I was spurred by the recent BBC TV adaptation of Northern Lights to re-read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, mainly because I couldn’t remember enough of the plot to grasp how they’d changed it, but also because when I read it before (aloud, to Spawn at bedtimes), it had been a very pleasant experience. I’d also like to read The Book of Dust, a related trilogy (not strictly a sequel, as the first book takes place before the events related in His Dark Materials) of which Pullman has published two volumes: it would seem like a good idea first to unpick the tangled mush of images, characters and events that remains in my brain from the first reading. These are not lightweight as children’s books go, but they’re just slim enough to publish as a bind-up, so I’ve revisited them in a single, closely printed, thousand-page volume.
Of course these are not children’s books, according to Pullman, who says he didn’t have an age in mind for his audience. They happen to be about children, and they tell a metaphorical science-fantasy tale about coming-of-age, but they address their themes with seriousness and don’t obviously sugar-coat either their critique of authority or the violence and cruelty they sometimes depict. Pullman is a wordsmith, who takes a great deal of care over his language, and crafts his books with detailed attention to both plotting and aesthetics. I have some doubts about his claim, however.
Pullman’s narrator has the voice of an adult addressing children. There’s not really any way around that: it’s an interventionist and opinionated narrator of a sort that’s not been at home in fiction for adults for a century or so. For instance, chapter 15 of Northern Lights begins with a dubious explanation that the protagonist Lyra’s courage in adverse circumstances can be ascribed to her lack of imagination. While such direct assertions are rare, this is by no means a unique example: they serve both to draw attention to the narrator, and to flesh him out (I think it’s fair to identify him as Pullman’s textual avatar) with a personality. This is not a post-modern manoeuvre, or a hidden first-person protagonist—there are none of the signals or playful devices that might justify such an interpretation. It is simply a decidedly old-school, authoritative narrator, of the sort that was conventional in Victorian fiction. It is a literally patronising voice, which does not credit the reader with an active role in deriving meaning from the text.
This observation is not really intended as a criticism: it makes the books a comfortable and cosy place in which to hear Pullman tell the story. You feel that you’re in safe hands, and that relatively few demands will be made on you—it somehow cushions the challenging politics and occasionally disturbing narrative. It does make his claim to be writing for all ages a little shaky, however. It also seems curiously out of step with the consistently anti-authoritarian agenda and tone of the trilogy.
The ‘good guys’ in the trilogy are engaged in a struggle against a Catholic Church and a celestial bureaucracy arranged around an authority, ‘The Authority’, whose claims to be increate are false. There is no God in Pullman’s world, and virtue is clearly ascribed to the opponents of power. His Dark Materials is a story about the fight for liberty from authority, about the struggle to establish a ‘republic of heaven’ free from coercive moralities and hierarchies—and yet the text is structured around an absolute authority, the authority in fact of its creator, who dispenses truth without inviting discussion or debate.
Pullman is clearly not an anarchist. His world is also populated by ‘good’ authorities—those that govern with the consent of their people. I’m not talking about elected delegates, but of kings and queens. Iorek Byrnison, king of the armoured bears; John Faa, king of the Western Gyptians (the Gyptians are canal-faring Roma); Serafina Pekkala, queen of a tribe of witches. All of these aristocratic figures, and more, govern with a kind of rightness, entitled to their positions by virtue of a nobility of spirit that can also be found in similar characters in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, there are many, many ideological parallels between the worlds created by both fantasy authors, despite their clear difference on the matter of religion.
Like his authoritarian narrator, these figures offer comfort. That’s the real fantasy here: Pullman offers his readers a world in which we can safely place our interests in the hands of these fundamentally good, brave and wise leaders—these nurturing, parental figures. This makes it, in my heartfelt opinion, a fable for children. So as an argument against God and authority, I have to say I think this trilogy falls short.; but the facets I’ve discussed, that destabilise that argument, are also positive facets of Pullman’s greatest strength, which is world-building.
Northern Lights takes place entirely within Lyra’s world, a parallel universe to our own, in which much is the same, but much is different. The parts of it we get to see are, largely, England (particularly Oxford) and Scandinavia. These milieus are beautifully constructed, and plausibly so, with each fundamental difference from our own world having social and cultural consequences that Pullman thinks through with perceptive care. His England, of Gyptian river boats, zeppelins, oil lamps, fusty Oxford colleges and magic, is a wonderful one, to which I’ll always yearn to return. His device of the daemon, a kind of externalised, animal-shaped facet of consciousness, is a brilliant one, which opens many fascinating avenues for storytelling.
As this is a multiple-universe narrative, there are too many worlds to give them all a mention, but the world introduced in The Amber Spyglass, in which the denouement of the entire trilogy takes place, is a truly superb piece of invention. If it was abstracted from the narrative and written down, I’d probably assume it came from a hard science-fiction novel—the parts of the narrative that take place there constitute a miniature, ecologically-minded planetary romance in the tradition of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy.
These beautiful essays in the discipline of secondary-world design are the lubricant that makes Pullman’s characters, plots and themes mesh together like a magnificent mechanism—like the magical-clockwork ‘alethiometer’ that plays such an important part in his narrative. His plotting is exemplary, and his characters are well-rounded, complex creations, neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil, but neither aspect of his work is truly outstanding. If he were a painter, we’d call him a great colourist—it’s image, atmosphere, visual description and cultural detail that make his work so rich. This book, which is a remarkable achievement for all its old-fashioned narratology, is a detailed and vivid panorama. It makes a place, which if I had encountered it as a child, would undoubtedly be a part of me in the same way as Middle Earth—as it is, I’m just a tourist there, but I’ll be going back for a few visits yet, I’m sure.