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The Amber Spyglassby Philip Pullman
Introduction to ‘HIS DARK MATERIALS’
Night. Snow. A mountain cave. A make-shift forge. A smith at work with a hammer made of smashed rock. A fire fierce enough to fuse metal and to scorch the skin of the workers. The smells of flaring resin and singed hair and charred bone. The clangour of the work: the roar of the workman. A task requiring physical endurance, the skill of a master-craftsman and the trance-like concentration of an artist. A magical knife is being repaired.
This is a pivotal episode in Philip Pullman’s modern epic. Its literary ancestry is grand. Homer’s Hephaestus, at work on Achilles’ marvellous shield, haunts it. So do memories of Beowulf’s sword Hrunting, which fails him (as this knife has failed Pullman’s boy-hero) in his fight with a monstrous mother. So – most insistently – does Wagner’s Siegfried, re-forging the sword Nothung which will assist him in playing his part in the downfall of the old gods.
None of these antecedents, though, is mentioned. Like the Spectres, Pullman’s horrid wraiths who feed on human consciousness, they are invisible to children, and adults unaware of the literary tradition within which he is working lose only one of the subsidiary pleasures Pullman’s writing offers. Like many episodes in His Dark Materials, the scene thrums with the complex energy generated by the body of legend and myth and literary imagining on which it draws, but it lays hold of the reader by the simplest and surest of means – by swift, direct story-telling, by descriptions of sensual experience, and by presenting us at once with wonders (the smith is a polar-bear king who speaks English, and among the other people present is a six-inch-tall ‘chevalier’ whose mount is an outsize dragon-fly) and with human characters, who have stepped through windows from other worlds, but who are, all the same, as funny and vulnerable and emotionally-muddled as the boy and girl next door. Psychological realism of a particularly sympathetic kind, plus an imaginative vision large enough to overleap the heavens, plus a plot of such headlong urgency that the death of God can only be spared a paragraph or two before the main action resumes – all this adds up to make of Philip Pullman’s tripartite story a prodigiously compelling piece of fiction.
Its two main characters are children, but His Dark Materials is no more exclusively a book for children than Alice in Wonderland is, or David Copperfield, or Lord of the Flies. The fact that all these other novels are regularly given to children to read has been a boon for the generations of people who therefore found themselves allowed to revel, sooner than might otherwise be thought good for them, in sophisticated thought and richly complex writing. Pullman’s is a slightly different case. His story grows up along with its young protagonists (and with any equally young readers fortunate enough to grow up alongside them).
It is a single work, although it has until now generally been published, for commercial and practical reasons, as three separate books. Pullman himself calls it ‘all one story’ - not a series, not even a trilogy, but one coherent piece of fiction. It does though, fall into three parts, distinguished one from another not only by their content and narrative structure, but by the different moral values and literary sensibilities that shape them.
The first has a single protagonist, Lyra. Its politics, its code of honour and its social hierarchies all derive from the tradition of the warrior-epic. Its form is that of a quest. The world in which it is set, full of marvellous novelties though it is, is one whose conventions most readers will recognise – it is the world of folk-lore and romance, where animals talk and magical objects confer strange powers, where the seeker undergoes a sequence of trials, and is aided by elders – variously human and superhuman, benign and dangerous - and arrives at last at the long-sought destination only to find that not only has she/he been transformed by the journey, but that the sought-after thing has also mutated into something far richer, stranger and less easily satisfying than could ever have been anticipated.
The second part is tougher, less seductive, more morally equivocal and intellectually risky. Now there are two main characters, Lyra and Will, from different worlds, with conflicting values. Set partly in a realist version of modern Britain, this part of the story draws on modern narrative conventions – those of the thriller, of dystopian visions of environmental disaster, of science-fiction. It is edgy and alarming. We are in the main characters’ and the book’s awkward age. The lovable lone ranger dies and there are no fatherly bears or kindly witches to help the children now – only a tired young scientist who has no superpowers but her own intelligence. In the third part story-lines, characters and moods from the previous two reappear, only to be gradually laid aside as childish things, and subsumed into Pullman’s fantastically ambitious vision, (inspired partly, as he acknowledges, by John Milton and by William Blake’s Prophetic Books, partly by his own idiosyncratic invention) in which playfulness and high seriousness each have a place. Heaven and hell, life and death, energy and entropy, swirl around the two vulnerable young people. And amidst all the sturm und drang, the gaping abyss and skies full of torrents of uncanny light, Pullman finds space for joking. This is, by far, the most humorous part of the book. Confronting the Four Last Things, we are moved to awe, but we are also entertained by a comically sulky angel, and by the delightful vision of an Eden inhabited by gentle creatures with elephantine probosces who like to hurtle around on other-worldly bicycles.
The house of fiction, wrote Henry James, has ‘not one window but a million’, each one of those windows being a viewpoint from which an author might look out on a world. Most novelists chose just one of them. Pullman, whose hero Will can cut windows in the air and step into parallel universes, is as bold as his imaginary boy in claiming his right to more than one window, more than one genre. His Dark Materials is epic and fantasy, psychological realism and devotional text, incantatory poem and social comedy. And so compelling is Pullman’s story-telling and so flexible his prose, it holds together. This book (not books) is a house with many windows but, as its author claims, only one story.
Excerpt from the Introduction Copyright (c) 2011 by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
From the Hardcover edition.
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