The article contains minor spoilers on the plot of La Belle Sauvage.
It’s been over twenty years since Philip Pullman introduced readers to the universe of His Dark Materials, and now he’s back with the first in a new trilogy entitled The Book of Dust.
At the end of the last book in the first trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, Pullman’s young heroes Lyra and Will have witnessed the death of the heavenly “Authority,” unwittingly staged the second fall of Man and cut a hole in the fabric of the underworld to free untold hordes of the dead to become one with the universe. How do you top that?
The answer is, you don’t. Instead, in La Belle Sauvage, Pullman has shrunk the canvas to present readers with a book that, despite being set over a decade before His Dark Materials, is less a prequel than a companion volume. In it, we meet Malcolm, a curious and lively inkeeper’s son who loves nothing more than boating up and down Oxford’s canals in the vessel that gives this first volume its name. He soon crosses paths with the infant Lyra, and is thrown into an adventure which takes its cues both from Boy’s Own tales of suspense and intrigue, and the fairies and spirits of English folklore.
In a conversation with TIME at his home in Cumnor, Oxfordshire in August, Pullman explained why he’d returned to the universe of His Dark Materials, gave some insight into the characters and themes of the new novel, and dropped some hints about what readers can expect from the second volume in the series, to be entitled The Secret Commonwealth.
TIME: You’ve been talking about the possibility of writing a follow-up to His Dark Materials for over a decade. Why now?
Philip Pullman: I felt there were more stories to tell. I felt that having established a position vis-a-vis organized religion, I was now free to look at other things that were of interest to me. I wanted to know more about Lyra, I wanted to know about other characters I’d seen peripherally, in the distance, and grew to like.
If His Dark Materials was about how innocence turns to experience, what is the theme of this trilogy?
I don’t write books to illustrate a theme but I sometimes find a theme developing as I write them. In this one, it’s the importance of imaginative vision, in William Blake’s terms. The dangers of what he called “single vision” — a narrow, dogmatic point of view that excludes every other angle of vision but what it deems to be true. You see that not just in dogmatic politics and religion, you see it in science, in all kinds of fields. It’s always destructive and it’s always restrictive and it’s always unhelpful. And in this trilogy, that sort of area is going to be what I’m exploring.
But the meaning of a book is never just what the author thinks it is. It’s a great mistake to rely on the author to tell you what the meaning is. We don’t know. The meaning is only what emerges when the book and the reader meet.
The journey from innocence to experience is still at the heart of this book though, with Malcolm’s journey?
Yes, but in a different way. The relationship you have with a six-month-old baby is not a romantic one, but a protective one. And Malcolm is in that relationship with Lyra. He’s immensely seized by the idea of this baby. He’s an only child, he has never even seen a baby before. And he is put in the position of having to protect her. It’s a position of great moral responsibility, a great moral weight. And he’s capable of bearing it.
Is there an element of autobiography in the writing of Malcolm?
I’d like to think so. I’m not sure I’d be as brave as he is. I suppose Malcolm is to a certain extent the boy I was. But then, Lyra is the girl I was. They’re both equally made up characters. I knew Malcolms and I knew Lyras when I was teaching. But yes, there’s an element of me in both of them. I loved writing about Malcolm and Alice, who I became very fond of.
Alice, the temperamental teenager who accompanies Malcolm on his quest, seems quite similar to the Lyra of the earlier books.
Well, we’ll find out more in the second book about her connection with Lyra, which might be a bit of a surprise. As soon as I thought of Alice, I could see how that was going to develop. Some characters arrive at your desk with either an atmosphere about them, or a sense that there is more to them … an already developed hinterland or where they’re going. Mrs Coulter, for example. As soon as I thought of her I thought, yes there she is. Alice was the same.
Did the character of Malcolm spring fully formed too?
Yes. I saw him with his canoe, and he just looked up. I used to be a teacher, for about 12 years, and I was teaching children of his age and Lyra’s age as she was in His Dark Materials and I knew lots of children like that. Immensely interesting, immensely likable and immensely unpredictable. A curious mixture at that age of complete innocence and the beginnings of intellectual maturity and discovery. It’s an extraordinary age.
This novel is set entirely in England, and mostly in Oxfordshire. What is it about Oxford that keeps bringing you back?
