In this episode of The Booker Prize Podcast, our hosts – author and critic Jo Hamya and broadcaster and critic James Walton – discuss the concluding volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was longlisted for the prize in 2001
Listen to more episodes from The Booker Prize Podcast here.
It is the third and concluding volume of the epic His Dark Materials trilogy – and might just be the only children’s book ever nominated for the Booker Prize. The story follows the journey of Lyra – a young girl destined to bring about unfathomable change in her world and beyond. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, alongside Ian McEwan’s Atonement, David Mitchell’s number9dream and that year’s winner, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The books of Raymond Chandler
Four Bare Legs in a Bed by Helen Simpson
The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Jo Hamya: James always manages to make this sound dirty… I was saying to him last night that it was so wholesome in my mind before he read it to me.
James Walton: No, I’ve got a proper… I’ve got a proper dirty bit coming up later.
JW: Hello everybody and welcome to the latest Booker Prizes Podcast with me, James Walton,
JH: And me, Jo Hamya.
JW: And today we’re tackling a book that was voted the third favourite of the entire nation in the BBC’s Big Read project of 2003, behind only Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. In 2019, he was knighted for services to literature. In 2004, the author was named in a BBC poll as the 11th most influential person in British culture. But for our purposes, what’s significant is that the book is the only children’s book in the entire history of literature to have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And it is The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman.
JW: And this is our second week of podcasting and I must say we’re absolutely delighted with the response so far. Lots of lovely comments, lots of lovely subscribers and so far, so good… except for one thing, Jo.
JH: Yeah, I’m going to cut across all your really genuine thanks, which I do echo – but I’m going to be petty because I deserve it. Listeners of last week’s episode two will know that I put up a really robust defence of the main character’s sanity.
JH: Well, the translator of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Deborah Smith, agrees with me! She’s written in to say, “such a rigorous and informed defence of Yeong-hye’s sanity.” And she’s also said, to both our credit, “engaging, thoughtful and generous conversation re translation.” But haha, I win!
JW: You absolutely do. I was going to say, what the hell does she know… but actually, she’s the translator of the bloomin’ book! Okay, well, score one for Jo. I will be back!
JH: Actually, no, maybe this puts us back to nil because I also very briefly spoke with Patricia Lockwood to let her know that I was in her corner. This was from episode one, in which I said that I thought she’d been robbed for the prize that year. She wrote in to say, “No, no, no, no, no! Debut books that win are cursed!” I had to write back to her and say that I think Douglas Stuart broke that curse. Because he’s doing alright, isn’t he? Young Mungo’s selling well. He’s still at Hay Festival, he’s still having a good time. So, you know, Patricia, give yourself some credit! You should have won! You should have won.
JW: Oh that’s good, so people are actually listening? Blimey! This is great news. The slightly less good news is that we’ve now come to the bit of the show where we have the pleasure, stroke hideous ordeal of getting to know each other with the aid of probing questions that wept to each other. Oh, Jo, what have you got for me this week?
JH: So, my question to you this week is actually related to the book we’re reading. In The Amber Spyglass, and indeed in the His Dark Materials universe, characters have an external manifestation of their soul called dæmons. And… it takes the shape of an animal and it’s usually a sort of dead giveaway as to what sort of person you are. So, my question to you, James, is what form would your dæmon take?
JW: In other words, your question to me is, what is the essence of me?
JH: Yes. So what’s the essence of your soul, James?
JW: Told you it was an ordeal. Well actually, just to deflect for a second.
JH: No, no deflecting!
JW: No, it’s a literary criticism. The idea of a dæmon that represents your entire essence works really well in the book, but thinking about it now makes me wonder, actually, do we have an essence? Because I… struggle to find out one thing that sums up the rich complexity of all that I am. So, I wondered if I could palm you off with a chameleon… But a chameleon, you know, can change and then… slightly gets around the idea that there is one single essence of exactly who you are. But anyway, I… suppose I do quite like people to like me…is a characteristic of mine. So maybe a sort of slightly needy, tail-wagging dog?
