passageway between worlds it releases a Spectre, one of the soul-sucking creatures which absorb the Dust from adults in the world of Cittàgazze, where the knife was made, leaving them zombies of depression. That means Will and Lyra can’t just settle for regular dates by slicing through the divisions between their several worlds because that would destroy others. So they part.
Pullman has defended the ‘unhappy’ ending of The Amber Spyglass as being ‘true to the formal pattern of the whole story: things splitting apart’. Now, I adore His Dark Materials. Its imaginative power derives, like that of all the best fantasy (a genre Pullman describes as ‘a great vehicle when it serves the purpose of realism and a lot of cobblers when it doesn’t’), from a combination of wild rule-breaking and the careful following through of the parallel logics of alternative worlds. It’s by pulling at rules that Pullman can make witches who are uncanny not because they are ugly or magical, but because they are the only creatures who can break the rule about always staying close to your daemon. It’s by constructing new rules to replace the old that Lyra can free souls from the underworld by persuading their warden harpies that people who can tell vivid stories about their lives deserve to be released and to dissolve into the physical world. But the new rules that leap out at the end of His Dark Materials aren’t like that. They are distinctly para-Christian, and are indeed a distorted version of the voice of the Great Forbidder Himself. Why should saving the world depend on a heroic act of self-renunciation? The dark example of the man on the cross is what makes it so. I once argued with my mother, Diana Wynne Jones, about the conclusions to her best books, The Homeward Bounders and Fire and Hemlock, both of which end in a similar way, with the main characters appearing to give up everything, including people they love, in order to anchor or reconstruct the rest of the world. She was adamant that these endings were not simply a relic of self-abnegating moralism from earlier children’s fiction, and I’m sure she was right. She had a deep personal need to position creativity on the far side of despair. But there is often a curiously strong talion effect in fantasy: the act of creating an alternative world seems often to carry as its price and punishment either the loss of the familiar world in which the central characters feel at home, or the loss of love.
The question provoked by the ending of His Dark Materials is not: ‘Why can’t human beings have it all, and be experienced and in love and imaginative too?’ because fantasy is definitely not to be equated with simple wish-fulfilment; the question is more: ‘Why, if you’re reversing a Christian vision of the Fall do you have to make love lead necessarily to renunciation; why do we need (imaginatively) a pair of Jesus figures who lose everything to save everybody?’ Pullman – who writes delightfully about fiction-writing – acknowledges in Daemon Voices that authors don’t always know what their books are really about, though he also makes clear that this doesn’t mean he’ll accept any old bullshit from uppity critics. But it is perhaps an inevitable consequence of seeking to invert the foundational beliefs of Christian religion that he should create a structure which is a shadowy replicant of the beliefs against which it rebels. He can’t give up on the Christian idea that giving things up is a cosmic good.
The first book in the new trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel to His Dark Materials. It’s named after a canoe, which indicates the main aspects of Pullman’s earlier writing on which it draws. The tidy concern for the shipshape that is present in the barges of the Gyptians and in the hand-craft of Iorek the bear is in the fabric of La Belle Sauvage. Its hero, Malcolm, a good boy who serves in his father’s pub but whose daemon is clearly not going to settle as a dog, checks over his boat, seeing ‘all the hoop-brackets were firm, counting the hoops themselves as they lay inside the canoe, making sure the tarpaulin was folded and stowed away neatly’. He uses it to rescue the baby Lyra from a multiplying series of institutional and ecclesiastical enemies of freedom. There is the terrifying League of St Alexander, which creates nests of informers within children’s schools, and the KGB-like Consistorial Court of Discipline, the part of the Magisterium that chases down heterodox thinkers. Behind these institutions lies Mrs Coulter, who in this book notionally retains her sexual magnetism without ever quite displaying the power of her chronologically later manifestations. The Catholic Church receives a small emollient sop in the form of the nuns at Godstow Priory, who initially shelter Lyra and who stand up to the bullies of the Magisterium. The para-biblical structure of Pullman’s imagination is further developed by an epoch-ending but not quite universal Flood: ‘There’s never been such a flood since Noah’s time, probly.’ Our hero, along with the grumpy Alice, who is on the threshold of adolescence, and whom he comes to love, take baby Lyra (who can do little but cry or coo or poo, while Pantalaimon, her daemon, is too often reduced to a flickering moth), down the swollen Thames on the Belle Sauvage to deliver her to Lord Asriel, who will be able to ensure that she is given the sanctuary at Jordan College (many of the colleges in Lyra’s Oxford have different names; this is more or less Exeter, where Pullman studied) of which she is the beneficiary at the start of His Dark Materials. Along the journey there are a few too many Lyra-as-Moses/chosen one references, but these are offset by some splendid river gods, a fine malignantly loving faerie (who seeks to own Lyra by breastfeeding her: might Pullman consider seeing somebody about the way mothers are represented in his fiction?) and a Gatsbyesque ghost ball peopled by gilded youth at which our heroes are transparent and invisible, and which reimagines that distinctively Oxford experience of being simply walked through by a senseless git in black tie. La Belle Sauvage becomes a riverrun through the Thames Valley, with nods to Spenser’s Faerie Queene in its celebration of imaginary versions of Englishness. But boy did I miss the witches (though we meet their queen, briefly), and the movement between worlds.
Pullman without those things becomes Leon Garfield (whom he greatly and rightly admires) plus daemons and sex. The principal villain in La Belle Sauvage is a paedophilic physicist called Gerard Bonneville, who has a three-legged hyena for a daemon and who pursues the Belle Sauvage down the Thames. He lacks the fearful and equivocal energy of the rebellious Asriel: his hyena daemon is a simple badge of perversion, informing his readers at once what kind of nasty creature he is. Pullman uses Bonneville to push out the boundaries and arbitrary decorums of children’s fiction (against which he has been a notable campaigner), not always to good effect: I don’t know another book in which a paedophile accompanied by a three-legged hyena is seen having sex with a nun. The notes appended to the essays and lectures collected as Daemon Voices frequently remark on the way in which things have changed for the worse since the pieces were originally written – it is of course hard not to notice that – with the death of free higher education, the birth of the hideous constraints of the national curriculum, and the growth of the cult of self-righteous recrimination in the name of virtue. La Belle Sauvage strikes similarly elegiac notes. Although it’s set in an earlier period than His Dark Materials it represents a future in which children are continually in danger from predatory sex pests, and in which state organisations are seeking to control our minds, in which ‘the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty,’ and in which (perish the thought) austerity government has failed to dredge the rivers and build flood defences around Oxford.
None of this matters too much, because Pullman’s skill as a storyteller can pull the plot along – although as the Belle Sauvage floats downriver it has to escape a small vortex of Oxporn (‘as the grey light faded outside the 600-year-old windows of Duke Humfrey’). But this book never escapes the central problem in writing a prequel to a work of fantastical imagination. Indeed it cruelly displays that problem by creating an episodic quest narrative of which anyone who has read His Dark Materials necessarily knows the outcome. A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. Pullman in Daemon Voices quotes Blake’s remark: ‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.’ It is an admirable statement. But writers who build new systems (and I would include Blake in this) can find that in seeking to liberate themselves from other people’s systems they have imprisoned themselves within their own. And when you are committed to the idea that breaking out of systems is the principal moral good, a book bound by the laws and foreknown outcomes of books that have already laid down its future must appear a peculiarly constraining thing.
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