Critical Perspectives on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Critical Perspectives on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, the Film and the Stage Productions. Steven Barfield and Katharine Cox, eds. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 280 pages. Softbound: $40. ISBN978-0-7864-4030-6.

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Reviewed by Amy S. Rodgers

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.3/4 (#117/118) (2012): 155–59.]

This new volume of essays on Philip Pullman’s trilogy is organized into four sections, each of which are “key areas of engagement for Philip Pullman, as a writer and as a critic” (1). In her introduction, Cox gives background information on Pullman as a writer before outlining themes of each of the book’s sections. She situates the essays in each group within the larger pictures of each theme present in Pullman’s work.

The essays in the first section, “Adversaries and Influences,” deal with the intertextuality of Pullman’s work. The first essay, Rachel Falconer’s “Recasting John Milton’s Paradise Lost: Intertextuality, Storytelling and Music,” discusses His Dark Materials as a “highly significant crossover text” (14), a “secular revision of classical myth” (23) that recasts Milton’s Paradise Lost to express the importance of freedom in moral, spiritual, and intellectual matters. Pullman’s realist views seem at odds with his genre choice, but Falconer says that Pullman “deploys fantasy the way Milton deploys the Devil, knowing that his weak-willed, post-lapsarian audience will be more easily seduced by bears and witches and hot-air balloons than they ought to be” (20). Pullman uses the dichotomy of fantasy and realism as a parallel to the child/adult dichotomy. This essay is one of two in the volume that discuss Pullman’s musicality, here in terms of the text itself possessing a musical structure and in the resemblance between Pullman and Orpheus. In his essay, “‘When I Grow Up I Want to Be…’: Conceptualization of the Hero Within the Works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman,” Phil Cardew compares the heroes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Return of the King, and Northern Lights (the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy) and applies Northrop Frye’s “anatomy of a hero” framework to the intellectual maturation of these heroes within their respective narratives. The models of heroism for each author are outlined, and Cardew shows that Pullman’s heroes are less fortunate than those of Tolkien or Lewis, in that they never fully reach heroic status. Cardew suggests that they never fully mature so that we as readers can “empathize with their limitations as much as their successes” (37).

Elisabeth Eldridge’s essay, “Constructions of the Child, Authority and Authorship: The Reception of C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman,” explores public constructions of Pullman and Lewis as authors and how these constructions affect the authority of narration. Too much is going on here to be contained in a concise essay; Eldridge’s initial deconstruction of “Pullman’s” construction of “Lewis” is muddier than this sentence. As it is, we are given no direct indication of how this section betters our understanding of the “public construction of these notions of author and text” (41) more than would reading Pullman’s un-deconstructed quotes. Despite these and other small issues, Eldridge’s discussion of the relationships between these two authors, their constructed personae, and the power they exert over groups of potential readers is attention-worthy. Steven Barfield makes a good case in his essay, “‘Dark Materials to Create More Worlds’: Considering His Dark Materials as Science Fiction.” Barfield compares HDM to science fiction novels, namely C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, to show that Pullman borrows Christian science fiction motifs to undermine them, but could still be considered a science fiction author as the genre is “determined by political, social and cultural aims” (70).

The second section, “Traditions and Legacies,” focuses on cultural historical aspects of Pullman’s work, such as Victorian influences and his debt to the Romantics. In the first essay, “Revitalizing Old Machines of a Neo-Victorian London: Reading the Cultural Transformations of Steampunk and Victoriana,” Steven Barfield and Martyn Colebrook examine Victoriana and Steampunk tropes used in the creation of Lyra’s London. The authors explain how Pullman reinterprets both genres and why he situates Lyra’s origins in the classic Steampunk site of London. Laura Peters describes Pullman’s use of popular Victorian literary tropes, such as orphaned characters, as a means of highlighting current issues in a new way. Peters argues in “Revisiting the Colonial: Victorian Orphans and Postcolonial Perspectives” that for literary purposes, Will and Lyra are orphans; Lyra was raised by the people in Jordan College, rather than her parents, and Will lived with his mother but was her primary caretaker. This essay would be of particular interest to Mythlore readers as the author describes how Pullman revises the Victorian orphan trope to develop a new heroic. Peters also shows how Pullman explored class concerns and notions of home via his challenge to the traditional Victorian gypsy trope. Peters pairs well with Cardew.

Nicola Allen’s essay brings out a connection between the feminine knowledge-seeker’s social class and lapsarian shame. This is an interesting link, but Allen’s path is not clear. This is the weakest essay of the volume. Other essays here, particularly the next essay by Katharine Cox and Sarah Gamble’s in the third section, give better treatments to gender and social class. Halsdorf and others give better treatments of the Fall.

In “‘Imagine Dust with a Capital Letter’: Interpreting the Social and Cultural Contexts for Philip Pullman’s Transformation of Dust,” Katharine Cox shows that Dust deserves more than a singular reading, that it is a “complex metaphor [...] achieved through a manipulation of our historic and contemporary ideas of attitudes toward dust” (127), used to express a Pantheistic universe. Cox’s essay fills a gap in the study of “social implications and cultural history of dust” (127), and offers both history and historiography of human attitudes toward dust. Pullman’s Dust represents as an industrial byproduct, a cause of disease, and our mortality.

