It is the season for Philip Pullman. There is the excellent adaptation of Pullmans trilogy His Dark Materials streaming on Hotstar. The Secret Commonwealth, the second book of The Book of Dust trilogy is also out. While the first book, La Belle Sauvage (2017) featured the baby Lyra and 11-year-old Malcolm who saves her from the flood, The Secret Commonwealth is set seven years after the events of The Amber Spyglass. Lyra is 20 years old and estranged from her dmon, Pantalaimon.
There are all kinds of evil forces at play, a town haunted by dmons and a mysterious rose that only blooms in the desert. The 73-year-old novelist, talks of William Blake, consciousness and long-form television in an e-mail interview.
What has been your experience of being an executive producer on BBC Ones production of His Dark Materials? Which medium (audio book, film, radio play, play, television series) do you think does justice to the source material?
I think each has its strengths, and its corresponding weaknesses. What is more, it depends on the talent of the individuals making the piece. I think the new TV version has the best chance of telling the whole story properly, simply because it will have more time to do so. Long-form television is the natural home for a long story.
You have been quoted as saying The Book of Dust trilogy addresses consciousness. Could you elaborate?
It has taken me about a thousand pages so far, and I dont think I could elaborate much further& I could try to simplify, though. The relationship between human and dmon is turning out to be a rich metaphor for all kinds of psychological states, not least that of alienation from ones true self. The question of how consciousness arises, and what it is anyway, is the most fascinating problem in philosophy at the present time. Neurological science doesnt seem to have the answer, though it keeps promising it. If there is anything to be discovered about it, Im convinced it will be through the medium of poetry or fiction rather than through experimental science. Im currently very interested in the matter of fields (as in electro-magnetic field, and so on) and my invented Rusakov Field, and its associated particle, Dust, will be fully dealt with in the concluding volume.
Could you talk about the genesis of The Book of Dust?
It gradually became clear to me, in the years after finishing His Dark Materials, that I had further discoveries to make about Dust, and about Lyra. How can someone live when the greatest adventure they will ever have is over and done with? Is the rest of her life going to be a long anti-climax? What a disappointment that would be. I was also, as I said earlier, very curious about how the dmon metaphor could be further explored.
You describe the trilogy as an equel&
I wanted to prevent people from calling La Belle Sauvage a prequel to His Dark Materials. And since I knew that Book 2 would seem like a sequel, I used to say it wasnt a prequel, and it wasnt a sequel, it was an equel.
With Lyra and Pans arguments about imagination, is William Blake an influence in The Secret Commonwealth?
Undoubtedly. But so is William Wordsworth, Edmund Spensers Elizabethan romance The Faerie Queene and folk tales. It is probably easier to say what was not an influence.
What is the significance of the desert rose?
That will become clear in the third book. Id better not anticipate it now.
By making Lyra the protagonist of His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, can the trilogies be read as feminist texts?
Yes, I daresay they could. But I have a rule: I never offer any interpretation of my work. Its meaning always emerges from the connection between the book and the reader, and I have no idea who the reader will be, or what experiences they will bring to the reading. If someone sees it possible to make a feminist reading, or a Marxist one, or a Freudian one, or a religious one, they are at perfect liberty to do so. But if they want to convince anyone else of the merits of that reading, they must do so in the normal way of literary criticism, and produce evidence from the text itself and not from what they think they know about my opinions.
What was the brief for the illustrator, Christopher Wormell?
Im very lucky to have Chris illustrating these books. His draughtsmanship is brilliant, and he has a wonderful eye for drama. As a result, The Book of Dust is much more richly illustrated than His Dark Materials was.