JH: Aww, do you know what kind of dog?
JW: No one of those sort of… mongrelly. But you know…it does goes up to people. It doesn’t completely bound up… doesn’t grab their legs and go onto their shoulders, but just sort of hangs around. I don’t know. Well, in fact… not only that, I’m coming straight back at you because my question to you is, what would your dæmon be then, Jo?
JH: See, I prepared James and I thought about this for about half an hour. And I did… three internet quizzes and disagreed with all of them.
JW: I thought about it for about five days and I still couldn’t get anywhere.
JH: But I think mine would be an otter… No, it would be an otter. Otters are amazing. They are playful and they learn really fast. They’re intelligent and they can survive alone, but they’re also really fond of contact, they like hugging. I feel like that’s just… I’m an otter. I mean, mine would be an otter.
JW: Okay… You win that one. Much better answer than my… flannelling about.
JH: Yeah, because you apparently don’t have an essence.
JW: One single essence. I mean, we… can maybe return to this when we talk about humans in the book.
JH: Philip Pullman, if you’re listening, please write in and explain to us whether we have an essence or not.
JW: Single essence, Philip Pullman. But actually, so let’s move on to this. Obviously, The Amber Spyglass is the third book in the series His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman or, as he would see it, the last third of a single book. So, I think we do need a bit of background. Jo, can you, can you fill us in on the His Dark Materials universe?
JH: His Dark Materials books are a trilogy comprised of Northern Lights - or, as it was published in the States, The Golden Compass - The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which is the book we’re discussing today. Pullman’s universe contains a multiverse, but it’s less Marvel and more astrophysics, and our protagonist is a girl called Lyra Belacqua or, as she’s renamed, Lyra Silvertongue.
JH: In Lyra’s specific world people have externalized manifestations of their soul called dæmons, and these take the shape of animals. Lyra’s world is also governed by a version of the, I would say Catholic, but potentially just Christian, Church called the Magisterium. And in this Biblical retelling, God is named the Authority and his bidding is carried out by a regent called the Metatron.
JH: Lyra’s world also contains a visible version of what we might call dark matter, and in the book is called Dust, with a Capital D. What exactly Dust is is the main point of contention for these three books. For the Magisterium, Dust is the root of all sin, but more scientifically minded people - such as Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, believe that dust may in fact be the centre to all being, or human consciousness, that it may be something completely apart from what the Church believes it to be.
JH: So, Lord Asriel is hellbent on finding out exactly what Dust is as a way to diminishing the power of the Magisterium. And in the first book, on this mission, he kills Lyra’s best and only friend, Roger, in this pursuit, which sets Lyra on her own path to finding out the meaning of Dust. In the second book, she picks up an ally from our world, his name is Will Parry, and he becomes the bearer of an item called the Subtle Knife, which can cut portals through to other worlds, and it becomes an immensely useful tool, to them.
JH: Lyra’s parents are Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter. They give her up when she’s a baby to the care of Oxford College, in this parallel world that’s called Jordan. Lord Asriel is an aristocrat with highly scientific pursuits, but by Book Three, he’s a rebel leader determined to take on the kingdom of heaven, whereas Mrs Coulter is kind of his polar opposite. She is a servant of the Magisterium, quite high-ranking, as well as an academic. And she, in Book One, runs something called the General Oblation Board, which separates children from their dæmons as a way to prevent them from ‘acquiring sin’, which is really a way to say to stop them from ever reaching sexual maturity
JW: Or growing up-
JH: Or free will or growing up…
JH: But as she moves through the novel, her re-evolving love for her daughter leads her to stray from the Church. And I think the only other thing that’s really necessary to us is that there’s a prophecy with Lyra at the heart of it, given in Book One, naming her the second Eve - as in Adam and Eve, as in Eve who succumbs to temptation from a serpent, eats an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and brings about the fall of mankind. The Church believes that she’ll bring about the fall of mankind, but in this telling, it’s worded more as she is destined to bring an end to destiny, and you can interpret that freely.
