I had not known that the American edition of The Amber Spyglass was ‘slightly’ censored for the publishers’ fear of our delicate sensibilites about… teenage hormones. Alexandra Schwartz, at the New Yorker:
… Pullman, who has written books for both adults and children, including the Sally Lockheart quartet, numerous fairy tales, and a reimagining of the New Testament, considers himself a storyteller first and foremost. Before becoming a writer, he taught middle school. In 2017, he returned to Lyra’s world with “La Belle Sauvage,” the first in a planned trilogy called The Book of Dust, named for the mysterious particle linked to consciousness that lie at the heart of His Dark Materials. The trilogy’s second book, “The Secret Commonwealth,” will be published in October; and an adaptation of His Dark Materials, starring James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the newcomer Dafne Keen, will appear on HBO the following month. Pullman lives with his wife and two cockapoos in Oxfordshire; he spoke with The New Yorker over the phone on a recent afternoon…
“The Secret Commonwealth” is the second in your new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which returns to the world that you created in His Dark Materials. How did you decide to come back to Lyra?
Well, in the usual way. These stories come to me. I didn’t do it on purpose. I found myself daydreaming a number of events involving Lyra and the people around Lyra. And there was always a kind of a mystery which I hadn’t settled to my own satisfaction in His Dark Materials, which is about the nature of Dust. It has something to do with consciousness, but I didn’t explore that fully, and I’m using this story, among other things, as a way of finding out what I mean by this idea.
The first book in the series, “The Book of Dust,” takes place when Lyra is a baby. She’s not enormously communicative, as babies aren’t.
And she hasn’t got any agency in that book. She’s the MacGuffin, in Hitchcock’s words, the thing that sets the plot going: the secret plans, or the unlocked suitcase, or the mysterious woman wearing a veil, or whatever it is.
And now she’s back in “The Secret Commonwealth,” and she’s twenty years old. It’s a shock, honestly, to read about her, because she’s troubled, she’s surly, she’s depressed. She’s not at all the confident heroine we remember from His Dark Materials.
Well, she’s growing up. She’s an adult. I don’t use the word “depressed.” It’s a rather depressing word. Melancholy. I think at one point Malcolm’s dæmon refers to her as bearing the mark of “Le soleil noir de la mélancolie,” which is a quotation from a poem by Gérard de Nerval which I like very much.
She’s marked by melancholy, and the reason for that, and probably one of the results of that, is she and Pantalaimon have suffered a rupture.
Yes, they’re not joined in the way that people in that world are with their dæmons.
They’re not. This was something I had wondered about for a long time. You know, we’ve had a picture of dæmons in His Dark Materials as these close beings, really an aspect of yourself. You can’t be divided. But what if you don’t like your dæmon and your dæmon didn’t like you? What would it be like then?
In the past, you’ve spoken of not so much creating dæmons as sort of discovering that they were there in your writing.
I’m sure that a very strict scientistical person would say that I did not discover anything because there’s nothing there before I make it up. But it does really feel like discovery, not invention.
If you say it, I believe it. You’re quite a rational person in spite of being an author of fantasy.
Well, reason is a good servant but a bad master. And I think it was David Hume, the English philosopher—Scottish philosopher, I should say—who said that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” In other words, reason is there to help us, but our governing passions are the emotions and feelings of human life, whether it’s love, or anger, or tenderness, or revenge, or whatever it might happen to be…
Your books were very important to my own early adolescence. I particularly remember the physical intensity of reading the end of “The Amber Spyglass,” with the love story between Lyra and Will. And I’ve discovered in the past couple of days that I actually only got half of the experience, because Lyra’s sexual awakening was pretty dampened down in America.
I’m surprised it was that much altered. I don’t think it was that much raunchier in the European version.
I think there was more explicit description of the effects of hormones!
Well, this has to do probably with the publisher that I was with. I don’t think of my audience very much. I don’t think of my readership and direct my story to a particular age. But, as it happened, His Dark Materials was published by a children’s publisher, or by a children’s division of an adult publisher. And that meant various things. It meant that it was put on bookshelves in different parts of bookshops. It was sold into bookstores and wholesalers by people who knew children’s lists, and not really by adult representatives. So it had a big children’s readership, and I think that might have governed what my American editors thought ought to be done to the text.
