What about Philip Pullman?

Wes

Member
Hi all,

I know Ben brought this up elsewhere some time ago and it was suggested we talk about it here, and then reading A Wrinkle in Time recently brought it back to mind, so I wanted to ask, have people read any Pullman? Impressions?

His new Book of Dust came out not too long ago, and he also released a lovely book of essays, but he's best known for the provocative stuff that happens in His Dark Materials. Spoilers may ensue, depending on how much people have read...I'll just say it: stuff like the death of God. What do we do about that? I say we should at least read it!

For me, he's the best. Better than Lewis, better than Tolkien. A little lower than Vonnegut, perhaps, well below such luminaries as Homer and the Bible and Shakespeare, but well. Certainly one of the best living authors in English. Heresy, I know, but that's just me!
 

Benjamin Kozlowski

Moderator
Staff member
Hi all,

I know Ben brought this up elsewhere some time ago and it was suggested we talk about it here, and then reading A Wrinkle in Time recently brought it back to mind, so I wanted to ask, have people read any Pullman? Impressions?

His new Book of Dust came out not too long ago, and he also released a lovely book of essays, but he's best known for the provocative stuff that happens in His Dark Materials. Spoilers may ensue, depending on how much people have read...I'll just say it: stuff like the death of God. What do we do about that? I say we should at least read it!

For me, he's the best. Better than Lewis, better than Tolkien. A little lower than Vonnegut, perhaps, well below such luminaries as Homer and the Bible and Shakespeare, but well. Certainly one of the best living authors in English. Heresy, I know, but that's just me!
I've always admired Pullman's capacity as a story-crafter. I love The Golden Compass dearly, from the first scene to the last, as a Master class in pacing and how to explore themes and ideas in speculative fiction. I love the masterstroke of using daemons to put into dialogue what normally would be internal monologue, and I love the daring behind so many of the creative decisions, from armored bears to the re-imagined story of the Fall, all the way to the end of the book with its promise of even greater imaginative leaps. I was especially glad to see that The Book of Dust largely sloughed off the theological baggage of Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass, which I thought was unnecessary at best and contrivedly, bitterly polemical at worst. It lacked the stylistic economy of Compass, I think, but by the midpoint of the book, I was sold.

(Spoilers to follow)

What intrigued me, though, and what made me want to discuss it with the Signumites in particular, was Pullman's use of typical fairy-story elements in The Book of Dust. The England of the flood is very much a transformed place, even based on his earlier stories in the setting, and I wanted to know: has anyone read it with an eye to teasing out Pullman's own take on the world of Faerie? What tradition is he working with, and how is he modifying it for his world and his time? What can/should we expect from the books to come?
 

Wes

Member
I'm giving your dismissal of books 2 and 3 a pass for now, sir, but you shall give me satisfaction hereafter :) Bitter theological baggage and contrived polemics, indeed! These are but the rough exterior rind of a marzipan-sweet fruit of poetic intellect...

On to Faerie. Whatever that is in La Belle Sauvage, it should fit into the non-binary, 'many worlds' sort of parallel universes Pullman deploys in these books. Does it help to fold Faerie into the physics of a multiverse? It would go along with the notion of stories working according to subtle laws of nature, or nature existing for us in terms of the stories/accounts we can give of it. The light-nimbus intuitions that come over Malcolm I expect will be developed more in the next book, and may play into Asriel investigating the northern lights. And having a main character named Alice, well that invites comparison with Carroll.

It may also help to look at his sources for the poetry bookending the story, which I have yet to do: MacNeice and Spenser. I've never read Faerie Queene, but now I guess I have to. Pullman has also retold a number of Grimm Tales, so that popular tradition may be still more relevant. And he is, of course, actively mining and undermining the ground turned by Tolkien and Lewis.

I hope more people will jump in, too, who know Faerie better.