JW: Yeah. And in a way, consciousness and what the church calls original sin are sort of the same thing, aren’t they?
JH: Well knowledge basically. Free will.
JW: Yeah…. Okay. Well thank that, that was most pithily expressed. Thanks very much, Jo.
JH: We haven’t even actually got to a summary of The Amber Spyglass yet. But actually James, I’d be really keen to hear your summary of The Amber Spyglass, because this a novel that I read as a child. It’s probably going to be the only time in my life on this podcast that I can say, ‘Well, back in my day.’
JW: But back in your day, I’d be very interested. We’ll get onto that, what… you made of it as a child. Because, coming to it at my great age, it’s not obvious why it’s a children’s book, really. I mean, it’s got children in it… and children are the heroes. But it’s quite a complicated… I mean, there aren’t many children’s books that make you want to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but this really does because it’s quite heavily based on it.
JH: Give it a bash. Go on, tell us what it’s about.
JW: Okay, well, I’ll try. It’s a bit like that Monty Python thing of summarising Proust in 30 seconds, ‘Come on, come on. Give it a go.’ So, this book starts with Lyra a prisoner of the woman who’s turned out to be her mother who at this stage is one of the book’s big baddies, Mrs Coulter. Beautiful but deadly. Her dæmon being a golden monkey of a slightly vicious kind.
JH: I always wanted that monkey.
JW: That’s pretty cool. Gold monkey. And she’s got Laura drugged in a cave, really. And at this stage, because she’s a baddie, we’re not quite sure whether she’s up to no good or whether, as she claims, she’s trying to protect Lyra from the fact that basically at this point, Lyra’s the sort of MacGuffin of the book. Everyone’s heading towards this cave in the Himalayas, where Lyra is holed up including the Magisterium - which is boo! The Church, with the goodies trying… to rescue her - various types of goodies - and also Will, the boy with the Subtle Knife.
JW: And they do rescue her and she has had, in the meantime, a vision of Roger, the guy you mentioned who got killed. And she decides that what they need to do is visit the House of the Dead-
JH: The World of the Dead,
JW: The World of the Dead. Thank you. And rescue everybody, which with the aid of the Subtle Knife… Unbelievably sort of powerful and tense and thought-provoking passages in which they do visit the World of the Dead and manage to free the people there. And because this is essentially an atheist book, I think, really - so they are liberated from the sort of boredom and hideousness of a Magisterium-based afterlife - which is not heavenly in the slightest, just means you hang around - and they rescue people and they disappear into the… their atoms dissolve and they disappear back into the universe, with great pleasure.
JW: Then the biggest… showdown, which is between the forces of good and evil, really. I’d be interested to know how much you think Pullman’s heart is in the big showdown, because in most books like this, and particularly most children’s books like this, you might imagine that the big clash between the forces of good and evil -
JH: It’s like a whole movie sequence. You’d think it would take long time.
JW: Yeah, also a big finish… It’s done in a few pages. With 100 pages still to go, before he sort of gets back to his main concerns, which is the attempt, I think of the goodies, which Lord Asriel has now become…Mrs Coulter seems to be…
JH: I would flip that! See, I think Asriel is still a terrible person and Coulter’s the one who actually redeems herself.
JW: She does redeem herself by, much to her surprise, loving her daughter, doesn’t she? And those two - I think it’s hard to do this without spoiler alerts - but those two eventually destroy…God, essentially.
JW: Well, God himself, the Authority, is by this time so tired and old and everything that as soon as he sort of meets the air, he dissolves. Images, funnily enough, of sort of the disappearance of Catholic Ireland in recent years. So, this thing that seemed absolutely rock solid just suddenly goes. Anyway, those two sacrifice themselves getting rid of the Megatron. I figure the Jesus…
JH: Metatron. Megatron is Transformers, I think.
