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Dust & Daemons

1.

Pity those—adventurers, adolescents, authors of young adult fiction—who make their way in the borderland between worlds. It is at worst an invisible and at best an inhospitable place. Build your literary house on the borderlands, as the English writer Philip Pullman has done, and you may find that your work is recommended by booksellers, as a stopgap between installments of Harry Potter, to children who cannot (one hopes) fully appreciate it, and to adults, disdainful or baffled, who “don’t read fantasy.” Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, “serious” and “genre” literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power.

Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern humankind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has “thinned.” This sense of thinning—of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet—has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning. The words “Once upon a time” are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia.

But serious literature, so called, regularly traffics in the same wistful stuff. One encounters the unassuageable ache of the imagined past, for example, at a more or less implicit level, in American writers from Cooper and Hawthorne through Faulkner and Chandler, right down to Steven Millhauser and Jonathan Franzen. Epic fantasy distills and abstracts the idea of thinning—maps it, so to speak; but at its best the genre is no less serious or literary than any other. Yet epic fantasies, whether explicitly written for children or not, tend to get sequestered in their own section of the bookstore or library, clearly labeled to protect the unsuspecting reader of naturalistic fiction from making an awkward mistake. Thus do we consign to the borderlands our most audacious retellings of what is arguably one of the two or three primal human stories: the narrative of Innocence, Experience, and, straddling the margin between them, the Fall.

Any list of the great British works of epic fantasy must begin with Paradise Lost, with its dark lord, cursed tree, invented cosmology and ringing battle scenes, its armored angelic cavalries shattered by demonic engines of war. But most typical works of contemporary epic fantasy have (consciously at least) followed Tolkien’s model rather than Milton’s, dressing in Norse armor and Celtic shadow the ache of Innocence Lost, and then, crucially, figuring it as a landscape, a broken fairyland where brazen experience has replaced the golden days of innocence; where, as in the Chronicles of Narnia, it is “always winter and never Christmas.”

A recent exception to the Tolkienesque trend is Pullman’s series of three novels, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (with a promised fourth, The Book of Dust), which reshuffle, reinterpret, and draw from Milton’s epic both a portion of their strength and their collective title: His Dark Materials. Pullman, who was a student at Oxford in the 1960s, has just served up a new volume, a kind of tasty sherbet course in the ongoing banquet, entitled Lyra’s Oxford.

There are broken lands in His Dark Materials—there are entire broken universes, in fact, whose vital stuff is leaking from them into the Miltonic abyss at a frightening rate. But the central figuring of Innocence and the Fall Pullman accomplishes neither through the traditional mapping of a landscape nor, as in Jack Vance’s classic The Dying Earth,1 through melancholy reiteration of the depleted catalog of a once-vast library of magical texts and spells. Instead, Pullman has looked around at this broken universe of ours, in its naturalistic tatters, and has indicated, like Satan pointing to the place on which Pandemonium will rise, the site of our truest contemporary narratives of the Fall: in the lives, in the bodies and souls, of our children.

2.

Lyra Belacqua is a girl of ten or eleven when The Golden Compass, the first volume of the series, begins. Her parentage, in the traditional manner, is uncertain, at least to her. She is headstrong, cheerful, forthright, loyal, and articulate, rather in the Dorothy Gale style of female fantasy heroines. She is also an uncouth, intractable, manipulative liar, and occasionally stupid. The first time we encounter her, she is engaged in an act of inadvisable disobedience—trespassing in the Retiring Room at Jordan College, Oxford, which is strictly off-limits to all but Scholars—one whose consequences, which she imagines as no worse than chastisement, will include but not be limited to wide-scale ecological disaster and the death of her best friend. She has, in other words, a complexity of character, and a tragic weakness unusual for a work of children’s literature, and in fact the question of whether or not His Dark Materials is meant or even suitable for young readers not only remains open but grows ever more difficult to answer as the series progresses. This indeterminacy of readership—the way Pullman’s story pulses fitfully between the poles of adult and children’s fiction, illuminating by weird flashes that vague middle zone known in the librarian trade as YA—is, as I have already suggested, itself a figuring- or working-out of the fundamental plot of His Dark Materials, which turns, and turns again, on the question of what becomes of us, of our bodies and our souls, as we enter the borderland of adolescence.

Lyra lives in a room at Jordan College, Oxford, where she has led a half-feral, largely pleasurable life as the seditious, indifferently educated ward of the college, looked after by a gruff old housekeeper and a faculty of male scholars who have no idea what to make of or do with her. Her childhood, an unbroken series of small adventures, hair-raising exploits, and minor wars among the local tribes of Oxford’s children, is evoked by Pullman in the first book’s opening chapters with verve, humor, and the special poignance of his foreknowledge, and our strong suspicion, that it is Lyra’s childhood—and indeed Childhood itself—that will prove to be the irrecoverable paradise, the Dreamtime, of his story.