It’s a very rich place to write about. There are all kinds of things to write about. There are so many Oxfords and so many atmospheres. You could never get tired of it. Besides, it’s just down the road. I don’t have to go to Heathrow and get on a plane and deal with passports in order to research it.
Do you need to travel a lot to research the places you go to in your novels, like the Arctic?
No, because I make my world up. What I don’t know, I’ll find out in some way or another. And what I can’t find out, I’ll make up. The function of research for a novelist is simply to give you enough stuff so that you can make up something that you need. My test for it is, if I were reading this, would I think it’s genuine? If it looks alright to me, as an average reader, who has read a bit about the subject, I reckon that’ll do.
What about interviews?
No, because people don’t tell me things. It’s not in my nature. I can spend time with someone most agreeably, but they would never tell me anything important about themselves. I haven’t got that receptive, engaging, welcoming air about me. It’s a great gift, but not something that could be faked. I could have made myself interested in people … but it’s a question of whether people feel at ease about you or not, and I don’t have that capacity.
Evidently, that hasn’t impeded your creative spark.
Perhaps it encourages it.
In the new book, you delve into what life is like under the Magisterium, the “theocracy” that rules Britain. I wonder if there were parallels to what you see in the world today that were of particular influence?
Yes, of course. We see in the Middle East and in isolated pockets of western Europe the enormous enthusiasm which that point of view is accepted. Especially by young men who love the idea of an absolute answer to everything, for which they’re willing to die, and to kill. That’s the absolute final pitch of single vision. What the prophet says is what is true, and everything else is false. That cast of mind has not very often acquired political power, but when it does it’s absolutely murderous.
In many ways it seems as much like Soviet Russia, as historical theocracies like the Spanish Inquisition.
Well, Soviet Russia was, in all respects except one, a theocracy. When I was accused of promoting atheism and doing down the church and so on, I used to make this point. The Soviet regime had a holy book, by Marx. It had a priesthood, the Communist Party. It had even holy relics, the corpses of Lenin and Stalin in Red Square. It had a whole system of secret denunciation, just as they did in Venice under the Spanish Inquisition. And this is very important: they had a teleological world view. The church was doing all this because it was helping re-establish Christ’s rule. In Soviet Russia, they were working towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. The parallels are extraordinary and multiple. It was in effect a theocracy. The fact they were atheist made no difference at all. So, my antipathy to organized religion is an antipathy to theocracy and an antipathy to people who think they have the answer getting their hands on the levers of power.
The book changes direction in the second half, as a huge and mysterious flood rises. What inspired that?
Well, the flood is a kind of metaphor of course. Floods are things that carry you away. Floods are also things that uncover and bring to the surface things that have been hidden, and so on. So all those things are involved. But one of the origins of this story, I’m certain, was from my childhood in Australia. In 1956, the River Murray flooded in Victoria and also South Australia. We were living in Adelaide, as my stepfather was in the RAF. This flood came along, and I remember driving out to somewhere in the country from where we could see the flood. It was astonishing. It was a mass, immense, as wide as the sea, of grey water, whipped up by a cold wind, flowing inexorably from there to there. The power of it. It was an impression that never left me. And I always wanted to write about a flood. So I made my own flood here in Oxfordshire. And of course it’s a metaphor. It’s more than a flood. It’s a sweeping away of all sorts of things.
Up to that point the novel has been quite realistic, but the flood brings us into the fantasy world that one of the Gyptians in the novel calls “The Secret Commonwealth.” What is that?
Robert Kirk wrote this book in the 1680s, it’s his term for the world of fairies, gnomes, sprites … the world of spirits basically. Which, for him, as a clergyman was very real. He was also writing from the point of view of a culture in Scotland and in Ireland where the spirit world is very real. I’m fascinated by that world, which is the complete opposite of the world that science tells us about. This is not in any sense an anti-science thing, but in William Blake’s terms I’m a proponent of two-fold, three-fold and four-fold vision and not single vision.
Some writers about science use sentences like x equals nothing but y. Love is nothing more than the excitation of neurons in the brain, something like that. I would much rather say, love is the excitation of neurons in the brain, among other things. And I think that would be Blake’s attitude as well. That it can be all of those things. And that we’re not truly seeing it unless we see all of those things. That’s a lesson which Lyra and Malcolm will have to learn.
