His Dark Example

Colin Burrow

  • The Book of Dust, Vol. I: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
    David Fickling, 546 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 385 60441 3
  • Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman
    David Fickling, 480 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 910200 96 4

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.

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