Sometimes, when Philip Pullman is tired or anxious, a floating speck appears in his field of vision. "I first saw it when I was playing the piano and I couldn't read the music because there was a damn dot in the way," he says, as we sit in the pleasantly jumbled living room of his farmhouse in Oxfordshire.
The floating dot will expand into a flickering ring of light, like a miniature, personal aurora. It can happen when he's driving, and he'll pull over to wait it out, or sleep it off when he's at home.
It's called a migraine aura, and it lasts about twenty minutes. Occasionally it is painful, but it usually it leaves him dozy. He knows there is some clinical explanation for the lights he sees, "wires crossed somewhere," but has always thought there was a significance beyond the science.
Pullman has given his spangled ring to Malcolm, the 11-year-old protagonist of his new book, La Belle Sauvage, as the character's first hint of Dust, those particles of consciousness that saturate the splendid, Miltonesque world of Pullman's His Dark Materials series. That world is a grand, morally kaleidoscopic one, full of armored bears, airships and shamans, ruled by a cruel Christian theocracy called the Magisterium. To the Magisterium, Dust is "physical evidence for original sin" and must be destroyed.
The novels are based on a simple idea: What if, when Adam and Eve had their eyes opened in the Garden of Eden, it was a liberation, not a fall? Or, as Malcolm asks early on in La Belle Sauvage, "How can knowing something be bad?"
Though Pullman's writing can be glorious and lyric, suspense and drama are paramount in his work, crowded as it is with rogues, eavesdroppers, petty criminals, deposed heirs, secret caverns, floods, fires, sinister priests, and determined orphans. Witches flood the air, usually accompanied with their Homeric epithets, "ragged, elegant," skies are bruise colored in times of crisis, and hidden caves dot mountainsides.
One chase scene in La Belle Sauvage, which I made the mistake of reading on a bench in the woods, made me so anxious that I had to leave and find someplace private to finish the chapter because I knew that if someone came down the path unexpectedly I would start, or scream, or otherwise embarrass myself.
La Belle Sauvage is the first in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust. It's the story of how Lyra, the hero of the first three books, came to live at Oxford's Jordan College, to be raised piecemeal by scholars. The new protagonists, Malcolm and Alice, appeared only briefly and obscurely in other parts of the story. (Pullman is eager to avoid any whiff of a spin-off: "I'm insistent to a degree that is tremendously boring that this is not a continuation, it is not a sequel, it is an equel. So there's my soundbite.")
Pullman was inspired by sources as diverse as Edmund Spenser's poem "The Faerie Queene," his auntie Ethel, who is transmuted into a sweet nun who befriends Malcolm, and a ship captain in the novel Pandora's Galley, by MacDonald Harris. Explaining this, he pauses, squints, and adds, "I'm not even sure the captain's name isn't Malcolm! Let me just have a look." He lifts himself out of his chair, locates the book, and flips through the first few pages. "Malcolm! He's called Malcolm. There you go, I stole Malcolm's name." He beams.
The second book will be set two decades after the first, when Lyra is 20 years old, and "the particular story set in motion in this one will continue then." The third book, he says, will take Lyra to Central Asia, though he doesn't want to say more than that. He wanted to write more about Lyra, because "at the end of His Dark Materials, she's just 12 years old. I don't want the rest of her life to be an anticlimax." Will we see more of Will, last seen so painfully parted from Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass? "I can't begin to tell you."
La Belle Sauvage opens north of Oxford:
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.
The Trout is a real pub, and still standing, with peacocks strutting through the garden just as Pullman describes. The priory was real, too, but is now in ruins, the gentle nuns long gone.
Malcolm, "eleven years old, with an inquisitive, kindly disposition, a stocky build, and ginger hair," lives in the Trout with his parents, the landlords, and spends his boyhood running between the inn and the priory, eavesdropping on the Trout's customers, running errands for the nuns, and speeding down the Thames in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.
When baby Lyra is placed with the nuns for safekeeping, Malcolm is smitten: "It was unexpected that something so small should be so perfectly formed." Before long, he realizes she's being watched by a sinister man whose daemon — that aspect of yourself which, in Pullman's world, takes an animal form — is a three-legged hyena. When a flood sweeps through Oxford, destroying the priory, Malcolm and Alice, the Trout's dish girl, snatch the child and whirl into the waters in Malcolm's canoe, La Belle Sauvage, with the shadowy man in pursuit.
As they travel down the river, dodging their pursuer, the world seems to come apart at the edges, and the fantasy takes on strange dimensions. They encounter a fairy woman, a river god with a trident, and a decadent party of the dead on the banks of the Thames.
The fantastical elements of His Dark Materials always had a kind of heft to them, an almost mechanical detail. That world was as solid and complex as ours — but built or evolved differently. Under each piece of magic, it seemed, sat a structure complex as clockwork, or plant cells — all you needed was the microscope, or the screwdriver, and it would all be there, laid out before you. In that sense the fantasy always felt earned.