If you're looking for a stellar take on fairy stories, check out Ishiguro's newish The Buried Giant.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
Benjamin, that is exactly the way I feel about His Dark Materials. Book 1 is great: after that it goes downhill a bit.

Although I've not read The Book of Dust, I did just finish the Stormlight series by Brandon Sanderson, which also features the death of God. Or a god, as we eventually find out. I recommend it, so long as you are up to reading 3000+ pages that do not reach any sort of a real ending!

In a similar vein of authors' series' comparison, I was very much struck by the similarity of the final resolution of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea universe with that of His Dark Materials. In both cases

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS - you've been warned!

the Dead are all confined in a hellish sort of place, and the heroes let them out, to dissolve - spiritually - and return their spirits to the world in some metaphorical way. Finally, they are at peace, existing only in the grass and the trees and the new life of the earth. I do not think either author was cribbing on the other; they just came up with very similar ideas.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
The England of the flood is very much a transformed place, even based on his earlier stories in the setting, and I wanted to know: has anyone read it with an eye to teasing out Pullman's own take on the world of Faerie? What tradition is he working with, and how is he modifying it for his world and his time?
As I already mentioned, I haven't read this book.

Of all the books that I have read, the one that most struck me as "clearly this author has read -- and understood! -- Tolkien's On Fairy Stories" is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I was struck by a sentence that instantly made me think of it:

He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.​

Other than the stylistic differences, this sentence could easily appear in Smith of Wootton Major. It is certainly *true* of Smith the character. It is also very true of Richard, the protagonist of Neverwhere, a nebbishy, Arthur Dentish sort of person flung into the world of Faërie in modern London.

The closest I could find in OFS to the Gaiman quote above is this:

...Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange
tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining
nouns and redistributing adjectives...​

That quote, along with these, begin to explain why the Gaiman quote struck me so much:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is
one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not
imperceptible.​

...the power of Faërie, that power which, even as it
conceives the story, causes it to take living form and
colour before the eyes.​

Words have power in Faerie (side-note: there are no songs in Neverwhere. Not one!). In the mundane world, words evoke ideas and feelings: in Faerie they happen. As JRRT put it:

An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making
immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.”​

There is another, completely separate, concept that Gaiman might as well have taken directly from OFS. In his novel, all the transactions we see between the inhabitants of Faërie are via barter, and the most desirable commodity for bartering is the promise of a future favor. Tolkien remarks on this:

...the necessity of keeping promises (even those with
intolerable consequences) that, together with observing
prohibitions, runs through all Fairyland.​

The consequences in Neverwhere are often quite scary indeed, but the characters nevertheless do what they must and make promises when they must.

I have never found On Fairy Stories an easy read. I can't claim to fully understand what Tolkien meant to say. But I think Neil Gaiman does.
 

Wes

Member
That's very interesting you bring up Tolkien's great essay, Jim, and I tend to agree that Gaiman's story sounds like a keen interpretation of the spirit of it--a story, Smith of Wooton Major-esque, seems like the best way to enunciate an understanding of such a diffuse and complex text as On Fairy Stories (though I can't say I've read Neverwhere or Sanderson, for that matter. I did read Earthsea as a kid, but have to read it again. I'll take your word for it for now!).

Hey so, one thing that does seem clear from the end of On Fairy Stories is the special significance of the Christian story for Tolkien. Out of all existing and all possible stories, it is privileged as possessing a unique truth, beside which all others are at best sub-creative and at worst diabolical. I consider myself a Christian, for all my waywardness, and I think it's an open question how much his own childhood raised in the Anglican fold has impacted Pullman's moral compass despite his agnosticism. Pullman outspokenly advocates for a Republic of Heaven, not a Kingdom, even as he avowedly steals ideas from everywhere he can. For him, it seems stories can be better or worse according to their faithful representation of human nature, not on the strength of any authority supporting them, divine-revelatory or ideological as the case may be.

Promise-keeping is a major theme to consider, for sure. I'll look up some things and get back to you on that.
 
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