The author of His Dark Materials talks to A.S.H. Smyth about the latest episode in the saga in which he turns towards politics — with a nod to The Magnificent Seven along the way
Several years ago, Philip Pullman wrote that ‘“Thou shalt not” might reach the head, but it takes “Once upon a time” to reach the heart.’ Now, the prizewinning author and self-appointed scourge of God is preparing to unveil the latest episode from the universe of His Dark Materials, called Once Upon a Time in the North.
With Easter upon us, the Church might be relieved to hear that God doesn’t get a look in. The writer whom Peter Hitchens once called ‘the one the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed’ is leaving Him alone for now. On paper, anyway. Instead, it is politicians who should be worried, for the Pullman barrage appears to have rumbled on to their turf.
In the time it takes to make a plunger of coffee I learn a lot about the failure of Kent’s local authorities to enforce carbon-capture clauses on the plans for a new E.ON power station. Later, the conversation roams unsparingly through officialdom and encroaching regulation (especially in the national curriculum), crass sloganeering and political unspeak (‘Tony Blair was a great bullshitter’), and ID cards: ‘I’d go to jail rather than have an identity card.’
‘I’ll hold you to that.’
While these are not quite themes of the new book, diehard fans of His Dark Materials may be a little disappointed at the prevalence of what, in the circumstances, might be deemed ‘reality’. A raft of era-defining background issues: oil-rich lands, race hate, private security firms. ‘Globalisation, big corporations taking over... These are the things I think about and I naturally found myself writing about them.’
What’s more, though Once Upon a Time in the North has more cut and thrust than Lyra’s Oxford, at 112 (small) pages it amounts to little more than a free-standing chapter of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass. Still, as chapters go, it’s good reading: an old-school Western-style adventure, replete with pretty women, crooked politicians and hired guns. Uncomplicated, uncompromising stuff.
It tells the story — as requested by Pullman’s thirty-something son — of an early voyage by the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby, and his first meeting with Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, on the White Sea island of Novy Odense. (These two characters subsequently become brothers in arms and principal companions in the various travails of Lyra Belacqua, heroine of the His Dark Materials trilogy.)
In the new book, the pair, finding that their interests mutually coincide with those of a Dutch merchant whose cargo has been illegally impounded, pool their strengths, automatically and almost wordlessly, in defence of the little man.
‘I stole the idea from The Magnificent Seven. There’s a moment there when the two main characters, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who’ve never met before, join forces in this sort of laconic way, to get something done.’
Pullman has often said that the first four words of Northern Lights — ‘Lyra and her dæmon...’ — defined the whole book. Here, he opens with ‘The battered cargo balloon...’.
‘It’s not a smart new piece of equipment; it’s a shabby, patched up, botched together, hanging-on-by-its-toenails bit of old kit that he’s won in a poker game. And it’s not a balloon for sightseeing or exploring; it’s a cargo balloon, and Scoresby’s a working man.’
Every hero needs his weapons, of course. In hero lore, weapons — and the gaining of them — are often emblematic of their owners (much like the dæmons in His Dark Materials). The winning of the balloon and the gift of a Winchester rifle (from the Dutchman) both prefigure Scoresby’s eventual death, especially since he dies using them once again to defend someone else’s cause, for no material gain.
Scoresby is supposed to be a mercenary, though, and you have to wonder how he breaks even. Noble deaths make for great movies, but they don’t tend to pay the bills.
‘That’s right. It wasn’t until I was well into this book that I realised it was about honour. Lee follows a pattern here that he’s going to follow throughout his life. He’s always going to do the honourable thing, but reluctantly.’ He knows where the money is, and knows it’s nowhere near him.
‘Time and again in this story he’s given the chance to behave dishonourably, and doesn’t do it. But that’s Lee. He would be tempted by all sorts of things: women, money, gambling, whatever. And from time to time he’d give in to these temptations, if it wasn’t going to hurt anyone. But he’s a man of honour, a man of rock-hard integrity.’
Given that a new episode in the His Dark Materials universe could have fallen anywhere and used any characters, is this a purposeful move away from the innocent Lyra as the central figure? Whatever else he may be, Scoresby is decidedly not innocent.
‘No, he’s not a Boy Scout,’ agrees Pullman, but he challenges my suggestion that a man who drinks, gambles, brawls and admires ladies’ legs might be deemed politically incorrect nowadays in a heroic role.
‘He has a proper interest in the subject of ladies’ legs; but he would not dream of treating a lady with anything other than complete respect. That’s not politically incorrect, is it?’
Noted. In fact, maybe Scoresby is too respectful. In the classic two-girl scenario beloved of gentlemanly escapades (not that two-girl scenario), he doesn’t get either of them.
‘No, it was very important that he shouldn’t get the girl. This honour business again, I suppose. He’s a perennial bachelor. But you know he’ll find himself a girlfriend at some point. Probably got three or four sweethearts tucked away in different places in the world.’
Immediately before his death at Alamo Gulch, Scoresby tells his companion: ‘Seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.’
Honourable or not, Lee Scoresby’s clear-cut notions of right and wrong don’t chime with the political mainstream. The good folk of Novy Odense are plainly grateful for his extra-legal, iron-fisted intervention. But they also want him to get the hell out of Dodge, at the earliest. ‘“Thank you very much and don’t come back” is how Lee thinks about it.’
So, occasionally you can call in someone who will ‘get something done’? That is, for many, an uncomfortable thought.
‘Yeah, but of course they can only flourish — or exist at all really — in places that are a bit of a frontier. You can’t live the Magnificent Seven sort of life in Notting Hill.’
I suggest to Pullman that Lee Scoresby is the exception that proves Burke’s assertion that ‘the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. He knows when intervention is required, he breaks the law when circumstances dictate, and he’s not scared to shoot a few guys if he must; but he never does nothing.
‘No. Because he’s the honourable cowboy, the Western hero.’
A.S.H. Smyth Is A Freelance Journalist And Author Of They’d None Of ’em Be Missed (with Richard Suart).