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His Dark Materials
Tehanu's Seventeenth Note
I had to wait three years for Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials trilogy
to be finished but now with the publication of The Amber Spyglass, I am certain at
last: This is what Ive been waiting for since the year I discovered The Lord of
the Rings and The Wizard of Earthsea. I thought itd never happen again:
A fantasy trilogy to be read again and again, each time finding discovering more, each time
being swept away completely into another world and its unforgettable story.
Its not trying to be The Lord of the Rings (what a relief!) so dont
look for that immediate otherworldliness that Tolkiens language gives just by its
archaic nature. The strangeness and startlement are elsewhere, in the worlds and characters
Pullman invents, and the mystery that the story unravels. Big mysteries, in the end, like
why are we here? and What is the purpose of consciousness? They may
look like kids books, and the main characters are children, but dont be
Ever play that game of imagining a dinner party where you could invite anyone you liked,
living or dead? If youre a reader, youd probably invite your favourite authors.
Now, here I hit a snag: I cant imagine any way that Pullman and Tolkien could inhabit
the same room without breaking into some uproar. Thered grievous bodily sarcasm breaking
out and possibly even raised voices. Well, raised voices for sure, because Ive already
heard Pullman raise his voice once when asked what he thought of C S Lewis (He thinks hes
wicked and abominable) and he doesnt think much of Tolkien, besides crediting his
ability to write a ripping good yarn. What The Lord of the Rings says about human
nature is not very interesting, in his opinion.
Well, isnt it always embarrassing to have friends that cant stand the sight of
each other? This is one dinner party that would crash and burn.
For a start, Pullmans trilogy has been called the most vicious attack on organised
religion this reviewer has ever seen and its been accused of satanism. In the
interview I heard, Pullman retorted mildly that anyone who read his books and found theyd
been converted to satanism was welcome to write to the publisher and ask for their money back.
He had a dry wit and gracious manner uncannily like Tolkiens, I thought. Their view of
the world is shaped by different times, and one change that would have affected Tolkien most
is the secularisation of the present time. If in a parallel universe Tolkien had been born 60
years later could they have been twins? Would they meet over a decanter of Tokay and still
Happily for me, its unofficially Philip Pullman week here in NZ. Wham, suddenly everyone
whos anyone is reading His Dark Materials and talking about it including on the
marvellous Kim Hill show on Radio NZ. I cant tell you how strange this interview was.
There was Pullman with his mild, gentle Oxford dons voice and his inflexible will, brain
as sharp as a tack, sidestepping any questions about whether or not he was an atheist with a
certain practised elegance, though hes elswhere described himself as a Church of
Gordon Campbell of the NZ Listener was able to get closer to the answer: "...the rhythms
of the Book of Common Prayer are still deeply in the cells of my brain. I dont want to
be rid of them, or be without them. I do believe and try to uphold the injunctions towards
charity, but I dont take any notice of the commands to believe.....But the actual textures,
sounds, smells of an old country church on a cold winters morning...The light coming
through the stained-glass windows on a summers evening. The sound of the organ. These
are all part of my childhood. My grandfather was a country clergyman, and the example he set me
of charity and kindness is still profoundly important to me."
Coincidentally, as well as being Pullman week, the current state of Christianity is in the
news a lot here for various reasons. This appeared in the Feb. 10th Listeners
"Letters to the Editor: "Many Christians today understand God not so much in images
of a "supernatural being called God", but in terms of spirit, transcendence, mystery,
awe - a spiritual reality in life that is something other than human existence, yet integrated
Thats from the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland. Hed count as a reliable
witness on the state of faith today - or at leas,t Ive heard similar things from other
Pullmans trilogy moves more towards that idea than towards anything Tolkien could
agree with, I suspect. Its fantasy that is the child of a mind born more than half a century
later thanTolkien. Those two wouldnt mildly dislike each other, theyd probably detest
each other. Weird, because theyre so similar: Oxford dons, writers with a gift for lyric
prose, world-creators and fantasists who are concerned with the state of the human soul and the
beauty of the world, be it created or evolved.
Why that strange title, His Dark Materials? Its a quote from Miltons
Paradise Lost. It takes about halfway through the trilogy before you begin so see why
thats relevant. The full quotes on the flyleaf. I remember starting these books
wondering if this was another one of these authors that puts up a few favourite quotes in order
to show that theyre really into literature and up to writing a bit of it themselves. Oh
no, no no no. This time its not a cheap pedigree, it really is a clue to the depths in
this book. Pullmans said he hoped it made more people read Milton, and from what I gather,
its worked. Isnt it strange that two books could be based on Paradise
Lost - the Ainulindale in The Silmarillion is the other - and use it to reach
such different conclusions? Now at last heres a smashing defence for the view that Satan
is the most interesting character Milton wrote...(great, so Im not alone there.)
Im not going to tell you much of what happens in His Dark Materials because it would
destroy the fun of figuring out whats going on but I will say what got Pullman started -
the Biblical story of the Fall from grace in Eden. He recasts it as a fall from ignorance into
knowledge. Escaping ignorance is another thing I heard him argue for passionately. A major theme
in Pullmans trilogy is the difference between childhood and adulthood and the journey into
knowledge of choices. Its experience that makes us fully human, according to Pullman.