JW: Thanks. No, thanks very much. No, you’re definitely my Philip Pullman vocabulary consultant. So anyway, they destroy him, the Jesus one-
JH: No, he’s not Jesus. That’s actually really important.
JW: Is he the archangel Michael?
JH: He’s like a regent. Because at this point, the Authority or God himself, is kind of trapped in a crystal box - you can tell I read this as a child and took it really seriously - but he’s trapped in a crystal box and he’s too ancient to do anything.
JH: So, the Metatron is sort of… an authoritarian… figure who intends to start intervening in human life on behalf of God.
JW: So he’s more the Church than Jesus, you think? Well, the sort of…
JH: I think in Pullman’s mind, he kind of represents the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church and God himself is this kind of non-entity who is used as a kind of stand-in to justify heinous acts.
JW: Because Pullman wrote this book for adults, which I must say I haven’t read, called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
JH: I haven’t read that, that either.
JW: Which I believe is based on the fact that Jesus himself - good bloke.
JW: Possibly, yes, that’s right. So really, like, good bloke. But Christ is a sort of shadowy alter ego, the churchy bit. That line by Tom Waits. ‘You can say this is gospel, but I say that it’s only church’.
JW: So anyway, so the Metatron, they get rid of him, as I say, in this slightly anti-climactic big climax. And then it settles down back to Lyra and Will essentially falling in love and we begin to realise what’s the real sort of climax of the book, which is the transition from innocence to experience. We mentioned the difference between children and adults, in where their dæmons work and in various other ways throughout the book. And the big change comes when Lyra, basically, has a sexual awakening. And a sexual awakening, oddly enough, cut in America, I might just read this…
JH: James always manages to make this sound dirty… I was saying to him last night that it was so wholesome in my mind before he read it to me.
JW: No, I’ve got a proper… I’ve got a proper dirty bit coming up later.
JW: But one… character we haven’t mentioned is someone called Mary Malone, who’s a doctor in our version of Oxford - so Will’s version of Oxford - who Lyra contacts and she’s been studying the Dust thing as… dark matter in our modern scientific understanding. But she makes contact with it and then joins the universe in which they’re all there. And she talks about how she used to be a nun and then she discovered human love, really. And that was… made her think. I mean, it’s slightly… there’s a possible author’s message here.
JW: She says, ‘I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God till I saw there wasn’t any God at all, and that the physics was more interesting anyway’. But, anyway, after that author’s message, she talks about love.
JW: And then it says: ‘As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happened to her body. She felt a stirring at the roots of her hair. She found herself breathing faster. She’d never been on a rollercoaster or anything like one, but if she had, she would’ve recognised the sensations in her breast. They were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued and deepened and changed as more parts of her body found themselves affected, too.’
JW: A passage entirely cut from the American edition. Interestingly. But… she’s 13, isn’t she, at this stage? It’s the transition from innocence to experience in a way, of which Pullman clearly approves… that the fall of man is a good thing. And I think… I’ll end the summary there. There is a sort of heartbreaking climax, but maybe we should spare… Maybe we should not spoil that, but essentially…
JH: Well, you just spoiled it, James.
JW: Oh sorry. Okay. Maybe we’ll, maybe we’ll cut that. So, the question, as I say, the first question that sprung to mind for me, and I’d be very interested seeing as you read it as a kid. I mean, is this a children’s book?
JH: I’m going to give a cop-out of an answer and say ‘yes and no’. My argument for ‘no’ is that it’s maybe sort of arbitrarily cast as a children’s book purely for marketing purposes.
JW: That’s sort of Pullman’s line. He seems to still be slightly annoyed about it even after 20 odd years - the idea that it’s definitely a children’s book. He argues that it was just published by children’s publishers and so that’s, for example, why the American edition had to get rid of that - the rollercoaster of her body. And also he resists the idea of fantasy, because he thinks in a way it’s… quite realistic, but just in different worlds.
JH: Well… So, I used to work as a bookseller, for about three years, and the thing that I always found really interesting is that shelving books in particular sections or under various kind of genres or categories was mainly just a classification system to benefit the people selling the novel rather than the people buying it. So often I would have customers come up to me righteously outraged that a book they felt should be in social history or political science was in self-help. You know? And in a way I feel that way about Pullman in the sense that this deeply, deeply philosophical book that, as you say, does make you want to reread Milton - in my case, it really made me want to reread William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience - that’s a lot of where Pullman drew his source material from, as well.
JW: If I can just interject, I think almost the key to it that, certainly as Pullman sees the key to the book, is Blake’s famous comment on Milton that Milton ‘was of the devil’s party without knowing it’. That essentially that Paradise Lost is on the side of Satan for taking on the… I mean, partly because Milton himself was a regicide, wasn’t he? He helped to overthrow Charles I. So, the idea that you overthrow this great sort of authority figure… Milton can’t shake off the fact that was quite a noble thing to try and do.
JW: I suppose I’d like you to answer directly my question… What on earth did you make of it when you read it as a kid?
JH: Yeah, so I was coming to this because actually what I made of it as a kid, I felt, again, quite powerfully, while I was reading it this time around - I cocooned myself for… one single day to reread this book in one massive chunk - and I felt much as I did as a child that I was just being taken on the most amazing adventure. And it was, it’s not even nostalgia that I felt because the point at which I read it, you know, I hated being a child, so I can’t even say that it made me long for childhood. I think it’s been so long since I read a novel that in some ways was quite straightforwardly a story - that had this protagonist who is on a great quest and she has friends who help her on this quest and this really concrete world that has very specific laws and logic that you kind of learn by heart and learn to follow. And I got just as absorbed in it as I was when I was… I think I read this around 11 or 12. Around 11 or 12 none of the allegorical aspects of the book really registered on a rational surface level. So I wasn’t, I mean, I was raised Catholic, but I didn’t really care too much about the-
JW: With the Church… you just saw that as baddies rather than some sort of theological..?
JH: Sort of… but I wasn’t so concerned with picking apart the text to figure out… I was just happy to let Pullman carry me. And I think that’s one of the things that, in my eyes, is what throws the idea of this being a children’s book in doubt, but equally makes me feel like it really should be called a children’s book, because it’s so open-ended and nuanced and subtle in a way that most of kids’ literature really, really isn’t. It’s a book that asks children, if they’re reading it, to make their own mind up over whether they’re on the side of… quote unquote ‘good or evil’, what they make of various characters actions, where their sympathies lie - but without moralising, without really telling them how to feel or what to think. He kind of offers you this world… this biblical retelling sheathed in fantasy and allegory and make-believe. And he just lets you go through it, lightly. And I… wish more children’s literature was like that, so I do want it to be.
JW: Yeah, no, that’s interesting. So, if we say it’s not a children’s book, then we’re underestimating children is essentially what you’re suggesting?
JH: Yeah. He treats children like they have a brain, essentially, and are capable of kind of thinking through, maybe not as in clearcut fashion as adults do, but subconsciously thinking through how they see the world, what their morality is, where they align, in a way that a lot of other kids’ books really, really don’t.
JW: You get the impression… even Philip Pullman hasn’t got it all kind of nailed. I mean he talked afterwards about… he wasn’t sure he quite explained, or he quite knew, what Dust was, even after he’d finished the whole book. You know, and there’s… bits of stories that start.. that come along and disappear. There’s a bit where when they’re going to the, what is it, the World of the Dead? Someone explains to Lyra that we have our death with us at all times, and that when the moment comes, we’re quietly sort of tapped on the shoulder and said, ‘Okay, okay mate’-
JH: Now you go!
JW: Now. Lovely, lovely but… powerful idea. That sort of goes away as well. So, there are things that just sort of come and slightly go, aren’t there? And all sorts of storytelling. We maybe should… talk about that.
