Category Archives: His Dark Materials

Revisiting Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat!

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Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation for the work of Philip Pullman. Most recently I raved about his latest, the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage. After reading and listening to this I went back to the full-cast audio production of His Dark Materials and was happy to find that it was as good as ever. But there are others he is written outside Lyra’s world, among them the charming middle grade fairy tale, I Was a Rat!.  Here’s the publisher’s description:

“I Was a Rat!” So insists a scruffy boy named Roger. Maybe it’s true. But what is he now? A terrifying monster running wild in the sewers? The Daily Scourge is sure of it. A victim of “Rodent Delusion”? The hospital nurse says yes. A lucrative fairground freak? He is to Mr. Tapscrew. A champion wriggler and a budding thief? That’s what Billy thinks. Or just an ordinary small boy, though a little ratty in his habits? Only three people believe this version of the story. And it may take a royal intervention—and a bit of magic—to convince the rest of the world.

Set against the backdrop of a Royal Wedding—and a playful parody of the press, I Was a Rat! is a magical weaving of humor, fairy tale, and adventure.

Over the years, as part of my 4th graders’ study of Cinderella, I’ve read the book aloud and, most recently, showed the movie. This year, after another teacher told me that her students had been captivated by the book I decided to read it aloud after not having done so in years. I quickly discovered that our current obsession with “fake news” made the book’s thread about sensationalism in the media highly relevant. My students took quickly to sweet little Roger, his love for patients (need to read the book to understand this), and the fairy tale connections as well. The story is lively, adventurous, suspenseful, and great fun to read. I highly recommend checking it out.

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Lyra in America

“Pan, where are they all going?” The canyon-like streets of Nieuwe York were filled with determined and dashing people, their daemons flitting and scampering along with them. Now a hawk, Pantalaimon swooped above Lyra as she attempted to evade the flood of adults swarming by. Agile as the girl was, the density of the crowd was such that she was unable to avoid collisions earning her glares, snaps of irritation, and even in one case a frustrated slap. Finally, the exhausted and bewildered child, Pan now a mouse on her shoulder, leaned against a wall and looked up at the massive building in front of her — all glittering gold glass — puzzling at the huge TRIUMPH sign at the top.

Apologies to Philip Pullman for the above teeny bit of fan fiction, but I couldn’t resist. It is just that I’ve been mulling over the response on this side of the pond to his fabulous return to Lyra’s universe in La Belle Sauvage. (Here’s my ecstatic review.) I wasn’t surprised to read Bookseller Kenny Brechner’s observations in “Dust in My Eyes” as, while there are Pullman fans galore here, he has never had the same exalted stature in America as in the UK and elsewhere.

One reason, I’m starting to consider, is due to religion. For recently, I was startled when a librarian, to whom I was waxing excitedly about the new book, spoke of her discomfort with the earlier series due to religious reasons. Way back when those conservative Catholics fussed about the movie, I had scoffed, but I have to now wonder if they left a more damaging impression than was evident then in our still religiously conservative land.

Another is that fantasy does not get the attention it deserves here. Those obsessed viewers of HBO’s Game of Thrones series are less and less likely to have read any of the books. Looking at the responses to the Nerdy Book Club’s request for people’s favorites of 2017 and I see almost no fantasy titles. No mentions of La Belle Sauvage (other than mine:),  Laini Taylor’s superb Strange the Dreamer, or the clever and witty works of Rick Riordan, two of which are out this year.

Finally, I think that time is a factor. Those American children who adored His Dark Materials as it came out are adults now, say Rebecca Munro who describes her experiences with this series in her review:

I want to start this review by saying that this is easily one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written. I first discovered Philip Pullman’s work when I was only 10-years-old and I raced through the entire His Dark Materials series in a single summer. The books were with me in the pool, in the car and in bed, and I have reread them every winter since. In other words, I have literally been waiting 17 years for THE BOOK OF DUST and now that it is here, I am practically speechless.

