It is as though, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Pullman feels compelled to repeat Lyra’s story for the sake of his publicby Frances Wilson / November 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Only those who live in an alternative universe will have missed the publication of La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of Philip Pullman’s new fantasy trilogy, The Book of Dust. An extension of the hugely successful His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage was announced, together with other major news items, on the Today programme. An entire Radio 4 Saturday afternoon slot was given over to a reading of the novel by actor Simon Russell Beale. The following week it was Book at Bedtime. To help us get through the day, the station also broadcast a series of afternoon lectures called Daemon Voices (collected in a new book published by David Fickling) in which Pullman reflected on the art of storytelling.
Like a river that has burst its banks, we are currently deluged by Philip Pullman. There are sandwich boards outside bookshops telling us that La Belle Sauvage is now in stock; my local bookshop has reserved its display window—all 18 feet—solely for Pullman. Hard cheese for any other author hoping to promote a book this autumn. The endless press coverage has included, in the Observer, a list of questions for Pullman from famous fans such as Ed Sheeran and Rowan Williams. Not the sort of questions authors are usually asked, such as “where do you get your ideas from?” but those you might put to an alethiometer (the name Pullman gives to the compass that reads the future and reveals the truth). Andrew Rawnsley, for example, asked Pullman to explain why the “Remain” side lost the European Union referendum and how voters could be convinced to change their minds. Melvyn Bragg asked whether Pullman believed that there were “other planets like our own.”
“We have turned Pullman into Plato’s philosopher-king”
This is a heavy load for one children’s book to bear. Especially when the author is famously wary of authority and claims, on his website, to be in the “once upon a time business” rather than the “message business.” But storytelling and message-bearing have blended in Pullman’s art. We have turned Pullman (a former teacher) into Plato’s philosopher-king. When he protested against the closure of public libraries, his speech, in which he compared the government cuts to the laying waste of the great library of Alexandria in the fourth century, was hailed as Ciceronian.