I don’t think very much was done, but, then, as we from this side of the Atlantic have had occasion to observe, you on that side—I mean the great big “you” of the American public—are much more easily offended. Even, dare I say, eager to be offended.
I think that’s fair.
So I think people have to be more careful. With “The Secret Commonwealth,” it really isn’t a book for children. But it’s being published by the children’s part of Penguin Random House, which might mislead people. I think the people who are likely to buy this are probably grown-up, and they probably know what they’re in for.
I certainly noticed that, in all the public events that I did to publicize “La Belle Sauvage,” two years ago, my audience consisted almost entirely of adults. Hardly any children at all…
Love, love, love Philip Pullman’s books. I haven’t read them but listened to the audio versions while driving. Can’t watch The Golden Compassmovie b/c the book was so great. Same with His Dark Materials.
A new trailer is up for the HBO series, which looks much better than the movie, and leaves me cautiously optimistic about its quality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A
hells littlest angel
But for the fact that he named a character Farder in a book for young adults, Pullman would be the greatest writer of all time.
But seriously, La Belle Sauvage was a good read (not in a class with His Dark Materials, but what is?), and I’m really looking forward to the next installment.
The third book of the original trilogy was one of the biggest letdowns I ever experienced. Preachy and dull. I’ll pass on this one.
Didn’t like the series. No real happy endings or anything like that for any of the characters.
You feel like this boy is soooooo close to meeting his father, who mysteriously disappeared, but nah….not gonna happen…
Loved the first set of books. La Belle Sauvage, for whatever reason, didn’t do much for me. I’ll probably read this one at some point, but don’t really feel like I need to grab a copy right away.
First book was good. The rest not so much.
“Daemons”? Odds Bodkins!
hells littlest angel
@Ramalama: The Golden Compass movie was a wonderfully faithful adaptation of the book, with some terrific acting — although playing Mrs Coulter was probably not much of a stretch for Nicole Kidman.
Anybody catch Phillip Rucker (WaPo?) slip up trying to say ” Vice President Pence” and it came out as Vice Prince? I lol’ed.
I just wish the news folk could learn some synonyms for “scandal”. It’s like the only word they know. How about “appalling insult to citizens of this republic” or, one I like, misprision of felony, gross dereliction of duty.
Loved the 1st book. The second one disappointed me, because I expected/wanted the main character of this book to also be a girl—maybe the same one? It’s been some time since I read the trilogy.
I found the 3rd book very disappointing. As I recall, it seemed like the author was just forcing his own views into the story, twisting it to conform to his grand vision of how repellant any religion is. As I said, it’s been some time since I read the books, and my memory of the story in the 3rd book as well as my reaction at the time may be far off.
What a lovely writer Pullman is. It’s a pity American book editors are too stupid to leave good writing alone for fear of pearl-clutchers like themselves. The thing to do is collect all the editions–the same thing was done to all the Harry Potters & was thoroughly covered at the time in the New Yorker–and so you end up with an amazon.co.uk account and an unwelcome acquaintanceship with other people’s currency, but at least you have the books as they were written.
Read the first 3 books of the Sally Lockhart series. The 1st was pretty good, the rest pretty meh.
I think the problem was that I expected/hoped for the magic of the Amber Spyglass.
Yeah, The Amber Spyglass was pretty terrible, due in large part to Pullman’s having no time gap between the events of the books. He wanted a series where Lyra was a child at the beginning and a fully sexual woman at the end. But having the three books set when she is 12-13 just doesn’t allow for that. You could get rid of every ounce of sexual repression forced upon us by the Church(es) and you still wouldn’t have young people having mature, psychologically uncomplicated relationships immediately upon passing through puberty. That is just a weird fantasy that you have when you are in the throes of puberty, but once you are fully adult, you realize how wrong you were. Or you do if you aren’t Philip Pullman.
And I’m someone who feels that the way we treat people as children until they turn 18 is deeply harmful!
The first book was the strongest for me, and the last one got wayyyyy too bombastic at times, but in the first book the world-building and the characters are so great. Armored bears! The witches!
@hells littlest angel: I had such high expectations, because so many of the characters seemed perfectly cast, and what great actors they are! But it didn’t come through.
Pretty much my reaction to the third book. I don’t think your memories are off.
