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.
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.
However far the narrative may wander, the action of His Dark Materials centers tightly, even obsessively, on the interrelation of two of Pullman’s many felicitous inventions: daemons and Dust.
The goddess of writers was smiling upon Philip Pullman on the day he came up with the idea for daemons. These are, in Lyra’s world, the inseparable life companions of every human being. Daemons take the shapes of animals, but they have reason and the power of speech. Lyra’s is named Pantalaimon—she calls him Pan—and at first we take him to be her animal familiar, but we soon learn that he is in fact the equivalent of what is known in our world as the soul. The bond between human and daemon is fundamental, essential, empathic, and at times telepathic. When a daemon’s human being dies, its own life ends; the daemon winks out of existence, snuffed like a candle flame. Pan, like all children’s daemons, has not yet “settled”—that is, he can take on, at will, the shape of any animal he wishes, a power he will retain until Lyra reaches puberty. When Pan is frightened or anxious to conceal himself, he is a moth, or a mouse; when he wishes to intimidate or to repel attack he becomes a snarling wildcat; when Lyra is feeling lonely or cold he becomes a soft, warm ermine and drapes himself tenderly around her neck.
As the story unfolds, new wrinkles and refinements in the relationship between human and daemon keep occurring to Pullman, and he reports them to us at once with the palpable storyteller’s excitement that animates (and at times undermines) the entire series: while people generally have daemons of the opposite gender to their own, some rare oddballs have a same-sex daemon; people tend to get the daemons they deserve (schemers have snake daemons, servants have dog daemons); there is a painful limit to the distance by which a human and a daemon can stand to be separated, except in the case of the witches of the North—those Lapland witches mentioned by Milton in Book II of Paradise Lost?—who undergo a fearsome initiation rite that enables them and their daemons to travel separately. And so on. My eight-year-old daughter expressed what I imagine is a near-universal response of readers, young and old, to His Dark Materials (and probably the ultimate secret of the series’ success): “I wonder what kind of daemon I would have!”
When we meet them, Lyra and her daemon are spying on hastily organized preparations for the return to Jordan College of the man she believes to be her uncle, Lord Asriel, an explorer and inventor of formidable reputation. Pan has advised against this foray into the forbidden Retiring Room, and he flutters anxiously on her shoulder, having taken for the moment the fearful, flighty form of a moth. It is here, hidden in a wardrobe full of scholar’s gowns, that Lyra and we first encounter the sparkling puzzle of Dust.
Lord Asriel has just returned from the North, where he led an expedition (lovingly outfitted by Pullman, like all the novels’ several expeditions, with the full Shackletonian panoply of late-Victorian explorers’ gear) to observe the phenomena known, after the Church-burned heretic who first described them, as Rusakov particles, or Dust. All of the novels’ villains, demagogues, and amoral researchers, as well as a number of its finer, nobler characters—Pullman, true to his YA roots, has a tendency to lay on the fine and the noble with a rather heavy spackling knife—believe, or come to believe, that the continued existence of the theocratic, Church-determined, hierarchical universe as they know it depends on understanding the mysterious charged particles known in our world as dark matter and in Lyra’s as Dust. These invisible particles seem to be connected in some way to the Aurora Borealis,3 and they have the curious property (as Lord Asriel proceeds to demonstrate by means of a photographic process of his own invention, with Lyra and Pan, concealed in the wardrobe, hanging on his every word) of being powerfully attracted to adult human beings, settling on them like dander or snow, while appearing to be completely uninterested, if particles can be said to take interest (and they can!), in children.
Lord Asriel has returned from the North to hit up the College for more funding, ostensibly so that he can continue his purely scientific research into the puzzling na- ture of Dust. In reality he intends to follow the trail of falling Dust out of Lyra’s and her daemon’s world and into another. He doesn’t mention this, however, or that implementing his plan of opening a breach through the boreal “thin patch” will require the sacrifice of a child by means of a horrific brand of metaphysical vivisection known as “intercision.”
Intercision is also the business of the General Oblation Board, an arm of the Church that has recently begun a spectacular rise to power under the direction of Mrs. Coulter, its lay chairman. Mrs. Coulter is, until she receives an unfortunate first name (the far too British Vogue “Marisa”) and even more unfortunately a heart somewhere around the second quarter of The Amber Spyglass, one of the great vil- lains of recent popular literature, right up there, in viciousness, strength, intelligence, and inexorableness, with Lonesome Dove’s (unredeemed to the end) Blue Duck. Mrs. Coulter, beautiful, elegant, capable of simulating terrible charm and warmth, her natural mode a fittingly polar coldness, accompanied everywhere by her truly scary golden monkey daemon, has the power, like all good femmes fatales, to cloud men’s minds.
