Citations of the Fantastic: Exploring Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights at Durham Book Festival

Crop from the cover of Northern LightsPhilip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy has sold over 15 million copies worldwide – and a further 3000 copies of the first novel, Northern Lights, were distributed free for Durham’s ‘big read.’ The broad appeal of this work stems not only from its fantastic plot, but also from its deep allusions to historical, literary, and biblical culture. Lois Burke traced the influences on and of Philip Pullman’s writing at a Durham Book Festival talk.

Celebrating the ‘big read’ book for Durham Book Festival 2015, this event was devoted to exploring the lasting influence of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, twenty years on from its publication. Durham city has a close relationship with Pullman; he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University in 2012 and in recent months 3,000 free copies of Northern Lights have been circulated by New Writing North – in schools, in the prison, even in the Palace Green Library, which is the venue for today’s talk.

Opening the discussion the chair, Professor Simon James, a Victorian literature specialist and a fan of the fantastic, remarks that it is perhaps easier to delineate which literary prizes Pullman hasn’t won for His Dark Materials trilogy. He invites the audience to ponder the fantastic in its broadest sense, particularly its huge appeal to young and old alike, and the fact that novels of the genre occupy a space on the periphery of the canon. When Simon asks for a show of hands of who in the room has read the book – and read it before this year – all hands go up; the room is seemingly unanimous.

Accompanying Simon is Dr Victoria Flood, Professor Stephen Taylor and Professor Gillian Boughton. Medievalist Victoria draws attention to the ways in which Pullman’s novel borrows from the quest romance, a long literary tradition that can be traced throughout European languages. But unlike the conservatism and Christian appeal of some fantastic literature, say C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the fantasy of Pullman’s text is subversive in a variety of ways, which is namely down to the rebellious and flawed protagonist, Lyra.

William Blake's Song of Los, Gustave Dore illustration of Paradise Lost, film still from The Golden Compass.
William Blake frontispiece to Song of Los (1795); Gustave Dore illustration of Paradise Lost c.1886); film still from The Golden Compass (2007).

A conversation ensues about the gender of the novel’s protagonist, and her moral fallibility. Victoria Flood suggests that the protagonist of Northern Lights could only be female. Indeed, the book begins with Lyra being in a place where she must hide from the adult, masculine forces, drawing attention to the unfair lot of a curious, ‘half wild’ girl. Simon reminds us of the cultural construction of childhood, which began in the nineteenth century by Romantic thinkers. Although heavily influenced by Blake, Pullman’s vision of childhood is not entirely Blakean, but there is certainly a balance of knowledge and power which is most touchingly evoked through the narrative perspective of the child. Simon quotes one of Lyra’s more ‘childish’ observations: ‘you shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.’

Head of the History department at Durham University, Stephen Taylor also comments on Pullman’s method of inversion with regards to historical allusions. For example, Pullman cites Calvin, and other reformation figures, and completely reimagines their history. This, Stephen suggests, allows the reader to witness a parallel world in which the enlightenment didn’t take place, and serves as a reminder that liberalism is a particular ‘truth claim’, i.e. only one of the many narrative possibilities. Similarly, Gillian Boughton points out that Lord Asriel distorts the stories of Genesis when he explains them to Lyra in the book.

The discussion leads on to Pullman’s various influences, both literary and historical. Gillian reminds us that the subtitle of Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is a line from book two of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross. – Paradise Lost, II, 915-920.

On the subject of diabolical references, the discussion concludes on the role of Pullman’s daemons, with Victoria suggesting that they are not quite a manifestation of their master’s soul but an ‘essence ’of them. In contrast Simon suggests that a daemon is not necessarily allegorical, they can just be what they are; his own would be a ‘small but chubby bear!’

A podcast of this event is now available, via New Writing North.


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