@hells littlest angel: Good to know! Though it’s still difficult for me to view anything visual based on a book that… involves my own visuals….I’m trying to think up what I liked as well as the book and I think the “Tales of the City” series (definitely not YA material) has it. Loved the series on tv and later video. The books, not as much. I know that they were supposed to originally be newspaper columns (dating myself, alert alert).
I read the books a while back after seeing so many raves about them, and didn’t feel the love. I’ve kept thinking about them, though, unlike a lot of popular reads. The movie was OK, but HBO will probably do better.
Totally agree. Trailers for the HBO series look pretty good, though, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
I love Pullman. He was very influential to my coming out as an atheist.
Fainting couches! Get your fainting couches!
Playoffs, playoffs. . . .
Mike in NC
@NotMax: Tabloid headline: “Turncoat Turned Down by Ternberry”
Steve in the ATL
I’m about tired of this Chinese hoax. It was 96 degrees when I left Atlanta this afternoon, and a lovely 101 when we got to Lake Oconee an hour and a half later. So hot that both pups jumped in the lake as soon I was distracted by a work call. Down to 99 tomorrow, so thank the lord for the relief from the heat.
And, per Raven, go Braves!
@Steve in the ATL: I still can’t believe we caught a break for the Notre Dame game.
Anybody watching Evil? I see the second episode is on tonight, and I’m trying to decide whether to watch the first one before it disappears from streaming.
Braves looking good so far.
Steve in the ATL
@RAVEN: my ears are still ringing!
@Steve in the ATL: I had a one day break and then went rig fishing in Louisiana, I was beat when I got home. Going to Knoxville?
@Steeplejack: With the Cards booting it all over the yard!
Steve in the ATL
@RAVEN: nah, I hate that town! And it’s not a big enough game to be worth the trip. We will just chill at the lake, do some kayaking and golf and grilling, before I have to hit the road Sunday evening. You going?
Steve in the ATL
Good lord, I’m already two threads behind….
@Steve in the ATL: Nah, thought about it but we just scheduled two beach trips and that’ll do for now.
Heh, I didn’t say why!
I saw most of the first episode. Interesting premise and the acting seemed pretty good. I’m not any kind of believer, but it was good, creepy escapism, from the partial view I had of it.
Thank you! Cox does this thing where last week’s episode is available until the next one airs. Then it disappears and only sometimes comes back later. So I’ve gotten more sensitive about missing the boat on new series. The trailers looked pretty good, so I thought I might take a chance. Full speed ahead on your recommendation. (But no blame if I don’t like it.)
scott (the other one)
@Ladyraxterinok: Exactly my feelings. First book was, I thought, a masterpiece. Second book was really good, if a letdown because of how brilliant the first was. Third book was so incredibly disappointing, just from a pure writing point of view, but also because Pullman became every bit as intrusively didactic as those he disdained. Also, I realize I may be in the minority on this point, but I thought the sexual aspect was not only more than obvious enough, but creepy as hell.
@scott (the other one): I actually liked all elebenty-hundred pages of the Dark Materials books until the last page, when it turned into “a magic door” book. Anyone else here old enough to have read the Edward Eager magic books? In one of them, a family of kids is discussing their just-acquired library books, and Barnabas, the eldest, reads a bit in his book, then flips to read the ending, and then discards the book in disgust–the whole thing was a morality screed and the Magic Door was the hero learning to be courteous and say “please”. The same thing happened at the end of His Dark Materials, where good boys and girls will create positive energy to heal the world. Yuck.
@clay: Yeah, me too, especially considering what a masterpiece the 1st book is. I think the problem was that he was trying to write a fantasy — which by its very nature implies the reality of a numinous (supernatural) power — while at the same time trying to oppose and even denigrate the whole idea of numinous power.
However, I did read La Belle Sauvage and it was terrific, so you ought to give it a chance. And if you haven’t read the Sally Lockhart books, try them too — they’re so good I’m even able to forgive them for being about Victorians!
@lahke: That’s Seven-Day Magic, not his best book, but the “Magic Door” stuff is absolutely dead on. Those are still among my favorite books, especially Knight’s Castle.
@Tehanu: Ah, yes. Where “Ivanhoe” gets the right ending, with the right girl. Let’s hear it for Rebecca!
@hells littlest angel:
I take Farder as a pronunciation spelling of the Dutch word Vader (Father).