World is crazier and more of it than we think,
-Louis MacNeice, “Snow”, quoted in “The Book of Dust”
Note: This is a rather hastily cobbled together stream-of-consciousness reaction to finishing a new Philip Pullman book for the first time in ages. It was a lovely experience and I wish I was eleven years old and thinking about all of these things for the first time again.
What is it about Philip Pullman’s writing that I love so much? His Dark Materials, and now this prequel, all center around pre-adolescent children (his other series is more for adults – which I also loved, but in a different way) – and yet I find myself completely enthralled by his words, the feelings his characters evoke in me, and the resonance I have with his themes. These feelings that his characters, stories, objects and themes evoke in me have remained constant since I first read The Golden Compass at the age of eleven or twelve or so. And each time that I read the trilogy, I remember finding new meaning.
On one hand, I think I find it particularly easy to become completely captivated by his storylines because there is such clarity in his stance between good versus evil, science versus religion. And there is such a surety in the underlying belief that there is a final meaning – something scientific, and explainable – even in a world that is so confusing, full of feeling and seeming magic. There is this undying faith that Pullman expresses – in the ability to explain. If we just ask enough questions, we will someday find the answers. I am undeniably sympathetic and attached to this idea.
But I also love the fantasy – the in-betweens and magic and the power of nature and soul that Pullman makes the clearly vital companions to the main characters in his storylines – second only to the pure and vivid children whose feelings, and deep moral and philosophical choices that they are forced to make, play the central characters. Pullman is an avid proponent of science – and atheism – and yet has no problem acknowledging the depths of the secrets of the universe, spirituality, and things that the powerful and intelligent experimental theologians cannot yet explain. He places great weight and importance on curiosity – which, it seems, is the central job of the highly respected scholars who spend all their times doing research and reading in libraries in the colleges in the book. He seems to put contemplation, meditation, and experiment all as different but equally meaningful parts of science – theory and empirics are important, even though the science fads of any age seem to more heavily favor one over the other in our world! It is interesting that these scholars – though representing the opposite of the mainstream evil Christian institutions of the day – are also powerful, respected, and wealthy in themselves…but they are generally portrayed as the benevolent mainstream power. (Should intelligence of only this type be so respected?)
But the story retains a clear black-and-white quality – with children and their natural intelligence and loyalty and love always choosing the side of science – and this makes it particularly absorbing for me, though Pullman’s books are perhaps less nuanced than they should be if trying to explain something true about our universe. While Pullman’s books certainly have characters who are mysterious, these are always the complicated adults, whose loyalties are murky, or witches and the gyptians who are both the most magical, mysteriously experienced and complex, but the most rational of creatures. The central characters – the powerful Christian institutions and the pure, unadulterated underdog children and their daemons (physical, animal representations of their souls) – remain clearly evil and clearly good, respectively. I always know who I am rooting for, who represents the ray of light amongst the corrupted souls and shadows of adulthood.
Now, let me spend a bit of time on daemons. These creatures are not really beings in themselves – because they are the people who they are with. They are the physical manifestations souls, which cannot be wrenched away from the people they are with, without terrible pain on both sides. They are the voices in our heads, our consciences, our very essences…which Pullman thinks perhaps can be explained by science. Conscious Dust – which is seen and studied in complex magnetic fields and is comprised of animate matter which explains the secrets of our universe, and which the Christian behemoth powers that be are avidly looking to quash. Souls (daemons) only touch one another, or another person, when there is true love, or true hatred. How wonderful it would be to see my soul, to be able to converse with it, to be constantly reminded that it is there and everyone else’s is there, too. And how vulnerable – to have one’s soul outside of one’s body, and for others to be able to see its form and its expressions. The daemons take the form of animals, and they keep changing before puberty, but they freeze into one form – their true form – when people reach adulthood. Children are therefore uncorrupted – they can change. But adults – the essence of whether they are good or bad or some mix – stays the same.
As with all wonderful fantasy novels (in my opinion), the third thing that I love about Pullman’s books is the objects in them. Of course, his Dark Materials books were all named after these fantastical instruments – the alethiometer, the subtle knife that cuts between worlds, and the amber spyglass are, to me, perfect symbols to meld magic and unexplained behaviors of the world with science. (I love these objects just as much as I love the magical objects in Ella Enchanted – a book which opens to exactly what you need when you need it, for example!) There is just something wonderful about books, magic, feelings, and ancient metallic and glass objects, isn’t there? And it is perfectly mixed with real-world facts – equations and manuscripts, dusty leather volumes, and scrumptious and hearty English dishes – like apple crumble and fried potatoes. These lovely objects – their descriptions, their constant presence in the stories, the feelings they evoke in the characters – delight me to no end.
