Saturday, 28 August 2004

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (1995)

Edition: Scholastic, 1996
Review number: 1262

Harry Potter may have started the current revival in the children's books market, but it is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (of which this is, of course, the first) which has picked up most of the critical acclaim. Aimed at an older reader than the first Harry Potter stories, this is an imaginative and dark tale of a fantasy world where human beings are accompanied by personal daemons - basically externalised souls - in the form of animals.

Central character Lyra is a young girl brought up (in a neglected kind of way) by the scholars of an Oxford college. When children across Britain begin to go missing, she resolves to save them (after her closest playmate disappears); this decision takes her to fashionable London, a gypsy parliament in the Fens (at Ely under another name), and finally to the Arctic, where the Aurora or Northern Lights play an important part in beginning to resolve the mystery.

Comparison with the Harry Potter stories, particularly the Philosopher's Stone which began that series, is quite a useful way to enumerate some of the praiseworthy and not so praiseworthy aspects of this novel. The first thing that the reader notices about Northern Lights by comparison is that Pullman imagines a far more complex, logically thought out and intricate world, one that is a great deal less like the one in which we live than the one that contains Hogwarts is. Everything we read about seems to have a purpose within the overall scheme of things, while Rowling, at least some of the time, appears to put in details on the spur of the moment. While the Harry Potter books do have a plan - the final chapter of the seventh novel being among the first to be written - many of the background details do not relate to it (what do every flavour beans tell us about how the universe is structured, for example?). Everything here has its place, it all fills out a corner of a master plan. Though this may be in part something Pullman is able to do because he is writing for an older readership, this particular contrast is valid for the later Harry Potter books as well, which are not aimed at such young people.

Pullman's writing is made to seem far deeper and have more to offer on repeated reading by this method. It should be remembered that Rowling's books are meant to be funny, while Pullman wants to deal with big issues.

The feeling that there is more to be gained by repeated reading of His Dark Materials is bolstered by a second difference: the background to Pullman's series is far more imaginative than Happy Potter, which is really just a boarding school story with magic and a villain. The daemons, the cosmology (all the stuff about the Dust), the bears and so on are original ideas; this is not just another post-Tolkien fantasy novel. Pullman wins out on the broad brush aspects of writing a fantasy novel - the general background is far better - but what about the detail? On the character front, the central cast of Rowling's novels all seem to have something individual about them, though sometimes Ron Weasley in particular is a bit of a caricature. It takes a long while here to feel that Lyra has much of a character. His portrayal of her upbringing as a sort of urchin doesn't seem realistic - for that done really well in a book for teenagers, try Leon Garfield's Smith. The characters here seem to be mainly intended as pegs for the background - which is of course a common problem in novels driven by ideas.

Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Northern Lights aim to make a big impact in their very first pages, with the outlandish idea of a boy living in a cupboard under the stairs in one and Lyra discovering a plot to poison her uncle in the other. Here Harry Potter wins again, but then it does have one of the most attention grabbing openings in fiction. Harry Potter also continues in much the same vein, and the pace really keeps moving; this is not true of Northern Lights. This is not necessarily a case of one being better than the other, however; it is another difference of emphasis.

The differences between the two series could be summed up as Pullman having more intellectual weight (and it is interesting that most of the reviews I have seen are about the underlying ideas rather than the writing itself), but Rowling being more appealing. It's a matter of mind or heart - each appeals more to the one than the other. Considering that they are the two most successful examples of the current revival of the children's book market, they are remarkably different from each other - especially given that they both fall within the fantasy genre.

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