The first book of the original trilogy told a complete story, somewhat. At the end of this book, there are many things left unresolved and explained.
That was a different kind of book, with a more straightforward story. Lyra has lost something, [her friend] Roger has disappeared, she’s determined to find him. This is a different kind of mystery, a different kind of story. Various things are set in train in this book which will develop in the next one and the third.
If things are unexplained, it’s because I haven’t explained them to myself. There are things that it would be impolite to enquire into. For example, people have occasionally asked me how daemons are born. I’ve never sought to go into the gynecology of daemons and I think it would be rather impolite. People can imagine that for themselves.
What can you tell us about the rest of the trilogy?
In the next book, which is going to be called The Secret Commonwealth, we are fully in the realms of experience. It will be 20 years later, Lyra is going to be an undergraduate and her own woman. And completely unlike in this one, and completely unlike the Lyra of His Dark Materials, she’s going to have the beginnings of an adult’s preoccupations. There will be a lot of trouble.
The earlier trilogy was released at a time when social conservatism was in the ascendance, which I think feeds into the absolutism that you’re talking about. Do you feel like that has changed now in the U.S.?
What we were seeing then was the influence of the evangelical Republicanism on the Republican Party in particular. They sold their soul to this side of influence and effectively could do nothing to prevent Donald Trump when he came along. Because he seemed to be saying the things they wanted to hear, about cutting taxes and preventing immigration and all these things… but they didn’t see what an unguided missile he was going to be.
Back then, you were accused of peddling “atheism for kids.” Do you expect more controversy from this book?
No, this is a different kind of book.
Do you still receive letters from people telling you you’re going to hell?
No … yet I haven’t gone away. Clearly, no evident evil has sprouted from [the books’] presence in the world for 20 years. There’s nothing they can point to and say this man ought to be burned at the stake.
It feels like that religious absolutism has, to some extent, filtered into politics.
Yes, you can see it in Brexit. Once we throw off the chains of Europe, we can pay 350 million pounds a week to the National Health Service! Absolute bullsh-t of course. But they can say it, because they know the answer. Or because they pretend to know the answer.
Do you think the storyteller has a responsibility to reflect that in their writing?
It’s something I’ve thought quite a lot about. We are citizens too. So we have an obligation to do as citizens should do, which is to be honest where we can. To denounce tyranny and lies where we can. We have those responsibilities which are borne by everyone. So yeah, we do have that sort of responsibility. We have other responsibilities as well, of providing for the family. Of looking after the language — which is our tool, our medium. Our overriding responsibility is our responsibility to the story.
Is there also a responsibility to breed curiosity? It feels like an absence of curiosity is what makes you susceptible to demagoguery.
Absolutely. Curiosity is a virtue. The traditional Christian virtues of temperance, justice, fortitude, I agree with all of them. I’ve nothing to disagree with on Christian virtues except one, which is faith. I would rather substitute curiosity. Intellectual curiosity is one of the strongest virtues we have.
His Dark Materials is going to be a television show, on the BBC. You seem to have a mixed track record when it comes to adaptations.
I’ve been through all sorts of adaptations, some of them more successful than others. It’s been a radio play. It’s been a theatrical play, at the National Theater. It’s been a Hollywood movie. It’s had all kinds of embodiments.
The thing about a movie is that you’ve got to distill 12-13 hours of story into 120 minutes, and of course you can’t do it because you have to leave things out. Even a very faithful adaptation like Lord of the Rings left an enormous lot out, because you have to. The great advantage of the new world of long form television is that you can put much more in. So you can allow the time for a story to develop. So I’m hoping that will be the case for this adaptation.
Are you hoping for something along the lines of Game of Thrones?
I haven’t watched it. Not really my sort of thing. I don’t watch or read very much fantasy. I never really have. I read Lord of the Rings when I was an undergraduate, but I was very callow and easily impressed. Far less impressed by it now.
Martin famously struggles with finishing his work. Was the process of writing this burdensome? I know you declined to cut your hair until you were finished…
It was superstition. I made a stupid promise to myself, or a bargain with the muse or something. If I don’t cut my hair, this book will be all right won’t it? So I grew my ponytail which I still have in a drawer somewhere, in a Ziploc bag. I’m going to give it to the Bodleian Library. That was my personal superstition. I don’t know if it makes a difference or not.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity