Philip Pullman Returns To The Dark Materials Universe In A New Prequel — Er, 'Equel'

Oct 21, 2017
Originally published on October 21, 2017 12:20 pm

The world Philip Pullman created is back—in his hands, and now ours.

The His Dark Materials trilogy, which was introduced more than 20 years ago with a book called The Golden Compass, is set in a world ruled by theocratic overlords collectively known as the Magisterium, and in which children often disappear into the hands of people called the Gobblers. However, human souls — especially those of children — take shape outside their bodies as daemons: talking animal spirits who give humans aid, comfort and companionship.

That world has been called, "the last great fantasy masterpiece of the 20th Century" (in the Cincinnati Enquirer) and has been honored with the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Book of the Year and many other awards. Now, the His Dark Materials universe returns with the first book of a new trilogy called The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. With a first printing of a half-million copies, it arrives with a global publicity campaign unseen since Harry Potter.

La Belle Sauvage precedes the previous series by 10 years, and the second and third books in The Book Of Dust take place 10 years after the action in His Dark Materials. But Pullman says these books are not exactly prequels or sequels, but "equels."

"I could see the shadow of another story waiting to be told," he says. "At the end of His Dark Materials, the heroine, Lyra, is about 12 years old. Now she's at the very beginning of her adolescence. She's going to be a teenager, she's going to grow up, she's going to become a young woman, she's going to have a life and a profession. All that was very interesting to me, and I wondered how she would get on, how she would cope with and what would happen around her. Because the world isn't going to remain fixed either – things are dynamic and they're going to change."

Interview Highlights

On teaching middle school in Oxford

That was over 20 years ago – over 30 years ago, what am I talking about, I'm getting old. It was a time in our country before there was such a thing as a national framework for education. So I had a kind of freedom to tell stories that I wanted to tell – stories that I thought the students would enjoy, and even stories I thought they might remember years later.

And I learned a great deal from it about myself as a storyteller. Things like timing – you know, if you know the lesson's going to come to an end and there's going to be a bell ringing in four minutes, you've got exactly four minutes to get to that point in the story at maximum suspense so they all want to come back next time and hear what's going to happen next. So I learned all that kind of stuff, and it was extremely enjoyable, and very useful to me.

On his criticism of Winnie-the-Pooh

Yea, I was asking for trouble with that one. It's really his creator [A.A. Milne] whom I was criticizing, and it wasn't even so much Winnie-the-Pooh as his work as editor of ... the English comic magazine Punch.

Milne, as editor of Punch, printed a number of cartoons of a sort that we'll feel pretty dodgy about now. Little children, often with no clothes on in the bath or something, making sweet, cute remarks, and their beautiful mothers looking on with a fond smile on their face – it's all a bit peculiar. And I didn't like the atmosphere of a sort of unremitting nostalgia for childhood. Adults want to go back to their childhood – Milne clearly did – but children don't want to be children all their lives. They want to grow up, they want to have adult concerns, they want to get out in the world and do big things.

On his books being labeled for age and gender

I do behave a bit like a dictator when I'm writing. I have absolute power of life and death over every word, every punctuation mark, every character in the story. But when the book is finished and edited and out there in the world – in the bookstores, in the libraries – that dictatorship stops, and a democratic process begins, which is the interaction between the book and the reader. I don't like to tell ... in any case, you can't say this book is for 12-year-olds. They might not like it. It might turn out to be an ideal book for kids who are younger or older than that.

So I really criticized some publishers – not all of them, but the publishers who were trying to limit my readers to those between this age and that age. I thought, this is a very silly thing to do. I'm trying to tell a story here. Anybody who wants to stop and listen is welcome. And I don't want anybody at the door turning people away, thank you very much.

This story was produced and edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for the Web by Patrick Jarenwattananon.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The world Philip Pullman created is back, in his hands and now ours. "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which began more than 20 years ago with a book called "The Golden Compass" is set in a world ruled by a theocratic overlords called The Magisterium and in which children often disappear into the hands of people they call the Gobblers. However, human souls, especially those of children, take shape outside of their bodies as demons, talking animal spirits who give humans aid, comfort and companionship.

That world has been called the last great fantasy masterpiece of the 20th century and has been honored with the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread book of the year and many other awards. "His Dark Materials" have returned now with the first book of a new trilogy to come, "The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage," with a first printing of half a million copies and global publicity campaign unseen since - what's his name? - Harry Potter. Philip Pullman joins us now from Oxford BBC studios there. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Pullman.

PHILIP PULLMAN: I'm glad to talk to you.

SIMON: Call this book an equel (ph). not a sequel or prequel. Why?

PULLMAN: Well, this is going to be a three-volume story like "His Dark "Materials." And the first part of it, the "La Belle Sauvage," is set 10 years before the action of "His Dark Materials." So in some sense, you could say it was a prequel, except I don't like that word very much. And the second book and the third book, which are partly written, will be set 10 years after "His Dark Materials." So you could say that in some sense, they're a sequel. But it isn't really a prequel. And it isn't really a sequel. So I've called it an equel.

SIMON: Aside from what must be a terrific incentive for sales, what made you take a look at what you had already had in the "Dark Materials," what must be thousands of pages, and decide another trilogy was called for?