Finally, I love the scrappiness and mechanical know-how of the characters. I love the fact that while Pullman seems to ascribe great respect to intellect and the high-mindedness and theoretical work of scholars, he ascribes just as much significance and respect to mechanical knowledge, feats of engineering and architecture and mechanical work – down to all of the ins and outs of how to operate and repair a canoe. In The Book of Dust, the focus, attachment, and clear sense of wonderment and admiration that Malcolm has for obtaining a small can of red paint to paint his canoe with is beautiful, and as someone who is not at all handy myself, I find myself wishing that I had the patience and understanding of how things fit together and work that Malcolm does.
Now – about The Book of Dust in particular. It is mostly an adventure, and little baby Lyra’s history – a miraculous story of survival with two valiant kids, the start of the war between Christianity and atheism, those who want to preserve the world order and those who want to keep questioning and experimenting and getting closer and closer to the truths of nature and the universe. The protagonists of this prequel are Malcolm – a boy on the edge of adolescence, and Alice – his companion, a little older but also still with a changing daemon. They become the guardians of baby Lyra – saving her from the rigid evilness of the Christians and the dementia of a murderous and crazy scientist, all to deliver her to her father and ultimately to the college of scholars where she grows up. They unknowingly visit some parallel worlds, deal with life and death, and unknown natural (or magical?) forces alluded to by the gyptians, which reside beneath the massive floods that form the environment of the whole book – which, it is suggested, occurred because of humans. What is inside reflects on the outside, too, says a wise gyptian who refuses to explain anymore.
We also get some introduction to the witches (the rational, magical beings who can make prophecies), and the gyptians (of course, the nomadic people who understand everything about how nature works, but who are mostly ostracized by mainstream society who cannot understand them – and who feel no need to prove themselves to the mainstream anyway), and the fairies and giants (purely fantastical creatures right out of mythology, but who are not very complex – and whom kids can fool with clever riddles). One gets the feeling that these side characters – these communities of people, or beings, rather – that mainstream society doesn’t respect – know the most about the world, and the entire story of Lyra and her comrades before and after is really just about mainstream society beginning to question and understand the universe they live in. It’s not really a tale of discovery, but rather one of someone in mainstream society being brave enough to explore and listen to those who have known truth for some time.
The Book of Dust is not as deep as the Dark Materials trilogy – but maybe there will be more in the books to come in Pullman’s new trilogy. So far, I didn’t discover anything new about the world…but I hope I will! In the meanwhile, I think it is about time that I re-read his Dark Materials – which I tend to do about every 4-6 years ever since I first read them in middle school.
Quotes I liked:
These days the prevailing fashion in politics was one of obsequious submissiveness to the religious authorities, and ultimately to Geneva. As a consequence, some organizations of the favored religious kind found their influence greatly enhanced, while officials and ministers who had supported the secular line that was now out of favor had either to find other things to do, or to work surreptitiously, and at continuous risk of discovery.
(wait, are they talking about India???)
Malcolm would have put up with a good deal rather than upset Sister Fenella, whom he loved with a deep and uncomplicated devotion.
“And how were these meanings discovered?” put in Lofgren.
Coram looked at the professor; he’d thought Lofgren was familiar with the alethiometer, as Hallgrimsson was, and believed in its powers, but there was a tone of skepticism in his question.
“By contemplation, by meditation, by experiment,” sad Hallgrimsson.
“Oh. Well, I believe in experiment,” said Lofgren.
“I’m glad to hear you believe in something, said his friend.”
“These meanings – the relation between them – if they work by kinds of similarity,” said Coram, “they could go on a lot past hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities, once you start looking for ’em.”
“But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the less successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience. And what matters most of all is where the chosen meaning comes in the hierarchy of meanings, you see, for that there is no alternative to the books. That is why the only alethiometers we know about are kept in or by great libraries.”
“I won’t go into all the steps Rusakov took, but he finally arrived at the extraordinary idea that consciousness is a perfectly normal property of matter, like mass or anbaric charge; that there is a field of consciousness that pervades the entire universe, and that makes itself apparently most fully – we believe – in human beings.”
Then it started to rain, so she went inside and made some coffee and did what she had never done in her life: tried the newspaper crossword. “What a stupid exercise,” said her daemon after five minutes. “Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens.”
PS – I love what Pullman says on his website:
As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.