The announcement of the October publication of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy for children, The Book of Dust, caused as much of a stir in our household as it did in the literary world. That the adventures of Lyra Belacqua had captured not just the imagination of children, but the Whitbread Award in 2002, the first ever for a children’s book, was a measure of its success with readers of all ages.
No wonder then that news of a fresh trio of Lyra books, neither prequel, nor sequel, but an “equel”, to complement the much-loved and oft-thumbed ones already on our shelves, was greeted with such delight.
But it wasn’t just the anticipation of a great new read that excited us. Apart from the swashbuckling adventures they take us on, fantastic realms they draw us into, and hours of entertainment they provide, His Dark Materials has always done something more. Something that’s especially important today, in a world riven by religious extremism, race-hate and cataclysmic violence.
In a time dominated by the politics of division led by rabble-rousing leaders around the world, and an era so scarred by conflict that children have become the hardest-hit, more than half the earth’s refugees are kids. At such a time, children need all the help they can get to understand why their world is being turned upside down.
How much they need it came home to me when both my young children became targets of intolerance at their British primary school, a situation unprecedented in their five years there. Last week, my seven-year-old daughter returned from school puzzled that a friend had turned on her in the playground, yelling about being “allergic to brown people.” She was baffled rather than hurt to start with, because she felt she should check with us first whether people could really be allergic to other people. Just in case there was some valid medical reason for her friend’s misbehaviour!
Days before that, my eight-year-old son’s path was blocked in a school corridor and his Indian name made fun of. This is a “good” school. Yet it is also a microcosm of our world right now, with the venom released by Brexit against “other” ethnicities flowing freely through classrooms and playgrounds.
Philip Pullman’s world is our world
In this acrimonious atmosphere, children need people they can look up to, to help make sense of it all. They need role models like Lyra and Will, rebellious, free-thinking, young adventurers, who find their own way through duplicity and danger, to change their world for the better.
The parallels between Lyra’s dystopian universe and our own are disturbing. For the hundreds of kids snatched by the Gobblers (the General Oblation Board) and despatched to the detention centre in Bolvangar, we have an endless stream of refugee children roaming our world, shunted from place to place, turned away at some, and interred at others. And if the kidnapped kids at Bolvangar have appalling experiments conducted on them including “intercision”, where their daemons or inner selves are severed from them with a silver guillotine, then our own stateless children are also systematically stripped of their homes, dignity and sometimes, lives.
For every time that Lyra agonises, “Why do they do these things to children? Do they all hate children so much, that they want to tear them apart like this?”, we have another Aylan Kurdi washing up on our conscience.
The horrors of Bolvangar are carried out at the behest of the Machiavellian Magisterium who want to find a way to purge people of Dust or “impurities” (knowledge, a questioning spirit, and the like). The Magisterium is a powerful church; a far-reaching organisation with deep-rooted fundamentalist views and supremacist beliefs that controls Lyra’s multiverse through devious and dangerous means. For us, the Magisterium is the terrifying nexus amongst fascist governments, corporate cartels and religious groups; alliances forged through expediency and greed.
With the people in charge glibly denying truth (“fake news”) and science, and the humanity of ALL, much as on Pullman’s planet. The Magisterium’s pursuit of purity too is echoed in the real world, in right-wing movements mushrooming on every continent, which seek to impose racial or religious “purity” by eliminating the “other”. “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling,” the books warn.
And haven’t we all been unwitting tools in furthering their ends? We have bought their lies and handed over control, or turned the other way till it was too late to stop their relentless march to power. Even plucky, wise Lyra rues this at the conclusion to the first book, when she leads her young friend Roger to Lord Asriel and his death.
The outcast armoured bear Lorek also reminds us at the very end, “Sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.” We have made our world the Paradise Lost Pullman intended Lyra’s to be.
From darkness into light
There is hope, however. The books might frighten in order to forewarn, but they also light our way to redemption. If their seemingly insurmountable challenges are mastered by a determined pair of kids, with a little help from some friends (grown-ups, witches, talking bears, and tiny spying flying things), then our calamities too can be overcome. If Lyra, a slip of a thing, can outfox the manipulative Mrs Coulter and the Gobblers, escape a murderous gang of youth, join giant bears in battle, and overturn the order of things, ending the inequitable rule of God himself (shock, horror), then we can do as much.
If, despite the sorrow of her separation from Will, she can carry on with her crusade, then so can we bear hardships on the road to making our planet “great again”. His Dark Materials, therefore, by providing a guiding light in the shape of a child who triumphs over adversity, offers a route map to children, to help them negotiate their way in this ever-darkening world. Like being given Alethiometers of their own!
We are reliably informed we can expect as much from the forthcoming Book of Dust. Expect, in Philip Pullman’s own words, “a story that attacks such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrates love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity, and human intelligence.” How could you not be excited?