PULLMAN: Because I could see the shadow of another story waiting to be told. At the end of "His Dark Materials," the heroine Lyra is about 12 years old. Now, she's at the very beginning of her adolescence. She's going to become a teenager. She's going to grow up. She's going to be a young woman. She's going to have a life and a profession. All that was very interesting to me. And I wondered how she would get on, how she would cope with it and what would happen around her because the world isn't going to be remain fixed, either. Things are dynamic, and they're going to change. So I thought about that off and on for a while. And then some other ideas began to form in the shadows around the first one. And before I knew where I was, I was writing another novel (laughter).

SIMON: And Lyra's an infant in this book, of course.

PULLMAN: In this book, she's very, very young. She's about 6 months old, so she's not able to do very much. But she certainly forms the center of all the activity that goes on. She is the - she's the McGuffin in the words - the famous word that Alfred Hitchcock invented to describe the thing in a film that needs to set the action going, whether it's the secret plans or the letters of transit, as in the film Casablanca - whatever it is. The important thing that everybody wants - the McGuffin. Well, in this book, Lyra is the McGuffin.

SIMON: You once taught middle school.

PULLMAN: That's correct. Yes, here in Oxford where I live.

SIMON: And, well, what was that like, and what did you learn from your students?

PULLMAN: That was over 20 years ago - over 30 years ago. What am I talking about? I'm getting old. It was a time in our country before there was such a thing as a national sort of framework for education. So I had a kind of freedom to tell stories that I wanted to tell and stories that I thought the students would enjoy and even stories I thought they might remember years later.

And I learned a great deal from it about myself as a storyteller and things like timing. You know, if you know the lesson's going to come to an end, or there's going to be a bell ringing in four minutes, you've got exactly four minutes to get to that point in the story with maximum suspense, so they'll want to come back next time and hear what's going to happen next. So I learned all that kind of stuff. And it was extremely enjoyable and very useful to me. Very good apprenticeship.

SIMON: I have to ask because you were teaching middle school in Oxford - there must be professional writers today who feel that they were schooled in the literary process by being in your class.

PULLMAN: I can think of three - one writer of nonfiction best-sellers, another writer of very successful cookbooks.

(LAUGHTER)

PULLMAN: And so it goes on. So, yeah, that happened. But I guess they'd have done what they're doing anyway, whether or not I taught them.

SIMON: Yeah. You slammed Winnie the Pooh this week in a previous interview.

PULLMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: I want to - I happen to adore Winnie the Pooh. But I want to give you the chance to, you know, to kick his fuzziness again, if you like...

PULLMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Verbally.

PULLMAN: Yeah, I was asking for trouble with that one. It's really his creator whom I was criticizing. And it wasn't even so much "Winnie the Pooh" as his work as editor of the magazine Punch, the comic - English comic magazine Punch.

SIMON: I never knew that about A.A. Milne.

PULLMAN: Yeah, well, Milne as editor of Punch printed a number of cartoons of a sort that we feel pretty dodgy about now - little children often with no clothes on in the bath or something, making sweet, cute remarks with their beautiful mothers looking on with a fond smile on their face. It's all a bit peculiar. And I didn't like the atmosphere of a sort of unremitting nostalgia for childhood. Adults want to go back to their childhood. Milne clearly did. But children don't want to be children all their lives. They want to grow up. They want to have adult concerns. They want to get out in the world and do big things.

SIMON: Do you think that's why young readers may respond as powerfully as they do to "His Dark Materials?"

PULLMAN: I don't know. If I knew exactly what they were responding, I'd have done it much earlier (laughter). Fortunately, I think one reason quite young readers are willing to follow a big, complicated story like this is that because they follow Lyra. They're with Lyra. Lyra doesn't understand these big concerns - philosophical and scientific and theological concerns that go through the story. But she's determined to find out because they are the source of the trouble that she's in and her friends are in. And she's determined to find out what they mean. And I think young readers are happy to follow Lyra because they know that when she finds out, they will, too.

SIMON: You've been outspoken against publishers and booksellers labeling books by age and gender.

PULLMAN: Indeed.

SIMON: Why?

SIMON: Yeah. I do behave a bit like a dictator when I'm writing. I have absolute power of life and death over every word, every punctuation mark, every character in the story. But when the book is finished and edited and out there in the world in the book stores and the libraries, that dictatorship stops, and a democratic process begins, which is the interaction between the book and the reader. I don't like to tell my readers how to read my books. That's entirely up to them. Nor do I like to decide who my audience is going to be.

PULLMAN: In any case, you can say this book is for 12-year-olds. But they might not like it. It might turn out to be an ideal book for kids who are younger or older than that. So I really criticized some publishers - not all of them - but the publishers who were trying to limit my readers to those between this age and that age. I thought, this is a very silly thing to do. I'm trying to tell a story here. Anybody who wants to stop and listen is welcome. And I don't want anybody at the door turning people away, thank you very much.

SIMON: Philip Pullman, "The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage," the first in a new trilogy about the world he created in "The Golden Compass" and other books. It has been published around the world this week. Thanks so much for being with us.

PULLMAN: Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SKY FERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.