Under her spell, and frightened by the implications of Dust’s evident attraction to experience in the Blakean sense, to Fallenness—believing that Dust may be the physical manifestation of Original Sin itself—the Church leadership has authorized Mrs. Coulter to lead a northern expedition of her own, one that will seek to determine whether Dust—Sin—can be forestalled, fended off, or eliminated entirely, by the intercision of a child before his or her daemon has “settled.” Naturally this course of research, carried on at a remote post in the Arctic, where Dust streams most plentifully, requires a steady supply of pre-adolescent subjects. Under Mrs. Coulter’s orders, teams of child-snatchers—known semimythically among the local children as “Gobblers”—fan out across England, baiting their traps with sweets and kindness. When her best friend at the College, a servant’s child named Roger, is stolen away by Mrs. Coulter’s General Oblation Board, Lyra determines to set off for the North and save him.
The first volume of the sequence, The Golden Compass, is taken up with the competing schemes of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter to understand and if possible control Dust, and with Lyra’s quest to find Roger and at the same time to convey to Lord Asriel (funded again and back in the North) a marvelous contraption called an alethiometer. The alethiometer is Pullman’s third great invention, after daemons and Dust. A beautiful instrument of gold and crystal, engraved with an alphabet or tarot of conventional symbols and fitted with knurls and indicator needles, the alethiometer will answer any question put to it, though it will not predict the future. When it comes to reading the alethiometer, a skill that normally demands a lifetime of training and study, Lyra proves to be a natural.
Under the alethiometer’s tutelage, and with the help of a troop of stout Gyptians, Lyra makes her way north, learning, in the usual way of such journeys, even more about herself and her history than about the world she lives in, and discovering that there is a prophecy among the witches which she seems to be about to fulfill. Along the way she encounters an adventurer named Lee Scoresby, a Texan from New Denmark (her world’s US), who comes equipped with a hot air balloon and a greasepaint-Texan manner that will be familiar to readers of Buchan and Conan Doyle; and the appealing Iorek Byrnison, who in spite of his Nordic name is a polar bear, or a kind of polar bear, polar bears having in Lyra’s world evolved opposable thumbs (they are mighty smiths) and the power of speech. Interestingly it is Byrni-son the bear and not Scoresby the Texan who plays the Lee Marvin role in this novel, rousing himself from an alcoholic miasma of failure—it all turns on a question of bear politics—through admiration of the gifted and fiery girl.
With the help of her companions, and following a number of hectic battles and one chilling scene of paternal anagnorisis (or moment of recognition), Lyra fulfills her pledge to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel and rescue Roger and the other stolen children—though with results that she finds, in the former instance, disappointing (Lord Asriel is stricken with a weird horror when he recognizes Lyra at the door of his polar fortress of solitude) and, in the latter, unexpectedly tragic, as poor Roger provides the means for Lord Asriel’s breaching of the border between worlds.
The second volume, The Subtle Knife, introduces a new character, one who will come to assume an equal stature in the series to Lyra’s. He is Will Parry, a boy of roughly Lyra’s age who lives in a drab suburb near Oxford—our Oxford, this time. When we meet him, Will is struggling to protect himself and his mother—his father, an explorer and former Royal Marine, disappeared years before—from some sinister men, vaguely governmental, who are after the letters that Mr. Parry sent back home from the Arctic just before his disappearance. It’s a struggle for Will because his mother is no help at all; she’s mad, affected by some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder that leaves her barely functional as a human being, let alone as a mother. For years, young Will has been handling all the duties and chores that his mother can’t manage, and caring for her on her bad days, working very hard to maintain the illusion that all is well in the Parry house. He doesn’t want them to come and take his mother away from him.
When the government agents grow overbold and confront his mother directly, Will realizes that his life is about to change. There is a poignant scene in which, seeking out the only kind, trustworthy person he has ever known—he has no friends—he leaves his bewildered mother with a nearly equally bewildered older woman who was once, briefly, his piano teacher, Mrs. Cooper (the name alludes to Susan Cooper, author of the beloved The Dark Is Rising sequence of novels, whose central protagonist is a boy named Will). Then he finds and collects his father’s letters, accidentally killing one of the government men in the process, and flees.