JH: Well, I would say that someone who’s a really instructive figure is Mary Malone, the woman who’s supposed to play the serpent and tempt Lyra or, basically, just lead Lyra to adult knowledge or a sexual awakening. She’s a really great example of how Pullman doesn’t instruct, rather he just sort of guides here and there. There’s a point where-
JW: Up to a point, I think. I think she’s the nearest we get to an author’s message and she basically says that… there is no God and physics is all.
JH: Well see I don’t think she even really does. Because there’s a point here when she’s talking about… she’s telling Lyra and Will what it was like to leave the convent and stop being a nun and go in pursuit of science - and she’s not very clearcut on how they should think about that, either.
JH: She says, ‘While she was at the church, I knew what I should think. It was whatever the church taught me to think. And when I did science, I had to think about other things altogether. So, I never had to think about them for myself at all.’
JH: ‘But do you now?’ said, Will.
JH: ‘I think I have to,’ Mary said, trying to be accurate.
JH: ‘When you stopped believing in God,’ he went on. ‘Did you stop believing in good and evil?’
JH: ‘No, but I stopped believing that there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say that is good is a good deed because it helps someone or that it’s an evil one because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.’
JH: ‘Yes,’ said Lyra firmly.
JH: ‘Did you miss God?’ asked Will.
JH: ‘Yes,’ Mary said. ‘Terribly, and I still do. And what I miss most is the sense of being connected to the whole of the universe. I used to feel I was connected to God like that, and because he was there, I was connected to the whole of his creation. But if he’s not there, then…’
JH: And she kind of trails off, and that trailing off is a really great sort of… but what then, what if?
JW: No, I think Pullman himself is… There’s a great interview, which I commend to our listeners, him and Mary Beard on BBC iPlayer…just basically old intellectual types… sort of talking about anything. But both of them sort of end up saying that they rather miss God, including Pullman. Actually, can I just score one for me? That bit where it says people are too complicated to have simple labels. That’s what I think is, might be a-
JH: Can’t have a dæmon!
JW: You can’t have a single dæmon. Thank you very much for a single essence of yourself… Anyway. And then so Milton, he’s got in his sights where the rebel angels take on God and lose. But in this one, it’s sort of… it’s a replay. The rebel angels take on God and win in this book. Which… that’s an astonishingly ambitious thing to do in any book, let alone a children’s book.
JW: Even in Milton, I just point out that when The Fall happens, the archangel Michael explains to - I think it’s Michael - explains to Adam what’s going happen from here on in. And he says, obviously the world’s going to be much worse now that you’ve fallen, but then Jesus will come along and redeem us. Redeem you all. And there’s the famous phrase where Adam says, ‘Oh, happy Fall.’ In fact, it was better to have fallen. So even Milton seems to be slightly on the side of original sin as well, as well as Pullman certainly is. That original sin is good because… that’s what makes us human that-
JH: Well, it’s not even sin really. I felt like that was the whole contention of Dust, you know? You think it as a burst of sin, but really it’s just human consciousness. Knowledge. And what makes up all the universes in this world. What makes them function.
JW: Another thing, another writer that he’s certainly got in his sights, and has made no bones about it, is CS Lewis, isn’t it? In a way, this is a sort of answer to Narnia. He’s slightly backtracked on that over the years, but I think it sort of clearly is… I think he seems to hate about CS Lewis and, in fact, all classic children’s literature - which I think is an interesting idea - that all the sort of golden age of children’s literature is based on the idea that it’s a bad thing to grow up. It would be great if we could just be children forever.
JH: Yeah, that’s true. That makes me think of Roald Dahl.
JW: Yeah, and I think Susan at the end of Narnia isn’t allowed into the equivalent of heaven because she’s got sort of lipstick and started to take an interest in boys and so on.
JW: And his point is actually, it’s an extremely good thing to grow up. That’s what the Dust is. Innocence becoming experience, moving from innocence to experience is not a tragic falling off or… No, it’s not a tragic falling off, actually. It’s rather a triumphant thing to happen.
