“When you read a book as child,” said Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in You’ve Got Mail, “it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” If you were truly fortunate, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy helped form a part of you. Now, 22 years after Northern Lights, (the first book in the series) Philip Pullman is returning with another trilogy set in the same universe, the first part of which will be released later this year. Compared to the ubiquitousness of Harry Potter across mediums, Pullman fans (millions of them, going by sales) are something of a minor, if significant, cult. And as proud members of any cult, we will, after a careful screening, attempt to convert you to our cause.
If you happened to grow up in the noughties, J.K. Rowling’s world of magic probably loomed large through your childhood. The success of the Harry Potter franchise is both understandable, and welcome. It recycles known archetypes (a fancy word for a bag of cliches) and combines them in the most appealing ways. Our hero is a somewhat vapid underdog, our prime villain is a dictatorial bigot — more resonant now, perhaps, than when he was created — and we followed beloved characters through their adolescence. As puberty struck, Harry, Ron and Hermione were a connection to a time both recent and distant in the limbo between childhood and the misery of adulthood. And a part of that misery is the awareness that in its essence, the fables from the church of Potterverse are a retelling of Enid Blyton’s school stories, with a bit of myth and some broadly liberal Narnia-like politics thrown in.
His Dark Materials, on the other hand, by the sheer diversity of its themes and the unusualness and honesty of its characters, is perhaps the least patronising book with child protagonists. It is, in fact, about childhood rather than just for children. The books are as much theology and adventure as they are science fiction, and there are no ready-made explanations for the unknown: Simply put, nothing happens by magic.
Pullman, in a plot that is set in our world and many others, takes on the church — a stand-in for organised religion as a whole — and the villainies that are made possible only when personal ethics is subsumed under a larger moral principle. He deals with consciousness, matter and dark matter, and even questions and explores the cruelty that is an essential part of the “innocence of childhood”. The skill with which he brings these themes to the page is unprecedented. The consciousness and conscience of each person is externalised, as an animal, ever-changing for children and fixed for adults. There are warrior, polar bears who have sentience, but no tripartite Id-Ego-Superego caste system in their minds.
But what makes the cult of Pullman so seductive, even more, dare I say, than its Lord Of The Rings counterpart, is the nature of its heroes and the way they deal with their sexuality. LOTR is written by, for and about men. Lyra Belacqua, the hero of Pullman’s world, is a 12-year-old girl. She is a fighter, as well as a leader. As she grows through the plot, and battles the church and its allies’ attempt to control her — and by extension the bodies of all women — she does not fit in to any cliches (or archetypes). She does not, for example, have to go from ugly duckling to beautiful swan — like Hermione does in The Goblet of Fire — to be admired by men. The other main character, Will Parry, is a 12-year-old with a paranoid, hallucinating mother and an absent father. Like Harry Potter, he is the cliché of an underdog. Unlike Harry, the loneliness and misery of his world of origin (let’s call it muggle-land) is not just something he escapes and overcomes, it is something he returns to and deals with.
The end of the His Dark Materials trilogy is also the resolution of Lyra’s curiosity, and an acknowledgement of the fact that knowledge, especially for an adolescent, is better than ignorance.
Despite the increasingly welcome conversations around gender, we still live in a world where sexuality is still largely sandwiched between consumerism and shame. On the one hand, abstinence is a virtue (especially for girls and women), deeply tied to ideas of purity and possession and on the other there is sex as conquest and people as commodities. Between these poles, and outside them, there exist many other, more human and egalitarian paths to connecting with others. But to find the confidence and impulse to navigate those subtleties, many of us need all the resources we can muster.
We must, of course, take what we can from the church of Potter, the temple of LOTR and the cathedral of Enid Blyton. But, if Meg Ryan is right, and your childhood reading is truly important, do consider the cult of Pullman as well.