I say “curse” because once you have read him, your barometer for good reading goes up so much that you cannot, absolutely cannot settle for anything else. I have yet to meet anyone who was not moved by reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I read – no, devoured would be a better word – Philip Pullman while in college (a friend introduced me to his writing) and have remained an ardent admirer of his craft ever since. Pullman came to me at a time when I was reading a lot of people but didn’t have one person whom I could look up to in this contemporary atmosphere.
Of course there were lots of writers I could worship like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or be stunned by a genius like Salman Rushdie, or quietly marvel at the classicism of Vikram Seth. The other masters of English literature remain like Utopia, long idealised but rarely touched. But I did not find any one writer reading whom one felt admiration, awe, power, and sheer humility about the writing craft. In fact just writing about him – which I have been putting off for a while – is a daunting task.
Hooked – an understatement of the highest order- was what I was to his writing. His Dark Materials is a trilogy of three books: The Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. A prolific writer, Pullman has written other books too. But for today let me concentrate on his masterpiece.
The story is set in a parallel world where people have an extension of their personalities in the form of what Pullman calls “demons.” This separate entity is usually of the opposite sex and has the power to change into various animal forms till puberty. After which it stabilises into a single form that it is most comfortable in. Demons are usually animals of land, sea, and air. There are certain standard associations though. For example, if your demon is a dog, then you are well suited to be in the service industry.
We meet Lyra Belacqua an 11 year old who lives in Jordon College. She and her friends have a rather carefree life. However, that carefree life is interrupted when one day, she witnesses someone poison her researcher/adventurer uncle Lord Asriel’s tokay. (Tokay is the equivalent of wine in their universe.)
This event affects her life leading to a series of fantastic, fatal, and dangerous adventures where she travels from world to world, loses a friend to the Gobblers (kidnappers), helps an armoured bear Iorek Raknison regain his place among the Bears as their rightful king, gains a lifetime friend in Will Parry, learns to read the althiometer which Church elders couldn’t do, confront her mother Mrs.Coultier and her demon the evil golden monkey, finds out her plans, and blows a huge hole into her father’s plans to take over the world as well. She also displays lots of courage on the face of adversity, and a resolve that is unshaken and helps her move to heaven and earth- literally- to get what she wants. Yes, a cavalcade of characters like the aeronaut Lee Scoresby, the King of armoured Bears, Iorek Raknison, the witch Serafina Pekkala, the Gyptians, and the Shaman Joe Parry all come to her aid in some way or the other. Somewhere along the way she also helps fulfil a prophecy. And in a most un-adult like manner, she also learns to make sacrifices. Nothing comes free even in the fictional world that Pullman creates.
Pullman’s canvas is nothing but the future of humankind. And he sketches a story that shakes the foundations of many established institutions. There is been some brouhaha about how it is anti-religion. I beg to differ. And I’m sure Pullman, writing in his shed, would also agree. It’s not about magic either. You just have to read it to find out what it is about. All I can say is Pullman’s creation is a treat for all fiction fans. If you haven’t read it, you haven’t lived. Yet.