His Dark Materials universe draws Philip Pullman back for new trilogy

Acclaimed author Philip Pullman kicks off his new trilogy, The Book Of Dust, with a new book, La Belle Sauvage

Seventeen years after he ended his landmark fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, British author Philip Pullman is returning to the universe whose parallel worlds, polar bears in armour and plucky heroine captured the imaginations of millions.

After detours into theological writing and other children's books - as well as a bout of ill health - he has finally circled back with The Book Of Dust trilogy, which he describes as an "equel" (neither prequel or sequel, he says).

"As always, it was a story that drew me back," he says in an e-mail interview with The Straits Times.

"I realised there was another story to tell - not a continuation of His Dark Materials, but a new story - and I just couldn't resist."

The much-anticipated first book in the new trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, was launched last Thursday - on Pullman's 71st birthday, which he claims was a coincidence - to much fanfare, as fans flocked to midnight openings at bookstores across Britain.

His Dark Materials has sold more than 17.5 million copies in more than 40 languages and won Pullman a string of accolades, including a joint win with Japanese illustrator Ryoji Arai for the 2005 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

  • Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy

  • NORTHERN LIGHTS (1995)

    Scholastic GB/Paperback/ $16.80/Books Kinokuniya

    Also known as The Golden Compass, this novel introduces Lyra Belacqua, a wild child living in the care of an Oxford college in a parallel universe to ours.

    Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon go on a journey to find her missing friend Roger, who has been taken by child abductors. Armed with an alethiometer, a truth-telling device, she travels north and learns the truth about her parents, the sinister Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel, whose research on the mysterious substance Dust could alter everything.

  • THE SUBTLE KNIFE (1997)

    Scholastic GB/Paperback/ $16.80/Books Kinokuniya

    Will Parry, a boy caring for his mentally ill mother in the absence of his father, is forced to run away from home after killing an intruder and chances upon a portal into another world. In the seemingly deserted city of Cittagazze, he meets Lyra. They are tasked to retrieve a knife with the power to cut open doors to other worlds.

    But Cittagazze is full of Spectres, malevolent beings that feed on the souls of those who have gone through puberty. Back in Lyra's world, forces are hunting her because of a prophecy about her role in the second Fall of Man.

  • THE AMBER SPYGLASS (2000)

    Scholastic GB/Paperback/ $16.80/Books Kinokuniya

    To fulfil a promise Lyra made to Roger, she and Will must make an enormous sacrifice to travel to the land of the dead. Meanwhile, armies of angels, spectres, humans and more gather to fight a war between the Authority, or God, and those who would defy him, as Dust drains from the worlds.

The Swedish five million kronor (S$833,000) prize is the richest award in children's literature.

It has been spun off into a Hollywood film - The Golden Compass (2007) starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellen - as well as a radio play and a two-part theatre production.

A new television adaptation by the BBC is in the works and "going very well", says Pullman. "But it's a very big project, so it can't happen both quickly and well. It's one or the other and I'd rather it was done well."

While His Dark Materials stretches through exotic landscapes, from icy wastes to a deserted Mediterranean city, La Belle Sauvage, set 10 years before the original trilogy, takes place largely in an Oxford based on the one Pullman, a former teacher, lives in.

This Oxford is in the parallel universe where Pullman's adolescent heroine Lyra Belacqua grows up. Though she is at the heart of the new trilogy, she appears in La Belle Sauvage as an infant stowed away in a convent and thus cannot do very much.

It falls instead to Malcolm Polstead, the 11-year-old son of the neighbouring innkeeper, to protect Lyra when dangerous men come looking for her and an epic flood is unleashed on the countryside.

The flood, which alters the flow of the novel, was inspired by an experience from Pullman's childhood.

He was nine years old and living in Australia when the Murray-Darling river basin flooded, and his stepfather took him to look at the scene.

"The sense of an enormous landscape completely submerged in a cold, grey mass of water racing swiftly over everything was overwhelming," he recalls. "I never forgot it and it was easy to bring it back to my imagination in writing this book."

The flood has biblical connotations, of course, as do many things in Pullman's work.

He wound up killing God, sort of, at the end of His Dark Materials, which takes its title from John Milton's 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost and, despite its young readership, tackles head-on heavy themes such as religious totalitarianism and original sin.