There is, of course, no Jordan among the colleges of Oxford University. Lyra’s Oxford exists in a different universe, one in which, as in our own, it is a primary center of learning and scholarship for England, Europe, and the world, has deep ecclesiastical roots, and sits astride the Thames River, on a bend known locally as the Isis. But in Lyra’s world, though it strongly resembles our own in many ways—including possessing what appears to be an identical geography—evolution and history have taken different bends. Here, during the Reformation, the Holy See was transferred from Rome to Geneva; at some point John Calvin became pope. Somehow this, and a number of other premises, most of which Pullman leaves unstated, form a syllogism whose conclusion is a world united under the rule of a powerfully repressive Church Triumphant that is itself fatally divided among war-ring factions of bishops and prelates banded into orders whose names are at once bland, grand, and horrible: the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the General Oblation Board (charged with preparing oblations, or offerings, whose nature is at first a source of considerable mystery). What we know as science, in particular, physics, is viewed in Lyra’s world as a subject fit for philosophers and above all for theologians—the study of fundamental particles is known there as experimental theology. Its discoveries are subject to ultimate review by the Church, and painful is the reward awaiting those, like a certain Russian Dr. Rusakov, who posit the existence of phenomena that violate Church teaching.

Lyra’s world, with its shuffled deck of underlying premises, is technologically accomplished in ways that equal and even exceed our own—helped in this regard by its willingness to view as controllable natural phenomena what our world would call magic—and in other ways strangely retarded or perverse. Electric power is widely in use, though it is known as “anbaric power” (the terms are etymologically akin, deriving from the Greek and Arabic words for amber), produced by great river-spanning dynamos and “atom-craft” plants, but guns have no ascendancy, refrigeration and the science of food preservation appear to be unknown, and computers and automobiles are little in evidence. Instead travel proceeds on foot, by boat, or by that colophon of alternate-world fiction from Ada to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the grand zeppelin liner. But for all its neo-Edwardian style, Lyra’s Oxfordshire appears largely to remain sunk in the Middle Ages—agrarian, semi-feudal, reckoning its calendar by harvest and fair and by the seasonal comings and goings of a small, fierce nation of people known as Gyptians, led by their king John Faa, whose name appears, in our world, in a well-known fifteenth-century English ballad about a gypsy king.

While Pullman alludes to Nabokov (one of the characters in The Subtle Knife voyages to Nova Zembla), his paired Oxfords stand in a very different relation from that of Ada‘s Terra and Antiterra, which reflect and comment only upon each other, locked in a transdimensional self-regard which in turn mirrors that of the vain Van Veen. Instead, Pullman has consciously and overtly founded the structure of his fictional universe on the widely if not universally accepted “many-worlds hypothesis,” derived from quantum physics—in His Dark Materials there will eventually turn out to be (rather conservatively) “millions” of such worlds, though in the end Pullman has only guided us through half a dozen of them.2 Lyra’s and ours are only two among the infinite number of possible Oxfords, all of which, according to the hypothesis at its most extreme, exist.

Pullman’s use of such avant-garde scientific notions as the multiverse and dark matter (more on that later) might incline one to slap the label of “science fiction” onto his work along with “epic fantasy,” “YA,” and “alternate-world fiction”; but the quantum physics in His Dark Materials is mostly employed as a rationale for the standard world-hopping that heroes and heroines of fantasy have been engaging in from Gilgamesh onward. More interesting is Pullman’s understanding of the metaphoric power of the many-worlds theory. An endlessly ramifying series of possibility-worlds, diverging and diverging again with each alteration in state, each tiny choice made, each selection of B over A: this may or may not be physics, but it is indisputably storytelling. And Pullman, as it turns out, is an unabashed concocter of stories, with a deep, pulpy fondness for plot. He is also, in the great tradition of unabashed concocters of stories, a highly self-conscious storyteller. By the end of The Amber Spyglass, one has come to see Pullman’s world-calving imagination, to see Imagination itself, as the ordering principle, if not of the universe itself, then of our ability to comprehend, to wander, and above all to love it.

  1. 1

    Originally published in 1950 in a cheap paperback edition by the comic-book publisher Hillman Periodicals; currently available, with its three sequels, in the omnibus Tales of the Dying Earth (Tor Books, 2000).

  2. 2

    Pullman avoids use of the term “multiverse,” arguably coined by the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy, Michael Moorcock, to whose work Pullman’s is clearly indebted.

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