La Belle Sauvage's strange episodes on the river seem to untether from their moorings, and float away. Pullman hints that this has to do with the poet William Blake's concept of several visions, "and the difference between single vision and twofold, threefold, and fourfold vision." Without hesitation, he recites Blake's lines on the subject word for word:
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep.
Newton's sleep is an obtuse scientific single-mindedness. "And twofold vision, his example was when you see an old thistle on a path, and someone might just see an old thistle but someone else might see a little old man standing there, in other words where the imagination comes into it. As he said somewhere else, 'A fool sees not the same tree that a wise mind sees.'"
"Beulah," Pullman says, was Blake's name for "the realm of Poetry and inspiration. So when we visit, if we can, soft Beulah's night, we see the thistle, we see the grey old man on the path, we see all sorts of other possibilities, and a whole penumbra of meanings behind it as well. And fourfold vision, well that's the state of mystical ecstasy, I suppose. And this Blakean idea of the different ways of seeing things is absolutely central to the story."
Malcolm senses that something is behind what he is seeing, but can't explain it: "This — what's happening now, on the flood and all — it's a kind of ... I don't know how to make it clear. It's a kind of between-time. Like a dream or something." He senses it is related somehow to the "spangled ring" that floats sometimes on the edge of his vision.
Unusually for children's books, Pullman's novels examine states of mind: concentration, communication, the careful management of ideas. Take Lyra, trapped in the bear prison of Svalbard when an escape plan comes to her: "The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else." It's such a true way of describing thinking, as something delicate, private, and precarious, far away from light bulb or eureka cliches.
When his characters communicate with Dust, that unseen universal force, Pullman becomes even more precise. In order for Lyra to read her truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer, she enters something approaching a trance that makes her mind "go clear." The scholar Mary Malone, talking with the shadowy substance on a computer, quotes the poet John Keats' idea of "negative capability" — that to reach truth or beauty (or Dust) you must be "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ..."
I ask whether that Keatsian mental state his characters use to communicate with Dust resembles one required for writing. "I think anybody who does any sort of art or craft enters that state of mind," Pullman says. "You have to both concentrate on the work and not let yourself be dominated by it. You have to maintain a kind of distance and ease with it, an ease of mind, and at the same time know precisely what you're doing. It's quite a common thing, I think."
Pullman has not, in the restrained British phrase, "been very well." He recently had major surgery, and though he says that the problem was removed, he appears drained and a little pale, preparing with a certain grim resolve for the onslaught of events around releasing two books this fall, La Belle Sauvage and then a collection of essays on storytelling, Daemon Voices, in November. But it is what it is: "You could pretend to be J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or someone and just hide, but I'm not like that."
On the contrary, we expect our children's authors to be snuggly. If male, they should be avuncular, hobbitish even, ideally with twinkling eyes and unruly white hair. Sometimes we expect it so hard that we actually see it, which perhaps explains why Pullman, a reserved, courteous, uncompromising former teacher who smiles rarely but genuinely, was recently described in a magazine as resembling Father Christmas.
I found him tall, kind, and quietly formidable. His wit is scrapingly dry, often consisting of saying very dark things very mildly, as when with a slight smile he delivered his verdict on Brexit: "The worst thing we could have possibly done and we will now dwindle into giggling insignificance, and sink beneath the Atlantic, and be forgotten about." Or the royal family: "a bloated, inert, unproductive mass of greed and selfishness."
He lives in an old farmhouse, cluttered with books, prints, ukuleles, wood furniture and overlapping rugs. Although the accoutrements of agriculture are everywhere in his village, which sits a few miles to the west of Oxford, the farming seems to be mostly of a genteel kind. Pullman has a tractor, which he uses to tame three weed-prone fields behind his house, and two wriggling, frantic cockapoos, who, he says, "disgraced themselves just right there" — pointing to a patch of rug — "in front of a very chic French reporter yesterday."
No sleeping in boats or caves, then. "No adventures, no," he says. "I don't like travel very much. I don't like being on planes. I don't like struggling to speak with people whose language I don't understand. I'd rather sit at home and make it up." Every day, he wakes up, makes tea for his wife Jude — whom I glimpse restraining a writhing mass of puppy as I pass through the front door — and tries to write three pages.
La Belle Sauvage will publish on his 71st birthday, and Pullman is grateful to be able to do his work as long as he wants to, without having to worry about forced retirement or even worn-out limbs, like a dancer, or a football player. "Those of us who are lucky enough not to be dependent on physical activity can go on for quite some time," he says. "That's why it's so important to have a private dimension to your life. Because if all the meaning and all the identity you have is bound up with the job you do, and then you hit 65 and they say, go on, out you go, go home, we don't want you any more, people do collapse into disillusion at that point, don't they. Some people."
"But human beings are very various." Some, he says, grow older and get stuck. "But if you don't stop being curious, if you don't settle into a kind of contented inactivity, if you keep reading, and keep being interested in other people, and keep listening to music and reading books, and keep doing your best at whatever it is you do — if you don't do those things, well, you're not going to learn very much. But if you do, you'll still be interesting and useful and a valuable person. No matter how old you are."