For young people today, in America, the books seem not particularly to be on their radar. Partly, no doubt, because the gatekeepers —as seems indicated by the Nerdy Book Club omission — don’t recommend it. While many, many British kids probably still read it with pleasure, I don’t think that as many American children do. It isn’t as much a part of their bookish world as is that other British series of the same time period, Harry Potter.

I should say this is all quite speculative — I haven’t firm data at all and I’d love to be proved wrong. What do you all think?

 

 

 

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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A Taste of Philip Pullman’s Forthcoming Book of Dust

The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting still by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotted leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression; in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. His dæmon, Asta, became a moth.

“Good evening, sir,” he said. “Your Tokay what you ordered. Would you like me to make up the fire? It’s ever so cold in here.”

“Is your name Malcolm?” The man’s voice was harsh and deep.

“Yes, sir. Malcolm Polstead.”

“I’m a friend of Dr. Relf,” said the man. “My name is Asriel.”

From the Guardian’s “Before His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman’s New Novel — Exclusive Extract” Makes me all the more excited!

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Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to be a BBC Mini-Series

A few weeks back I was in touch with Philip Pullman about something (possibly taking a sabbatical in Oxford if you must know:) and he ended by saying there would soon be some “interesting” news. Well that news is out and it is more than interesting, it is thrilling. The BBC has green-lighted a new mini-series of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, starting with the first one; in the US it is known as The Golden Compass. I’ve long felt that a mini-series was ideal for a screen adaptation, especially after the disappointing movie. I loved the National Theater’s version, the full-cast audio production (my go-to comfort listening), and the first graphic novel version that recently came out. What with all the other wonderful recent fantasy mini-series, it seemed overdue for the right people to do this one. And now they will!  From the Variety piece:

“His Dark Materials” is the first commission from Bad Wolf, a U.K./U.S. production company founded by former BBC executives Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, and co-sited in South Wales and Los Angeles. The show is New Line’s first move into British television. The series will be executive produced by Pullman, Tranter and Gardner for Bad Wolf, Toby Emmerich and Carolyn Blackwood for New Line Cinema, and Deborah Forte for Scholastic.

Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel — and now comes this version for television.”

He added: “In recent years we’ve seen how long stories on television, whether adaptations (‘Game of Thrones’) or original (‘The Sopranos,’ ‘The Wire’), can reach depths of characterization and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of long-form television is formidable.

“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of ‘His Dark Materials.’ I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”

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Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the Graphic Novel

I first heard about The Golden Compass being turned into a graphic novel months back when Philip Pullman tweeted that the first volume had won a French prize. Finding more information, I wrote the post, “Philip Pullman Said Yes”; soon thereafter got an ARC and was blown away by it. Now the book is out and everyone should get a chance to be equally blown away. It is the work of Clément Oubrerie, a French graphic novelist and a fabulous comic adaptation of a remarkable story. Looking at his blog, I see the second volume is due out this June — in France and in French — not sure when the English version will be out.  You can see some of his sketches for this second volume herehere, and here, They are spectacular (especially Lyra and Iorek Byrnison) and I can’t wait to see the finished work.

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A New Short Story from Philip Pullman and Some News about The Book of Dust

I was very excited to read about a new short story by Philip Pullman, featuring the nefarious and fabulous Mrs. Colter, that is being released today in the UK as an Audible.uk exclusive. Audible US has informed me that “The Collectors”will be available for those of us on the other side of the pond on January 12th. Until then we will have to make do with the below tantalizing excerpt read by Bill Nighy.

But wait, Pullman fans, there’s more; this in the Guardian article about The Book of Dust:

He said today: “It’s three pages longer this morning than it was this time yesterday, and … I’ll do another three pages today. It’s going steadily. But it’s a big book and it’s spreading out in the way I discussed, and I keep having to discover which ways are fruitful for the story to go in, and which are not. It’s a long process.”

Pullman promised: “I’m aiming to finish this next year. Then it’s a fairly lengthy process of editing. But I’m well on my way and proceeding steadily.”

Be still my heart!

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