Original sin in the books is linked to Dust, a mysterious particle invisible to the human eye that pervades, even powers, the universe. In our world, it is analogous to dark matter.

As the new trilogy's title suggests, Pullman wants to delve even deeper into the concept of Dust.

"Dust seems to be a sort of analogy of human consciousness and that is a mystery that has occupied philosophers for millennia," he says. "I don't think anyone will solve it before I finish The Book Of Dust - at least, I hope so.

"There are questions that science can solve and the progress of the human race in the past five centuries or so, in medicine, public health, technology and so on, has been unprecedented and extraordinary, and due almost entirely to the great leap in scientific understanding.

"But there are other questions that science has no answers for and it's those I'm turning to now."

Current affairs weave their way into plot

Unlike the witches, angels and spectres of His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage taps a different seam of eldritch magic, one drawn from fairy tales and folklore, which surfaces during the flood.

This is something that has begun to interest Pullman in recent years, especially since his work on retelling the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (2012) and in writing an introduction to a collection of British folktales.

 

"I love the way natural forces were understood in terms of spirits and fairies and other beings who might be benevolent, but might not," he says. "I thought it was only too likely that beings of that sort would become apparent during a time of natural disaster such as a flood."

A hint that this might be explored further in the trilogy is the title of the second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, which harks back to the book of the same name by 17th-century Scottish minister Robert Kirk, considered one of the most important works written on fairy folklore.

Pullman has finished The Secret Commonwealth, though it has yet to be edited. He hopes it will be out this time next year - "but that does depend on my having enough time to stay at my desk" - and says it will feature Lyra as an adult, being set 20 years after La Belle Sauvage.

Though readers are in the hands of new heroes for this book at least, they will glimpse familiar characters such as Lyra's parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter.

It is with affection that Pullman revives such characters, although this is coupled with "great wariness" in the case of Mrs Coulter, a young but ruthless femme fatale who is not above using her daughter in her political machinations. "I always felt I had to be on my mettle when I wrote about her."

One mainstay of Lyra's world that fans will be glad to see again are the daemons, which are animal manifestations of people's souls. The daemons of children can shape-shift, only becoming fixed after puberty.

Pullman believes his own daemon would be a bird of the corvid family, possibly a raven. "The reason is that those birds happily steal things and so do storytellers," he says. "We steal stories, ideas, words and phrases, characters, all kinds of things, both from books and films and from real life."

He is married to Judith Speller, also a former teacher. They have two adult sons and four grandchildren.

There is a dystopian bent to La Belle Sauvage, as the Church authority known as the Magisterium becomes more and more powerful. Pullman says he did not choose this direction, but that it arose from things that press on his awareness. "The world is in a strange state at the moment and it would be odd if none of the political craziness that seems to be affecting it didn't work its way into my stories."

Chief among this is Brexit, which he deems "the biggest political disaster of my lifetime".

"I think Prime Minister David Cameron was utterly stupid, lazy and reckless to call the referendum last year," he says. "We have a parliamentary democracy and we elect Members of Parliament to debate, discuss and research big questions like that.

"The sheer dishonesty, ignorance and fanaticism of the Brexit side has been astonishing to those of us who thought that reason and common sense had a part to play in the way the world was run. Clearly, we were wrong."

He may write fantasy, but he also wants to effect change in the real world. He campaigns against the closure of libraries and cut-price book discounts that hurt authors' earnings. In June this year, he raised £32,400 (S$58,200) for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 75 people and left hundreds homeless, in a character name auction for The Book Of Dust.

The winning bid was for him to name a character in memory of Nur Huda el-Wahabi, a teenage Grenfell resident who died in the blaze. "I was very moved to hear about her," he says. "To have a single character and her story emerging from such an overwhelming disaster makes it all the more real and terrible."

The job of fiction, he quotes 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson in saying, is to enable the reader "better to enjoy life or better to endure it".

But, he adds, if writers have a voice in the world outside their novels, they should use it in any way they feel right. "If I have any voice in the world outside my fiction, I try to speak up for the things I believe in."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Creating new tales from Dust'. Print Edition | Subscribe