Religion, Sexuality and Gender,” the third section, begins with John Haydn Baker’s essay, “The Man Who Walked With God: Philip Pullman’s Metatron, the Biblical Enoch, and the Apocrypha.” Baker examines the roots of His Dark Materials theology in the oft-overlooked Apocrypha, specifically the Book of Enoch. He distinguishes between what Pullman has borrowed from the Apocrypha and details Pullman has invented for his narrative purposes. Here, Pullman’s Metatron character represents authoritarian religion, especially to the contemporary Western reader, and with this Baker says that Pullman is “pulling down the temple from within” (153). J’annine Jobling’s “The Republic of Heaven: East, West and Eclecticism in Pullman’s Religious Vision” shows that Pullman may share an intellectual heritage with Buddhism. Jobling gives several textual examples from Pullman that are evidence of Buddhist retellings of Hindu myths. She also argues that William Blake, who has been established as a direct inspiration to Pullman, had Buddhist leanings in his philosophy. Jobling admits freely when links between Pullman and Buddhism are tenuous, and that Pullman may have had no intentions to include Buddhism in his narrative. Jobling’s and Baker’s pieces are good compliments to each other.

Tommy Halsdorf contends in “‘Walking into Mortal Sin’: Lyra, the Fall, and Sexuality” that His Dark Materials reworks the Fall and thus reinstates a pre-lapsarian gender balance, calling it a “modern feminist rewriting of Eve’s role” (184). Halsdorf discusses sexuality’s specific place in the Fall in the Bible, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Pullmans His Dark Materials, and makes the claim that Lyra’s physical relationship with Will, specifically the fact that they touch each other’s daemons, is more polemic than Pullman’s anti-religious contentions within the narrative. This is even more apparent in the stage version. Halsdorf outlines the Fall-related differences between the original novels and the first stage version. This is the first of two essays outside section four that discusses the stage versions. In “Becoming Human: Desire and the Gendered Subject,” Sarah Gamble applies Judith Butler’s sex and gender theories in Undoing Gender (2004) to Will’s and Lyra’s maturation to highlight Pullman’s expressions of female subjectivity, the active pursuit of transformation, and the acceptance of difference. Sally R. Munt, the second scholar to discuss the stage versions, says that several characters within the narrative, namely Will’s father and Lyra, cannot be confined to one gender stereotype. In her essay “After the Fall: Queer Heterotopias,” she says that these characters are actively transcending their genders. Munt uses Foucauldian analysis of Pullman’s sexual constructions of selfhood to show that these constructions are anti-heteronormative, or non-normative.

Two authors thus far have discussed the stage versions scripted from Pullman’s trilogy as part of their essays, but the fourth section of the book is comprised of two essays focused specifically on dramatizations. In the first, “Staging the Impossible: Severance and Separation in the National Theater’s Adaptation,” Patrick Duggan explores the staging decisions made at England’s National Theater concerning the separation of human and daemon. After a brief history of the increasing number of traumatic scenes on stages in the 1990s, Duggan delves into trauma theory to describe why it is so hard for the audience to see Lyra and Pantalaimon separated, and why scenes were staged as they were. The stage dynamics are a visual text that should not be ignored. The final essay, Karian Schuitema’s “Staging and Performing His Dark Materials: From the National Theater Productions to Subsequent Productions,” is an analysis of directorial decisions made for both the large stagings such as the ones at the National Theater as well as smaller Playbox-type productions. Schuitema found that larger productions relied more heavily on sets, whereas smaller productions sometimes had no sets at all. Included is a long interview with the artistic director of the Playbox theater in Warwick, UK; Schuitema asks him to elaborate on previous press releases outlining directorial decisions and to talk about choices he made on how to portray the daemons or Will’s knife that opens alternate worlds. Schuitema found that the size of the theater and its budget are not what determined the effectiveness and individuality of the respective interpretations of the original script, but that having a strong leader as director was the key element.

The volume is sans conclusion, instead ending only in a bibliography organized into sections: first are Pullman’s works, then secondary journalism, critical works, readers’ guides, and suggested further reading divided further into the same topical sections that divide the essays. At first glance this is a good bibliography, but there are mistakes in a few of the citations, which is more problematic for the scholarly reader than the typos sprinkled throughout the rest of the text.

Five critical volumes solely on His Dark Materials were previously published in addition to pieces published in more broadly-focused works. This particular volume adds to the discussion with pieces like Cox’s essay on cultural aspects of dust and Dust, Jobling’s humble suggestions of unintentional Buddhist leanings, and Baker’s account of Apocryphal influence on the narrative. This reviewer greatly enjoyed seeing discussions of physical staging in the book’s final section. Overall, however, this volume is nothing too special.

Critical Perspectives on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, the Film and the Stage Productions. Steven Barfield and Katharine Cox, eds. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 280 pages. Softbound: $40. ISBN978-0-7864-4030-6.

buy online

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