Listening to Philip Pullman

Around the time of the Gates, I began walking to school. Past the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, into Central Park at its north end, out at the Guggenheim Museum and, voila, I’m there. It is a lovely route, but I’m a runner and cyclist, not a walker. No doubt it is a reaction to the weekend spaziergangs of my childhood when my parents, in order to get my sister and me through them with minimal whining, had to promise kaffee und kuchen at the end.

Cake being no longer an enticement (especially at 7 AM), I bought an Ipod and found audible books instead. Since my regular book reading is largely children’s books because of my responsibilities as chair of NCTE’s Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts Committee, I’ve been listening to adult books with one notable exception.

This is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Some readers of this blog already know of my complete and total adoration of His Dark Materials. I’ve read the books many times and even traveled to London especially to see the stage production. This summer, needing to revisit The Golden Compass for Children’s Literature New England , I decided to treated myself to the first of the audio version of the trilogy which Kelly at Big A little a touts as the best audio book out there.

I haven’t listened to enough audio books to be able to determine which is best; however, there is one thing that makes this one stand out for me from all the others I’ve listened to. And it isn’t the full-cast, wonderful as that; it is that author Philip Pullman, that third person omniscient narrator himself, is the narrator. I felt, as I listened, that I was being taken through the story by the teller in a way that would be completely different with a different sort of narrator. I mean, here I was listening to Philip Pullman tell HIS story which is also Lyra’s story.

Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”

Miller, Laura. “Far From Narnia,” The New Yorker, Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02

Until recently I thought there were only two possible narrators: first person or third person. That a third person narrator could be a character in the way a first person narrator is was not in my consciousness. Perhaps it was when I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or the works of the mysterious Lemony Snicket that I started to be aware of this type of narrator. Certainly, once Philip Pullman himself began discussing his preference for this narrator on child_lit and elsewhere (such as in the above New Yorker profile), I began noticing it more and more. In 2005 I did a talk on literary fairy tales in which I featured George MacDonald’s The Light Princess which has a wonderful narrator of this ilk and then there’s Charles Dickens, someone whose works I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who is a literary master in so many ways, including this one.

But I’ve got to say Mr. Pullman gives Mr. Dickens a run for his money. Listening to The Golden Compass after A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, I was blown away by the assurance of the narration. Oh yes, the actual assurance of Philip Pullman reading, but even moreso that narrator. He is steady and true throughout. The full-cast simply makes it even more striking. There are moments throughout, big ones and tiny ones, where the narrator strikes with extraordinary deftness.

For example, at the start of Chapter 8, “Frustration,” Lyra is weaving one of her wild tales to the captivated gyptian children. “…His skin was all withered like an old apple, and his eyes were starting from his head. In fact, they had to push ’em back in the sockets….” At this point she is interrupted by the clearly irritated narrator with the terse paragraph, “And so on.” after which he moves us readers away from the hyperbolic Lyra and on to what is happening in the fen country. (p. 131 in the 2002 Knopf paperback box set edition.)

As Rachel Ray is wont to exclaim, “How cool is that?” (I think I need to stop with this particular tangent right here as a woman who chirps “yummy” every other minute and a man who writes about the death of God are simply not in the same universe. Any of them, mind you. )

I’m almost done listening to Great Expectations (poor old Pip) and will start George Eliot’s Middlemarch next. While I’ve read most of the Dickens more than once, this will be my first time with the Eliot. Hmm..what would it be like to hear one of those two reading their works with a full cast?



Filed under Children's Literature, Philip Pullman

11 responses to “Listening to Philip Pullman

  1. Hey, thanks for the link, Monica!
    I’m listening to “Great Expectations” right now too, but I’m only 2 hours in.
    I highly recommend the next 2 volumes of “His Dark Materials.” I also love Philip Pullman’s narration. You feel like you’re in the room with him.


  2. Okay. I am going to move Mister Pullman to the top of the stack. My hub just finished reading the trilogy and it got lots of those “Whoa!” noises out of him as he finished chapters. I very much enjoyed other things that he has written like “Scarcrow and his Servant” “Fireworkmaker’s Daughter” and Clockwork. Heck! I even loved his essays. So based on this review, must see!

    I think Dickens does the storyteller voice quite well. There is a great line in “A Christmas Carol” where he talks about the ghost standing as close to Scrooge as “I am to you” It’s a wonderful bit that snaps the action around where the narrator, what is it called? Breaks the third wall? It jolts the reader like a “boo” and it is a ghost story after all.

    Read on!



  3. It’s the “Fourth wall” actually – it’s a term that refers to the fact that in theatre/film/TV there’s usually no physical fourth wall when filming in a studio, because of the need to give access for the filming equipment. So the fourth wall is presumed to be there but invisible by the actors. The term “breaking the fourth wall” originates from Bertolt Brecht’s theory of “epic theatre” which he developed from Konstantin Stanislavski’s drama theory, and the terms refers to a character directly addressing an audience, or actively acknowledging (through “breaking character” or through dialogue) that the characters and action are not real – in other words, the audience is made directly and explicitly aware of the fact that they are viewing a work of fiction. A fact that audiences will usually willingly ignore as part of the suspension of disbelief involved in the viewing process.


  4. Hi Monica,

    I spent some of yesterday reading Mieke Bal’s “Narratology” on the very subject of third and first person narrators. (I didn’t get too far—I think I was a bit ill and was finding it hard to concentrate.) She contends that there really is no difference between the third and first person, in that the third person is always an “I”. Just as Philip says in that fabulous quote, which I’m going to pinch and use with my creative writing students.




  5. Judith,

    Bal’s thesis is fascinating. I think it is easy to recognize when reading something like TALE OF DESPEREAUX or another book where you have an intrusive third person narrator, but Philip’s narrator is not intrusive. Which is why he didn’t register for me as a character (even though I’d read and heard Philip on this) until I was hit over the head with him/it/her when I listened to THE GOLDEN COMPASS. I very much like Bal’s thought that all third person narrators are “me.” Makes things much more honest. I mean, a book is always from the point of view of the writer when you get right down to it.

    The downside of all this is that I have become an even pickier reader. Recently I read a book told in third person which mostly was solidly from the point of view of the main character (so much so that it could have been first person). But at random points the narration would leave this character and suddenly we’d be inside the mind of the community and told about its response to the main character’s actions. Drove me nuts. And it is all Philip’s fault!


  6. Lee

    If you are interested in how rich and exciting a third person narrator can be, I also suggest some of Edward P. Jones’ short stories.


  7. Lee

    There are also some interesting second person narrators. A good contemporary example is Richard Powers’ PLOWING THE DARK. And I’ve even played around with it in my ss ‘noise’.

    I’m not convinced that all 3rd person narrators are ‘me’ – if indeed that it what she actually means. The narrator is a construct, just like any other character – one of the few times I agree with Pullman, BTW.


  8. I love the trilogy. I have never listened to it, as I rarely listen to audio books, but I’ve heard of its brilliance. I recently met someone who saw the original British stage production. Wow.


  9. I traveled to London to see the que…to see the National’s original production of His Dark Materials and it was glorious. In the post I linked to this site about the production which even includes videos. Highly recommended.

    Anna Maxwell Martin was so wonderful as Lyra that watching her as Esther in the recent BBC production of Bleak House (aired here on PBS last spring), I periodically thought, “but that’s Lyra!”

    If you want to follow the filming of His Dark Materials, go here.


  10. Brilliant Website. Please take a look at my website. Let me know what you think.
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  11. Pingback: Whatchamacallit Narrators « educating alice

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