He flees—though this is not, of course, his intention at first—into another world, to a place called Cittàgazze, the City of the Magpies. For it turns out that there are other ways to pass among the worlds than by Lord Asriel’s costly method of child-sacrifice and transdimensional demolition. One can, if properly equipped, simply cut a hole in the membrane that separates realities from each other. To do this one needs a knife—a very special kind of knife, naturally: a subtle knife. There is only one of these in all the worlds; it was forged, some three hundred years ago, by the savants of the Torre degli Angeli, a kind of scientific academy housed in a castellated tower in Cittàgazze. They forged it; and then, unfortunately, they began to use it, cutting their way from world to world, leaving a trail of carelessly abandoned holes such as the one through which Will, fleeing the murder he has committed, tumbles.
In the desolate, di Chirico streets of Cittàgazze, Will Parry meets Lyra; she has come from her world through the breach Lord Asriel created, hoping to solve the riddle of Dust, intuiting that contrary to the teachings of the Church, it may in fact be a blessing and not a curse. Lyra is at first as startled to see a living, thriving boy with no daemon as Will is to watch her pet cat transform itself into a stoat. But the two children, alone in a world of wild menacing orphans (all the adults here having fled or been devoured), form a bond, and make common cause: Will, following hints in John Parry’s letters, intends to track his father down. And Lyra, taking instruction from the alethiometer, determines to help him. In an exciting scene Will inherits the subtle knife, and away the two children go, in search of John Parry and the riddle of Dust.
They are far from alone in these pursuits; a host of adult characters—Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, the witch Serafina Pekkala, a nun-turned-theoretical-physicist of our world named Mary Malone—follow courses that parallel, intersect with, or shadow Will and Lyra’s. The Golden Compass is Lyra’s book, structured around her and presented almost wholly through her point of view, and as such it reads very much like a traditional quest story. The Subtle Knife, with its shifting points of view and its frequent presentation of adult perspectives on Lyra and Will, has much more the flavor of a thriller. It is unflaggingly inventive, chilling and persuasive, has a number of gripping action sequences, and ends with a thrilling zeppelin battle in the Himalayas. But something—the pleasure inherent, perhaps, in the narrative unfolding of a single consciousness—is lost in the transition from first volume to second; and though Pullman’s storytelling gifts reach their peak in The Subtle Knife, the sequence itself never quite recovers from this loss.
Nevertheless, the proliferation of points of view and different quests, which expands still farther in the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, is itself a kind of figure for the necessary loss of innocence, for the felix culpa, or Fortunate Fall, that lies at the heart of this deliberate, at times overdeliberate rejoinder or companion to Paradise Lost. As Lyra’s daemon comes ever closer to settling in its final form, the narrative itself grows ever more unsettled; for a single point of view is a child’s point of view, but a multiple point of view is the world’s. And the settling of a daemon into a single form with the onset of adulthood, Pullman tells us, represents not simply a loss of the power to change, of flexibility and fire; it also represents a gain in the power to focus, to concentrate, to understand, and, finally, to accept: a gain in wisdom. Even Mrs. Coulter, that wicked, wicked woman, is granted her place in the narrative, and Pullman (not entirely successfully) makes us privy to her heart.
I have resisted trying to summarize, and thereby spoil, the vast, complicated plot of His Dark Materials, which runs to more than twelve hundred pages. But there is no way to form or convey a judgment of the sequence without giving away the name, alas, of the ultimate, underlying villain of the story, a character whose original scheme to enslave, control, and dominate all sentient life in the universe is threatened first by the implications of Dust as felix culpa and then by the ambition of the new Lucifer, Lord Asriel, with whose Second Rebellion the plot of The Amber Spyglass is largely concerned. The gentleman’s name is Jehovah.
The Amber Spyglass was awarded the Guardian’s fiction prize for 2000, the first time that a novel ostensibly written for children had been so honored. Shortly afterward, the new laureate stirred up controversy by publicly attacking his fellow Oxonian C.S. Lewis, and in particular the Narnia books (which also begin, of course, in a wardrobe), calling them racist, misogynist, and allied with a repressive, patriarchal, idealist program designed to quash and devalue human beings and the world—the only world—in which we have no choice but to live and die.
Or something like that. I confess to taking as little interest in the question of organized Christianity’s demerits as in that of its undoubted good points, in particular when such a debate gets into the works of a perfectly decent story and starts gumming things up. My heart sank as it began to dawn on me, around the time that the first angels begin to show up in The Subtle Knife, that there was some devil in Pullman, pitchfork-prodding him into adjusting his story to suit both the shape of his anti-Church argument (with which I largely sympathize) and the mounting sense of self-importance evident in the swollen (yet withal sketchy) bulk of the third volume and in the decreasing roundedness of its characters. By the end of the third volume, Lyra has lost nearly all the tragic, savage grace that makes her so engaging in The Golden Compass; she has succumbed to the fate of Paul Atreides, the bildungsroman-hero-turned-messiah of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, existing only, finally, to fulfill the prophecy about her. She has harrowed Hell (a gloomy prison yard, according to Pullman, less Milton than Virgil, home of whispering ghosts cringing under the taunts and talons of the screws, a flock of unconvincing harpies), losing and then regaining her daemon-soul; she has become, like all prophesied ones and messiahs, at once more and less than human.