Funny thing is that Terry Pratchett says similar things (and hes supposed to be a funny
writer so he gets a lot of profound and controversial things into print that go right under the
radar of the book-burning brigade): "Individuals arent naturally paid-up members of
the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of
society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are...
He was describing how people do or dont become self-obssessed little sociopaths. Its
experience that makes the difference; its part of growing up and understanding ones
place in society, ones own self,coming to understand ones own body. In the Pullman
universe, puberty marks that transition from Innocence to Knowledge. (Yep, William Blakes
an influence.) Its weird to hear him talking in his reserved Oxford dons voice about
sexuality, with that slightly hesitant air that politely assumes that you may be as embarrassed
to hear it brought up as he is to discuss it. But he wont back away from it. He maintains
that theres sexuality but no sex in the book, though he says too, "Well, for goodness
sake, did I say it was a childrens book?" (Readership at the moment is about half adult,
half children, as it happens.) Pullmans writing celebrates the physical body and the material
world. "If readers take nothing else away from these 1300 pages...I would like them to take
away the sense I was trying to convey of the infinite preciousness of the physical. The sense of
this material universe, full of grass and trees and flesh and skin and sunlight and rain and so
on. It is our home. It is where we live."
That quote reminded me of something. This is Tolkien defending fantasy from the accusation that
its trivial: "Actually fairy stories deal
largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy,
but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting
It was in fairy-stories
that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood,
and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." And yes, to me thats part of
the power of his writing - the way his words make the world firm and celebrate its beauty. Pullman
has this quality too. How strange that they should be opposed to each other, Tolkien loving the world
because it reflects Heaven, and Pullman loving it for what it is and can be.
Another parallel to the phrase above turned up in the radio interview. Kim Hill brought up another
book that bears comparison. Hills a voracious and insightful reader who doesnt usually
like fantasy or science fiction, but she loved Mary Doria Russells The Sparrow as she
did the Pullman trilogy. Pullman and Hill chewed over the idea that it seems to be genre
fiction that allows itself room to cover the big questions. Science fiction can stretch out and
discuss things like origins, the purpose of life, free will and good and evil on the largest
possible scale. (In my opinion, fantasy could but is usually too mentally lazy to try -
lets cheer on the exceptions!) Literary fiction, Pullman reckoned, is often obsessed with
smallness and detail and cleverness - the angst of Twenty-somethings. But childrens fiction has
the wonderful advantage of being written for people at their most curious age. As he said in the
Campbell interview, "In the early teens, the cosmic issues - the ones that soon get buried in
the daily grind of making a living - have a brief chance to flower, as our minds make first contact
with the great world beyond."
It was a tremendous relief to hear a writer say this. Suddenly it felt like there was good reason
for loving less-literary fiction. I got an image of writers entering into genre fiction with the
same unselfconscious joy of a dog let off the lead on a looong beach. If its a working
dog bred for running, itll eat up the distances to the limits of vision. In such a place,
writers go off like a hunting dog, following the trails laid down by a really good story....
Thats the other thing literary fictions had bred out of it - the passion for telling a
rip-roaring, cant-put-it-down yarn. Thats never been a problem in science-fiction and
fantasy, or childrens fiction. It was good to hear Pullman say this because Id just read
some of Steven Kings essays on writing in Secret Windows. He says:
"My own belief about fiction, long and deeply held, is that story must be paramount
over all other considerations in fiction; that story defines fiction, and that all other
considerations - theme, mood, tone, symbol, style, even characterisation - are expendable. There
are critics who take the strongest possible exception to this view, and it is my belief that they
would feel vastly more comfortable if Moby-Dick were a doctoral thesis on cetology rather
than an account of what happened on the Pequods final voyage. A doctoral thesis is what
a million student papers have reduced this tale to, but the story still remains - "This is what
happened to Ishmael""
Well, Ive said all that and I havent said one thing about what happens in any of these
books. Worse, Ive made them sound like they might be stuffed fuller of theological argument
than Perelandra. But no, theyre nothing like that. Theyre the adventures of Lyra,
a tomboy with scabby knees running wild in an Oxford that is not our Oxford but a para-Edwardian city
where peoples souls accompany them in visible form as a daemon that can change shape until a
person reaches puberty and the daemons form is fixed. Its a terrific love story, not just
between the human characters but between the people and their daemons. Somehow Pullman makes you
believe in in a universe where everyone is always accompanied by this creature that is their heart and
soul, their deepest love and a part of their inner life made visible. Some of the most heart-wringing
moments happen when this bond is tested - proof to me that Pullmans carried off the incredible
feat of making a new and strange thing in fantasy that feels as true as anything written about our
Reading List: The trilogy His Dark Materials starts with The Golden Compass or as it is
known in Commonwealth countries, Northern Lights.
not only sells the book but has scads of customer reviews. One of the younger reviewers
complained of the ending of the last book, that is as bittersweet as the last chapter of LOTR.
they felt such an ending demanded a fourth book to make it all turn out happily ever after.
Unwittingly that reader defined the very essence of that difference between Innocence and Experience
that is at the heart of Pullmans books.
Bouquets and brickbats to firstname.lastname@example.org please!
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