JH: No, it’s great. There’s a… at the end of the book, so Lyra has this device called an alethiometer and she can read it and basically discover the truth about anything. And by the end of the book she loses her ability to read it, around the same time that she sort of hits puberty and comes into her version of knowledge and sexual awakening. And she really despairs over this because she feels like it’s the only talent she had was to be able to intuit all of the knowledge in the world. And there’s this really beautiful passage where, I think, a witch says to her, you used to be able to read it by grace, but now you’re going to have to read it through knowledge. You’re going to have to work and learn how to do it properly.
JH: And that’s such a beautiful analogy of moving from being a child to an adult, you know, without the scariness of it, or maybe actually with the scariness, but it makes it seem a lot more positive - that before you were sort of floundering around and doing things however you could, but at a certain point you… just build your life and you learn how to do these things that you are kind of stumbling around with properly, and in a way that has purpose and is… more beneficial to you as opposed to other people, which is how the alethiometer was being used previously.
JW: Yes. No, I think that’s fair. And I’ll slightly backtrack on my idea that innocence for experience is just a great triumph. Because there is… it does involve loss, doesn’t it as well. Is that true?
JW: I think you know the Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience better than I do. Has that got the same thing that it’s best… To summarise the entire Blake thing, ‘It’s better or worse’!
JH: No, but it’s really, really true. So for those who haven’t read Songs of Innocence and Experience, they’re… two pamphlets made into one book and the poems are parallels of each other. So, you have the first bit - Songs of Innocence, which are these really beautiful, straightforward - sometimes couplets, but basically with a very regular rhyming scheme - about light and the creation of life and how happy and joyful it is to be a child or a person. And then these are… replayed in the second bit of the book as Songs of Experience, which are a lot more insidious and complex and, you know, things like sex or wrath or revenge start to creep in.
JW: The poem that people will know - Tyger Tyger, burning bright.
JH: Yes. Which is a counterpart to the little lamb.
JW: Oh yeah. So little lamb is innocent… Tyger Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night is-
JH: I love that poem because it contains those beautiful sets of lines When the stars threw down their spears / And watered heaven with their tears. It’s just amazing poetry. Go read them, if you haven’t.
JH: I think even Songs of Experience counters the idea of simplicity in those first books, but in a way it’s so much better. They’re much more, even if you think about them on a kind of line-by-line sense, the poems are a greater achievement in a way. They’re more pleasurable to read. They’re a lot more complex. The first ones you… bounce through without really thinking much about them. And then the second set, you feel a lot more… enriched, presumably for, you know, the experience of innocence. I think it’s a lot like Pullman in the sense that, like Mary Malone says, there is no inherent good or evil. There’s just the experience of what your actions mean.
JW: Yes. No, and he does say, I think at the end of The Amber Spyglass, but he’s certainly said in interviews, that basically everything he’s ever read is in these books. So, we’ve done Milton, we’ve done CS Lewis, which he’s read and hated. Milton, which he’s read and loved. Blake… But there’s also others… there’s epic stuff.
JW: He used to be a teacher. And he said in that interview with Mary Beard that I mentioned, he laments the fact that teachers have to stick to a curriculum. Because he used to… basically used to tell his pupils stories from the Iliad and the Odyssey. And, of course, Pullman would have them in the absolute palm of his hand and he’d time a cliffhanger for the bell – he prided himself on that - and he wouldn’t be allowed to do that as a teacher anymore. I do slightly wonder if the pupils did think that, or whether they thought, ‘Bloody hell, Mr Pullman’s off on one again.’
JW: But anyway… so there’s certainly epic stuff, there’s even bits of the Western. There’s an armoured bear that we haven’t mentioned-
JH: Iorek Byrnison. I love the names in this book. And Lee Scoresby - an aeronaut - is a very Western figure
JW: Yes, he is. And when we first meet him - you’re definitely better on your Pullman vocab than me - he’s basically a washed-up old gunslinger, isn’t he? He’s…boozing. … and he’s just in this bar and…
JH: We should clarify this is in the first book, rather than this third one.