This is a problem for Pullman, since His Dark Materials is explicitly—and materially, and often smashingly—about humanity. That’s the trouble with Plot, and its gloomy consigliere, Theme. They are, in many ways, the enemy of Character, of “roundedness,” in so far as our humanity and its convincing representation are constituted through contradiction, inconsistency, plurality of desire, absence of abstractable message or moral. It’s telling that the epithet most frequently applied to God by the characters in His Dark Materials is “the Authority.” This fits in well with Pullman’s explicit juxtaposition of control and freedom, repression and rebellion, and with his championing of Sin, insofar as Sin equals Knowledge, over Obedience, insofar as that means the kind of incurious acceptance urged on Adam by Milton’s Raphael. But the epithet also suggests, inevitably, the Author, and by the end of His Dark Materials one can’t help feeling that Will and Lyra, Pullman’s own Adam and Eve—appealing, vibrant, chaotic, disobedient, murderous—have been sacrificed to fulfill the hidden purposes of their creator. Plot is fate, and fate is always, by definition, inhuman.
Thank God, then, for the serpent, for the sheer, unstoppable storytelling drive that is independent of plot outlines and thematic schemes, the hidden story that comes snaking in through any ready crack when the Authority’s attention is turned elsewhere. In Paradise Lost, we find ourselves, with Blake, rooting for the poets, for the “devil’s party.” Satan is one of us; so much more so than Adam or Eve. There’s a puzzling pair of exchanges in The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra attempts to cheer the denizens at the outskirts of Hell, and sing for her supper, by telling them the story of her and Will’s adventures up to that point. Like the accounts that Odysseus gives of himself, Lyra’s is a near-total fabrication, replete with dukes and duchesses, lost fortunes, hair’s-breadth escapes, shipwrecks, and children suckled by wolves, and it’s meant to be absurd, “nonsense”; but in fact it’s made out of precisely the same materials, those dark materials of lies and adventure, as His Dark Materials. And the poor dwellers of the suburbs of the dead, listening to Lyra’s tale, are comforted. It comes as a surprise, then, when having reached the land of the dead itself, Lyra’s tale, with the apparent complicity of the narrator, is violently rejected by the Harpy, that humorless, bitter, inhuman stooge of God: “Liar!” Later, the Harpy hears Lyra’s more accurate account of her voyage and approves it, because, apparently, it sticks to the facts, and includes references to the substance of the corporeal world that the Harpy has never known. But so does the lie; and so, in spite of, or in addition to, its stated, anti-Narnian intentions, does His Dark Materials.
Lies, as Philip Pullman knows perfectly well, tell the truth; but the truth they tell may not be that, or not only that, which the liar intends. The secret story he has told is not one about the eternal battle between the forces of idealist fundamentalism and materialist humanism. It is a story about the ways in which adults betray children; how children are forced to pay the price of adult neglect, cynicism, ambition, and greed; how they are subjected to the programs of adults, to the general oblation board. Each of its child protagonists has been abandoned, in different ways, by both of his parents, and while they find no shortage of willing foster parents, ultimately they are betrayed and abandoned by their own bodies, forced into the adult world of compromise and self-discipline and self-sacrifice, or “oblation” in a way that Pullman wants us—and may we have the grace—to understand as not only inevitable but, on balance, a good thing.
Still, we can’t help experiencing it—as we experience the end of so many wonderful, messy novels—as a thinning, a loss not so much of innocence as of wildness. In its depiction of Lyra’s breathtaking liberty to roam the streets, fields, and catacombs of Oxford, free from adult supervision, and of Will’s Harriet-the-Spy-like ability to pass, unnoticed and seeing everything, through the worlds of adults, a freedom and a facility that were once, but are no longer, within the reach of ordinary children; in simply taking the classic form of a novel that tells the story of children who adventure, on their own, far beyond the help or hindrance of grown-ups, His Dark Materials ends not as a riposte to Lewis or a crushing indictment of authoritarian dogma but as an invocation of the glory, and a lamentation for the loss, which I fear is irrevocable, of the idea of childhood as an adventure, a strange zone of liberty, walled, perhaps, but with plenty of holes for snakes to get in.
March 25, 2004
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). ↩
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. ↩
The original British title of The Golden Compass is Northern Lights. ↩