Philip Pullman’s new k, the prequel to his Northern Lights series — the one north Oxford academics very much prefer to Harry Potter — is an intriguing work. It’s notionally set some time near our own, but the world it evokes is the 1950s and 1960s England of the author’s youth. The hero, Malcolm Polstead, is the only child of an innkeeper — that timeless calling — and the inn
was an old stone-built rambling comfortable sort of place. There was a terrace above the river, where peacocks (one called Norman and the other Barry) stalked among the drinkers...There was a saloon where the gentry, if college scholars count as gentry, took their ale and smoked their pipes; there was a public bar where watermen and farm labourers sat by the fire or played darts, or stood at the bar gossiping... There was a kitchen where the landlord’s wife cooked a great joint every day...
Let me at it! We’re in an Oxford, then, that would have been perfectly familiar to Pullman’s bête noir, C.S. Lewis, and is infused with the comfortable Englishness that’s such an appealing stratum in the Harry Potter ks. In fact, there are few stories with such an enticing selection of English pub grub: sausage and mash, spiced parsnip soup, stewed apple, sirloin of beef, home-fried potatoes…yum.
But of course it’s an alternative world, one aspect of which is that the Reformation has not happened, and: ‘over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business…’ (a nice historic touch). And, as anyone familiar with the Northern Lights trilogy knows, that world is threatened by the spectre of the Magisterium — the Vatican, confusingly relocated to Geneva — and specifically by the contemporary Inquisition, the CCD, or Court of Consistorial Discipline, a cross between the Stasi and the Gestapo.
So, the world of 1950s England is spliced with an another, fantastical world in which gypsies — or gyptians — can foretell cosmic floods; cocoa is chocolatl; the academics in Oxford colleges include lords, drink Tokay and can offer sanctuary to scholars seeking asylum; and anything can happen to a baby girl left in the care of the Godstow nuns to keep her safe from her enemies. Malcolm has a boat called La Belle Sauvage, and it is on this plucky vessel that he and the kitchenmaid from the Trout, Alice, take baby Lyra when the waters rise dangerously on the river and her enemies are closing in on her. That flight down river is the substance of this first volume.
And, like the voyages of St Brendan or that of C.S. Lewis’s Dawn Treader, this one is interspersed with otherworldly episodes, in which the two youngsters enter the land of the faeries, or an enchanted island, or a mausoleum, perpetually pursued by Bonneville, an excellently creepy villain, whose chilling ‘Haa Haa’ can be heard first, followed by his hyena daemon, the outward, animal expression of the character’s self. All the familiar elements are here, then: daemons, the alethiometer or truth-telling device, Mrs Coulter and her monkey, plus a wildly romantic take on Oxford.
These strands make up an excellent story, and simply as a tale of flight and pursuit, it’s altogether enjoyable. But there’s more to it, unfortunately. The entire Northern Lights trilogy seeks to upend Paradise Lost by making God the baddie and the loss of innocence in the Fall a rather good thing (though Milton in fact insisted that Adam and Eve had enjoyable sex before the episode with the apple); bang in the middle of the trilogy, in fact, we get the Death of God, which you can’t say about every children’s story.
Anyway, the problem with Pullman is that his larger aspiration — to see off Christianity — is an impediment to his storytelling. He has an alternative, incomprehensible metaphysics to the Christian sort, and it’s to do with the concept of Dust, particles that — oh, I don’t know — have something to do with consciousness. The most unreadable part of the Northern Lights trilogy, in fact, was the final episode, which was all about Dust. Here we’re told darkly that it’s got something to do with a Rusakov field, and a heresy that consciousness is invested in nature as a whole, not just humans. (Not sure the Church does have a problem with animal consciousness.) Anyway, this metaphysical stuff around which the narrative revolves is the least successful bit of it.
One of the reasons why Philip Pullman is such a good storyteller is that he’s steeped in the great folk tradition. The business of storytelling is the substance of much of his essay collection, Daemon Voices. Two of the best of them, on Grimm and the Norse sagas, are to do with the essence of story… flashes of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. His reflections on how to nourish the imagination of children in an age of screens are excellent. Until we get to God. What Pullman can’t acknowledge is that the Christian story brings something quite fundamental to the imaginative world. The upending of the normal order of things in the Incarnation, the concept of the greatest becoming least, life trumping death on the cross… all this radically changed the kind of stories we tell in the west, for the better. What’s more, a world without God doesn’t have much space for daemons or faeries either.