Philip Pullman and the revival of fascism

January 1, 2018 3 Comments

One of the sweetest memories of reading books to our daughters when they were young was narrating Philip Pullman’s ‘His dark materials trilogy’ to E. in the 1990s, not long after the books were published.  One of them, Northern lights, carries a message to E. from the author on its title page.  Sometimes I’d continue reading aloud after she’d fallen asleep, so powerful was Pullman’s vision, style and storytelling.

I thought at the time, and still think, that the three books, Northern lights, The subtle knife and The amber spyglass will stand as some of the finest creative works written for children, and not only in our own time.  They’re supreme examples of narrative art, and their themes are among the most central to the condition of being human.  Pullman’s central idea is the critical importance of human freedom, and especially freedom to think and imagine, in the face of attempts to manacle that freedom and enforce conformity.  The two presiding geniuses of ‘His dark materials’, John Milton and William Blake, were equally hostile to authoritarianism, religious and secular.

La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of Pullman’s new trilogy, ‘The book of dust’, was published this autumn.  It’s set in the same parallel universe of Brytain or Albion as the first trilogy and features many of the same characters, including Lyra Belacqua, here a young baby.  In the launch of the book in Oxford Pullman admitted that the vision of the new story is even darker than that of its predecessors.  ‘Quipping that novel, the first in The Book of Dust trilogy, should be called ‘His Darker Materials’, [he] said that as an author, “I’ve got older and perhaps more cynical, closer to despair.  It is a darker book, I don’t deny that, but that’s the story that came to me and wanted to be told.’

Most readers familiar with the earlier trilogy will understand the force of these words.  La Belle Sauvage seems different in several ways from the earlier books.  It lacks the exuberance of plotting and character (and humour) of ‘His dark materials’.  The plot is cleverly interwoven, helped by a delicious thread of espionage, but it’s fairly unilinear.  It deals with how Lyra is saved from capture by the forces of the dark state by the bravery, practical wit and good luck of the two central child characters, Malcolm and Alice.  There are other brilliantly painted new characters, but the best of them, Gerard Bonneville, is a dark villain of the vilest kind, a gifted but failed scientist and a rapist and pederast (as always, Pullman pulls no punches and doesn’t spare his younger readers the plain truth about such wickedness).  Where the darkness really does become visible is in the oppressive and sinister ideologies that Malcolm and Alice have to contend with.

Malcolm, the bright and practically minded son of a publican and the owner of the canoe ‘La Belle Sauvage’, lives in the Trout Inn, Godstow, upriver from Oxford.  He soon becomes aware that a special child is being cared for by the nuns in the priory across the river – and that the state authorities are on her trail.  Gradually the nature of their ‘authority’ becomes clear.  The ‘Magisterium’, the global religious centre in Geneva, has adherents in and out of government at home.  The officers of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, ‘an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief’, are already nearby.  Their reputation is well known: ‘he knew the sense of sickening terror the CCD could produce, through hearing some customers once discuss what might have happened to a man they knew, a journalist: he had asked too many questions about the CCD in a series of articles, and had suddenly vanished.  The editor of his paper had been arrested and jailed for sedition, but the journalist himself had never been seen again’.

The CCD visit the Inn, causing suspicion and fear, and they apparently assassinate a mysterious man Malcolm sees by the river.  The man later turns out to have been a secret agent for the mysterious ‘Oakley Street’, an underground group fighting to uphold the values of freedom under the new tyrannical regime.  Malcolm gets to know Hannah Relph, an Oxford researcher and member of the Oakley Street circle, and together they try to protect Lyra from her encircling enemies.  (She also lends him books to read from her own library – public libraries, we learn, no longer exist.)

The CCD remain shadowy and terrifying, but we slowly learn a little more about them and their methods.  In an unsuccessful attempt to get their hands on the ‘alethiometer’, an oracular machine kept in the Bodleian Library, they were prepared to threaten the Librarian with execution.  Their power has penetrated deep into society.  In schools, the League of St Alexander, a kind of Hitler Youth, recruits pupils to denounce to the authorities teachers and others who question strict religious authority; the denounced then disappear.  An Orwellian Office of Child Protection sends armed officers to force the nuns to hand over the baby Lyra.  Hannah Relph returns home one day to find an official van outside her house. ‘She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except that like every other citizen she had everything to fear.  They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumours were true.’

The leaders of Oakley Street, aware of the paradox that they fight for democracy as a secret service, by covert, anti-democratic means, tell Hannah they defend ’the right to speak and think freely, to pursue research into any subject under the sun’.  To do so they even have to resort to ‘green papers’ containing false rumours intended to affect public thinking.

The pace of the novel speeds up in its second half, when a mighty flood, dismissed as impossible except by the ‘gyptians’, the outsider boatpeople of the river who understand that the natural world, like the human, is in grave trouble, turns the Thames into an raging inland sea.  Malcolm and Alice flee with the baby Lyra in their canoe, towards a place of sanctuary in Oxford and beyond in London.  The story becomes ever more fantastical and violent, as Pullman puts Malcolm and Alice through several Odyssey-like tests – there’s even an island with a Circe-like enchantress who tries to persuade them to leave Lyra with her.  But all along their voyage the canoe is hunted by the searchlights of the CCD’s speedboats, always on their tail.  Only by a whisker do the three occupants of the canoe escape the clutches of their pursuers in the centre of flooded London and are transported by ‘gyrocopter’ to  the safety of Jordan College, Oxford.  This is where the book ends, but the reader knows with certainty that the forces of oppression and cruelty are still as strong as ever.

If, in the writing of La Belle Sauvage, Pullman felt he was ‘closer to despair’ it’s not hard to find reasons, at least in our public world, why he should feel despondent, and why the world Malcolm and Alice inhabit is one of persecution and terror.  The rise of Donald Trump, the intolerant triumphalism of the Brexiters, the reappearance of neo-fascist parties in several European countries, the eclipse of progressive political movements founded on hope and collective action – all these might easily lead a writer of sensitivity to imagine a society that is one logical conclusion of our own situation.  When a newspaper with a record of supporting fascism denounces judges and politicians as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’, when lies, racism and sexism are ‘normalised’ through their regular and unashamed embrace by elected leaders, when minorities are blamed and punished for crimes of which they’re guiltless, a world dominated by the Magisterium and the Consistorial Court of Discipline doesn’t seem too ‘parallel’ or too far ahead in the future.

Hope, though, is not extinguished.  It remains alive in a younger generation.  Malcolm and Alice overcome their enemies and their troubles through a combination of bravery, quick-wittedness and practical talents (boat repair and window frame making being two key skills).  The dark forces can be overcome.

Comments (3)

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  1. Julia Edwards says:

    I shall share your post with some ‘children’ s books discussion groups’ I am in. Thanks for a great read Andrew.

  2. Mair Cole says:

    It’s Waterstones book of the year think I might give it a read!

  3. Judy Barnes says:

    This was our last book group read. A great discussion was had.

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