John Ezard: Fully Booked Essay, Research Paper
Fully bookedFor Philip Pullman, one of the supreme literary dreamers and magicians of our time, yesterday must have had some of the qualities of a fantasy. Reporters and TV crews trekked in relays up the path to the Oxford garden shed where he writes. It was suddenly new, unmapped and rather frighteningly populist territory. All this sprang from the barely hoped for moment on Tuesday night when Pullman heard that – against all the odds, except those of the bookies and the public – he’d won the Whitbread prize. An author who has been shoved into a ghetto as just a children’s entertainer had won one of the world’s two highest book awards. In an extraordinary and probably short-lived shift in values, the judges gave the crown not to a novel set in the confines of contemporary Gloucestershire or Kilburn, but to a story grounded in alternative worlds: to a narrative which deals with love, moral conduct, power, nature, paradise, hell and the existence or otherwise of God, the universe and everything, some of the oldest themes of art. As Pullman has bitterly said, you often find so-called children’s literature tackling these themes while the English literary novel – at least since the deaths of William Golding and Graham Greene – is today queasy and tense about them. “We still need joy and delight, the promise of connection with something beyond ourselves,” he has said. “Perhaps children’s literature is the last forum left for such a project.” Readers seem to agree. In the seven years since his Dark Materials trilogy first came out, it has quietly, without a gramme of hype, sold about a 10th of Harry Potter’s total; figures which his most nearly comparable fellow authors (CS Lewis with the Narnia books and Tolkien with Lord Of The Rings) took decades to build up to. As one literary editor said yesterday, adults read JK Rowling because she is not complicated; children like Pullman because he is. Hundreds of readers’ reviews on amazon.co.uk bear that out. His win has also given pleasure to some of us who have reported the literary award scene for the past few years but found nothing to match his three books – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – in scope or achievement. Ian McEwan’s Atonement, this winter’s Booker prize runner-up, is a fine, gracefully moving novel whose three sections do not quite fit together. The Booker winner, Peter Carey’s True History Of The Kelly Gang, is a less fine but bold attempt to ventriloquise an outlaw who spoke rather better through his own writings. From last year’s Whitbread prize entry, the story which has stayed with me most is not Matthew Kneale’s reasonably estimable winner, English Passengers, but David Almond’s Heaven Eyes – a children’s story about waifs in a disused dock. Not a literary novel so, with the usual mindset of judges and literary commentators, barely a dog’s chance of winning. None of these books touch Pullman’s, which take off like skyrockets, as sumptuously as any adult magical realist novel of the 70s and 80s. They are about two tough, decent 11-year-olds, Lyra and Will, who are drawn from their own two overlapping alternative worlds into a quest to depose the senile, tyrannical creator of the universe and establish a republic of heaven. Their companions and foes include angels, fellow-humans, spectres, a cavalcade of ghosts and an armoured bear-warrior called Iorek Byrnison. Perhaps the writer’s most cherished invention is that humans in some worlds have “daemons” – not demons, but compan ion spirits and alter egos which materialise as shape-changing animals or birds. Pullman went behind early Christian theology to take that concept from Aristotle. And he has taken the rest of his almost unparalleled mix of animating ideas from quantum physics and sources including Milton’s Paradise Lost, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and the apocryphal biblical story of the harrowing of hell; except that in his version it is someone more astonishing and modern than Christ who liberates hell. One passage in The Amber Spyglass (the Whitbread winner), challenges the visit to the world of the dead described in Homer’s Odyssey: not – quite – in quality but in the tenderness, range and inven-tive reach of the writing. On paper it sounds impossible – much more impossible than an independent school for wizards and witches – but it works as a story for a great many readers. The trilogy has already generated a perceptive academic thesis from Richard Poole in the New Welsh Review. “To turn to His Dark Materials after a diet of contemporary fiction is a liberating experience,” Poole writes. “The qualities which Alain Robbe-Grillet [the French experimental novelist] declared dead in his theoretical work and did without in his novels – plot, character, linear development – return with a vengeance.” Other scholars, social historians and theologians – plus the usual gang of quarrelling litteratéurs and fixers – are likely to spend years arguing about why, in the early, largely agnostic 21st century, it works so well.