Coming of Age with Philip Pullman

People really like Philip Pullman’s characters. One of my best friends gave his daughter the middle name Lyra after Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of Pullman’s His ...

People really like Philip Pullman’s characters. One of my best friends gave his daughter the middle name Lyra after Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. When I tell people that, they tell me they know someone who did the same, or thought about it themselves, and I tell them we did too, but we had boys… Indeed, there were 248 Lyras born in the UK in 2016, making it the 212th-most-popular girl’s name of the year. That’s quite a feat for a moniker that was barely in circulation at all before Pullman’s novels, and especially when you compare the much better known literary coinage, J. M. Barrie’s Wendy, which was given to a mere 16 baby British girls in the same year.

It’s odd, therefore, that Pullman’s work is pretty ambivalent about its characters. More than one critic has labeled him a posthuman author: people are neither central to his universe nor qualitatively different from other forms of matter, like, say, dust. Such ambiguity about the centrality or otherwise of humans to his world also, I want to argue here, makes Pullman an innovator in the novel form. And this claim might, I suggest, be born out as one tries to make sense of the strange structure of his latest novel.

La Belle Sauvage is the first volume of Pullman’s new series The Book of Dust, which is set in the same universe as His Dark Materials and features an infant Lyra as a subsidiary character. The novel starts out as a coming-of-age story, but its interest, oddly, seems to get diverted elsewhere. On the one hand, it tells the story of Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy whose adventures catalyze his transformation from an “inquisitive, kindly” child to a nascent father figure, a “good guardian” to Lyra, whom he saves from kidnapping and death.

On the other, the novel lacks the kind of closure we associate with coming-of-age narratives. Spoiler alert: its hurried final chapter sees Malcolm packed back off to his unglamorous life as a pub potboy. At the same time, a postscript from Spenser’s Faerie Queene anticlimactically casts the whole ending as merely an interlude in a larger narrative, a “quiet rode, / Where we must land some of our passengers,” before the story proper can continue.

In Pullman’s world, to be truly wise would be to know that one is little different from brute matter.

Add to this the fact that, in the second half of the novel, the story of Malcolm’s personal development, which has been almost our sole focus, begins to compete for space with an episodic journey, a picaresque, whose pleasures lie at least as much in the discrete enchantments of its installments as in anything Malcolm learns about himself. One minute he’s in the library of Dr. Hannah Relf, a kindly academic last seen at the end of The Amber Spyglass, discovering a whole world of ideas he never knew; the next he’s sailing down the Thames in a paranormal flood, encountering, in short order, a fairy trickster who wants to possess Lyra by feeding her magic breast milk, a garden party of the dead, and an obstinate giant river-guardian.

All in all, Pullman seems both to care, and not to care, about what Malcolm learned along the way. This paradox, however, gets to the heart of Pullman’s complex view of things, to which people both are and are not central.

Narrators in children’s and young-adult literature often take pains to reassure us that they care about their characters—that we will not be punished for the sympathy with which they ask us to invest them. To take the first example that comes to mind:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.1

Here, J. K. Rowling’s free indirect discourse (“thank you very much”) invites the reader to join the narrator in mimicking, mocking, the Dursleys’ priggishness: whatever challenges they are going to pose to the protagonist we are yet to meet (for, we correctly suppose, neither Dursley is going to be our hero), the narrator is telegraphing to us that they will be no match for him. For if she can dispose of them so glibly, how bad can they be?

It’s true that another common feature of children’s literature is that it takes us further into darkness than we thought we would go. The Harry Potter books are nothing if not dark, something that is prefigured in the first section of the same first volume, whose opening is reproduced above, in Uncle Vernon’s insane determination to keep Harry from receiving his Hogwarts letter, buying a gun and nailing his family up in a shack on a rock in the ocean before he gives in. “Perfectly normal”! Yet Rowling’s narrator does not betray that initial promise—she leads Harry, and us, through all the dangers he faces, to a place of happily ever after.

Pullman’s narrators are stranger. They might sound avuncular, but their affability resembles a mask pulled away to reveal something scarier. Take, for instance, the opening of Pullman’s novella Clockwork:

In the old days, when this story took place, time used to run by clockwork. Real clockwork, I mean, springs and cogwheels and gears and pendulums and so on. When you took it apart you could see how it worked, and how to put it together again. Nowadays time runs by electricity and vibrating crystals of quartz and goodness knows what else …

And once you’ve wound up a clock, there’s something frightful in the way it keeps going at its own relentless pace. Its hands move steadily round the dial as if they had a mind of their own. Tick, tock, tick, tock! Bit by bit they move, and tick us steadily on toward the grave.2

From bland, bluff “crystals and quartz and goodness knows what else,” to ticking “steadily on toward the grave” in a single page!

As the above example begins to suggest, when the bottom drops out in Philip Pullman books, it drops out far, and it drops out fast. The Ruby in the Smoke moves in just a couple of lines from introducing us to “a person of sixteen or so—alone, and uncommonly pretty” to the revelation that “[h]er name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.”3 At the beginning of The Tiger in the Well, Sally goes from bucolic happiness to being sued for custody of her child in a mere two pages. When the plot of La Belle Sauvage shifts queasily from BBC radio-style dilations about cooking Brussels sprouts and whether or not to say “an historian” to the horrid appearance of a “lurching” hyena daemon, who gnaws the bloody stump of her missing leg and pisses in front of her enemies as “an expression of contempt,” the disquieting bathos feels like a signature Pullman move.

Pullman also, on occasion, cautions us against anthropocentrically reading the sufferings his characters undergo as recipes for personal growth. To take the most bracing example in his corpus, the ending of The White Mercedes depends on a false epiphany that drips with dramatic irony. Spoilers again: a protagonist named Christopher, whose lover has been murdered because of something he has done, begins to achieve closure by figuring out why she has scrawled “DAD” on the wall as she was dying. “She had,” Christopher thinks, “loved her father and wanted him there in her last moments.” He takes comfort from the discovery, “glad she’d been able to do that.”4 Yet in fact she has written the word in order to indict her father as a sexual abuser, and Christopher has betrayed her again by failing to realize.

What’s at stake here? Culture often works by resolving our anxiety about the world, and there is a long history of reading novels primarily as stories about making one’s peace with society. Literary theorist Georg Lukács, for instance, wrote that the bildungsroman was the archetypal form of the novel because of its story of “adequation” between the protagonist and the world.5

Pullman is not like this. For example, his adaptations of Grimm’s fairy tales remind us that the fairy-tale tradition is not, as modern versions often suggest, about happy resolutions. Sometimes their characters live “happily ever after,” but sometimes they live happily “for a while,” until a new problem threatens their equilibrium once again. And sometimes a tale ends in death and destruction that only “sort of,” as Pullman writes, incarnates the justice of a moral.6

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However, Pullman’s subversion of generic and narrative norms is not just for the thrill of a convention turned inside out. Nor is it founded on the cutesy sadism of being mean to one’s characters that we find in, say, parts of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Rather, Pullman’s ambivalence about coming-of-age is part and parcel of a larger world-view. We might read the conclusion of the His Dark Materials books as a kind of coming-of-age narrative, in which Lyra loses her innocent naiveté and sets off on the path to wisdom. Yet more spoilers: Lyra, her childhood ended, finds that she no longer has the instinctive ability to read the alethiometer, the “golden compass” that has the power to tell the true answer to any question. In order to regain her ability to read the device, Lyra will make its study her “life’s work,” “to learn consciously what [she] could once do by intuition”—and that’s what maturity is.7

But the closer we look, the more curious that resolution feels. Pullman has written on numerous occasions that he drew the story of Lyra and the alethiometer from Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” where Kleist suggests that adults can regain the artless grace of puppets after a long life of struggle and learning. But what does it mean if wisdom is not Bildung, the maturity of the self, but puppethood, in which one has no concept of a self at all?

It would be easy to dismiss Kleist’s image of the puppet as incidental, were it not for the fact that puppetlike beings with minimal consciousness recur all over Pullman’s work: Pullman has written that what he admires about fairy-tale characters is that “there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life”—“they just … do things.”8 In both Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror and Thunderbolt’s Waxwork, dummies are comically mistaken for people and vice versa; the wondrous (and criminally out-of-print) Galatea features a zombie farm and a museum of automata, while its love interest is an android; in Count Karlstein, one of the characters is a wooden head; in Clockwork, the boundaries between automata and people are blurred again and again. Pullman’s people are frequently not qualitatively different from dummies, zombies, automata, or puppets.

The reason for this has to do with Pullman’s long-held conviction, derived from William Blake, that matter itself is conscious and is attracted to other matter. There’s nothing unique or important about human selves, human consciousness, human reason—these are merely secondary properties of matter. (Indeed, reason in particular comes in for a bashing all over Pullman’s work, since it is forever hubristically presuming to grasp a world whose workings are “too mysterious to see,”9 and in which, as Blake puts it, “Contrarieties are equally true.”)10 As Galatea has it, the underlying principle beneath everything, “Electricity, and finance, and sexuality, and happiness, and evolution,” is “the amorous inclinations of matter”—the only matter that matters is matter’s desire for matter.11

Ambiguity about the centrality of humans makes Pullman an innovator in the novel form.

The idea is central to the concept of Dust, which lies at the heart of His Dark Materials (and, one assumes, The Book of Dust). The angel Balthamos says in The Amber Spyglass that Dust is a by-product of matter’s consciousness: it is “a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed.”12 So how can we act as if self-knowledge lends our lives meaning, if what it entails is realizing that everything significant is going on only at an atomic level?

This returns us to the strangeness of La Belle Sauvage. In a conventional bildungsroman, self-knowledge is everything. If novels resolve our anxiety about the hostility of a world to which we do not matter, then coming-of-age—that is, self-knowledge—is the compensatory totem that promises we are uniquely significant. In Pullman’s world, however, if coming-of-age is important, self-knowledge provides no such compensation, since to be truly wise would be to know that one is little different from brute matter.

Instead, what might compensate us for our insignificance is story itself. Pullman has said that he prefers to be known as a storyteller, rather than a writer, and has written and spoken often on the power of stories. As the ghost tells Mary Malone in a much-quoted passage from The Amber Spyglass, people “need the truth,” and the way to get it to them is to “[tell] them stories […] tell them true stories.”13

For Pullman, a true story could not tell us that coming-of-age makes us matter, but it can do many other things, one of which is to revivify the world’s mystery. Or, as a character in The Broken Bridge puts it, art “isn’t the most important thing, but it’ll have to do till we find out what is.”14 In Lyra’s Oxford, “a story” is what makes comprehensible that world whose logic is “too mysterious to see.”15 Stories can, Pullman writes in the Independent, convey “mystery” without “flattening out the shadows in a bright neon blaze of explanation.”16 Hence, we might conclude, the bewitching vignettes of La Belle Sauvage—in the end, Malcolm might matter or he might not, but his world, at least, is enchanted. icon

  1. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (Scholastic, 1998), p. 1.
  2. Pullman, Clockwork, Or, All Wound Up (Scholastic, 1998), pp. ix–xi.
  3. Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery (Random House, 1985), p. 3.
  4. Pullman, The White Mercedes (Knopf, 1993), p. 170.
  5. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, translated from the German by Anna Bostock (MIT Press, 1971), p. 141.
  6. Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (Penguin, 2013), pp. 87, 136.
  7. Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (Dell Laurel-Leaf, 2000), p. 461.
  8. Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, p. xiii; Pullman, “‘Loosening the Chains of the Imagination,’The Guardian, August 23, 2013 (Pullman’s ellipsis).
  9. Pullman, Lyra’s Oxford, engravings by John Lawrence (Knopf, 2003), p. vii.
  10. William Blake, Jerusalem, quoted in Pullman, “William Blake and MeThe Guardian, November 28, 2014.
  11. Pullman, Galatea (E.P. Dutton, 1979), p. 287.
  12. Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, p. 28.
  13. Ibid., p. 386.
  14. Pullman, The Broken Bridge (Knopf, 1990), p. 185.
  15. Pullman, Lyras Oxford, p. vii.
  16. Pullman, “The Moral’s in the Story, not the Stern Lecture,” The Independent, July 17, 1996.
Featured image: La Balade des Géants à Montréal (May 20, 2017). Photograph by AV Dezign / Flickr