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Dr Lanselius was the consul of all the witch-clans at Trollesund, in the far north. Lyra remembered her visit to his house, and the secret she’d overheard – the secret which had had such momentous consequences. She would have trusted Dr Lanselius; but could she trust what someone else claimed on his behalf?
One of my favourite book series from the last decade, not just in children’s fiction – but fiction period, was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A story about two children from different worlds, threatened by a vast authoritarian conspiracy designed to exploit innocence, it managed to be thematically powerful and dense with literary references. Pullman takes his series title and many of his themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He caught the notice of the liberal press (and the ire of religious groups and concerned parents) by launching a broadside against C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia and its overt religious allegory. His Dark Materials, by contrast, offered a fantasy universe that was inhabited by angelic beings and daemons, while at the same time subscribing to scientific theories of quantum reality and evolution.
Heady stuff for a kid’s book. Yet if there’s a consistent theme throughout my positive reviews of children’s books, it is authors who do not condescend to their readers. Philip Pullman certainly does not talk down to children. Even in Lyra’s Oxford, a short post-script to the trilogy, has a brief introduction by the author where he wonders if the past is conditioned by future events, hinting that this volume throws some of the events of the previous books into relief.
It is two years after the events of The Amber Spyglass and Lyra has returned to Jordan College Oxford. Pullman includes postcards, maps and journal extracts supposedly recovered from this world contained within the book to give a greater level detail. The story itself is quite slim, a taste of what is to come with Pullman’s upcoming second series The Book of Dust.
Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon encounter a witch’s daemon under attack from a flock of starlings. Rescuing it, the grateful familiar informs Lyra that he is searching for an alchemist who lives somewhere in the Jericho district of Oxford. The witch has sent him to ask this man for an elixir that will cure a mysterious ailment ravaging the witches who live in the north. Lyra agrees to help and hides the witch’s daemon in her room until nightfall.
What Lyra does not realize is that events from her adventures in the north and her conflict with the General Oblation Board have come back to haunt her.
At times I suspect that the religious controversy over Pullman’s writing obscured a well-told story. Wisely for this book he has chosen to return to the setting of Northern Lights, which transformed the familiar surroundings of Oxford into a steam punk fantasy of his devising. Will, the other protagonist of His Dark Materials, is once again absent.
This is a great reminder of what made Pullman’s books so appealing in the first place. I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).
My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.
Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.
The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.
When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.
He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.
This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!
Inspiring, truthful and humorous.