Like the song says, “Breaking up is hard to do.” When you love a wonderful character in a great book, you don’t want to let go, whether the parting comes within the pages or when you close the cover. I know. I’m still not over Ned Stark. Such sweet sorrow!
My job has been reading and writing about children’s books for a long time. Way back in 1996, I found a very special one, “The Golden Compass,” and lost my daughter-less heart to a grubby, mouthy force of nature named Lyra Belacqua.
It would be another year before I would see her again, and then only long enough for me to become fonder of her and more concerned over her fate. She disappeared once more and was gone for three long years. When she returned, she was in deadly danger, and I knew our final breakup was going to hurt.
“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman is the first volume of a mind-bending trilogy called “His Dark Materials,” and it had won the 1995 Carnegie Medal (Britain’s version of our Newbery), among other prestigious awards, and garnered glowing reviews worldwide.
It is a fantasy set in another world, somewhat like ours, but where humans are accompanied in life by their daemons, (animal embodiments of their alter egos); and are governed by a monolithic, repressive and paranoid religious organization called the Magisterium.
Lyra, age 11, is an orphan, a nobly-born liar and braggart deposited at Jordan College in alt-Oxford, alt-England, by her imperious uncle, where she is affectionately, if haphazardly, raised by the elderly Scholars. Her best friend is kidnapped by agents of the Church, who are obsessed by an elementary particle called “Dust,” which they believe is physical evidence of original sin, and who are intent on performing unspeakable experiments on children in order to destroy Dust’s effects. Lyra, with her daemon, Pantalaimon, sets out to rescue him.
Her stubborn resolve ignites a chain reaction of incredible events that explode across two more books (“The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”) and takes her and her allies — tough, loyal fisher folk called gyptians, witches, angels, an armored polar bear and an aeronaut from her world; the tiny, deadly Gallivespians from another; and a physicist and a haunted, hunted boy from ours — into yet other worlds to face increasingly more powerful enemies in a universal rebellion against despotism.
“His Dark Materials,” which began as an effort to unpack and rearrange Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” is a masterpiece. The story’s enormous power comes from the masterful interweaving of scientific, philosophical and magical elements; elegant language and beautifully drawn characters. Because Pullman is a virtuoso, a Lang Lang of letters, it can be read as a rip-roaring adventure, a coming-of-age story or a complex morality tale, and enjoyed by readers of all ages.
It is also an impassioned defense of free thought and expression against any form of authoritarianism, and of Pullman’s conviction that childhood isn’t a place — a bathetic lost playground of innocence — but a journey from instinct, impulse and ignorance to insight and intentionality; that humanity’s fall from grace was actually a leap of faith into true consciousness. (Those ideas, perceived as anti-religion by some, make the trilogy controversial and earn it a perennial place on the “banned books” list.)
But above all, “His Dark Materials” is Lyra’s tale. She travels a hard road to childhood’s end, growing from destiny’s child stubbornly fighting overwhelming odds with nothing but fierce affection and bravado to a young woman of great courage and compassion. Her only weapons — her choices and her love — change the fate of the living and the dead and of heaven and earth.
Lyra’s essential character — curious, brave, kind, fair — never falters, but gathers strength and depth with each painful struggle. She is truly unforgettable. After 17 years, the heart-breaking sacrifice Lyra makes still moves me. I don’t question it: everything about her foretold it. But I wonder what her life is like in the aftermath, and about Dust, and her mysterious connection to it.
Happily, Philip Pullman wondered as well. I suspect breaking up is hard for him, too. Soon after completing the trilogy, he began writing about Lyra’s world again, publishing two small books set there, chock-full of tantalizing tidbits. Around the same time, he announced that “The Book of Dust” was under way and would likely fill three volumes. The reunion would happen. The date — unknown, until recently.
On Oct. 19, “La Belle Sauvage,” the first volume of that almost mythic trilogy, an “equel” that will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with “His Dark Materials,” will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. The subject of the third book is a deep, dark secret, but Lyra is at the center of the first two books, which cover about 10 years on either side of the “HDM” timeline.
Hallelujah! I can hardly wait.
This is what we know so far. The new first book’s protagonist, Malcolm Polestead, with daemon Asta, is just barely glimpsed, as an adult, in earlier books. Here, he is the 11-year-old son of a riverside innkeeper and a friend of the female college Scholars, as well as of the priory nuns across the water who care for abandoned baby Lyra. Her father enlists him as a guide so he can visit her. This is how Malcolm and his canoe become part of Lyra’s story, and she, part of his. Many hands shape a heroine or a hero. Soon, they are together again on a terrible adventure off-world, where he saves Lyra to pursue her destiny, and Lyra leads Malcolm toward his.
I’ve read the chapter posted online that introduces young Malcolm. It is vintage Pullman, simultaneously warm, dark and intriguing. Forget “equel.” I’m hoping that “The Book of Dust” will be the ladder on which “His Dark Materials” stands, a few rungs up; the ladder that anchors its foundation, provides its support, and reaches up into its future, all the way to the stars and the Dust beyond.