JW: Yes, yes it is. And Lyra basically gets him to saddle up and fight, you know. To come out one more time. I think that that’s good. See there’s a bit of Proust in there as well, because Mary Malone’s remembrance of how much when she’s a nun is that when she was a girl she ate some marzipan at a party… at the same time as she’d rather fancied a boy. And then when she’s… at a conference… when she is a nun, this rather handsome man feeds her some marzipan. And she remembers that thing. And that’s the end of-
JH: I hadn’t made that connection.
JW: That’s the end of God, really. Once that… marzipan goes in!
JH: What is it in the Proust?
JW: It’s Madeline cake.
JH: It’s Madeline, yeah.
JW: So we take Madeline cake dipped in tea and suddenly this whole… the whole memory comes back. And also, as you say, an adventure yarn with lots of fighting. And all pretty much seamlessly mixed.
JH: You kind of forget as you’re going along, because there’s this like huge sense of adventure, that they’re kids and what is happening to them - fighting rebel angels, being exploited by adults - is really…prolifically heavy stuff.
JW: One little trope I noticed that… no matter what happens, no matter how many… after the most ferocious battle with armoured bears and witches and spirits and… they always get a good kip, don’t they? Lyra just goes to sleep… always goes off to sleep. I think I’d be slightly restless after that day, but she’s just like… OK [snores]
JH: No, but you know what I really love is that… they do all of this and then he’s very careful to be, like - and their bodies really hurt. They were sore. They were dirty. It’s not like… a lot of fantasy novels - sorry Philip Pullman, but I think this does come under the category of fantasy, and that doesn’t limit it to anything else, but it is partially a fantasy novel - people will just… magically be okay after a whole day of… trekking over mountains. You know, they’ll just bounce along to the next chapter. Whereas Pullman is like, no, these people are knackered. They’re at the edge of their-
JW: No, that’s true. I know one… the price of getting the Subtle Knife is Will has to lose two of his fingers. And I kept expecting those to grow back in some magical way. They don’t do they?
JH: No, they really don’t. And they hurt. For, like, two books. It’s great. And the only thing that I… think strays away from that logic, but which I don’t mind because I have a massive crush on her, is Mrs Coulter, who is sort of eternally poised and beautiful no matter what happens to her. If she’s dishevelled, within… five minutes, she’s back to looking great. And I would argue that’s a slightly unrealistic female standard. But then again, I love Mrs Coulter and I had a crush on her when I was little and I still have a crush on her now, so I’m fine with it.
JW: I think Philip Pullman might join you in that crush, I rather get the impression. But on the non-fantasy side as well, there’s also a bit at the beginning of The Amber Spyglass where he finds a rucksack that belongs to someone who’s recently died. And one of the things he takes out of it is Kendall Mint Cake. So for the first… few chapters, he’s chewing Kendall Mint Cake, which again you imagine-
JH: Is that a real thing?
JW: Yeah, yeah. Yes, it is… and it’s particularly… well because Kendall, it’s in the Lake District.
JH: When did that go out of fashion?
JW: I don’t think it ever did, did it? It’s certainly big with hikers in the Lake District. It’s very… gives you loads of energy… especially sugar. Very minty. And then did you see the film, in which Nicole Kidman, I believe, stars as Mrs Coulter?
JH: Yeah. I’m Team Ruth Wilson. Loved Ruth Wilson since Luther. We’re just airing out all my crushes in childhood.
JW: But it was, I mean, clearly that was meant to be the first of a trilogy and my understanding of why it wasn’t… it did pretty well all over the world, but didn’t do very well in America because of it being anti-religious. And one thing you see quoted… he’s quoted in quite a lot of American sources as saying, ‘I want to undermine the Christian faith’ - in fact, in one of the answers he told the Washington Post in 2001. Now I don’t know if - I mean, first of all, fine if, you know… that seems okay to me - if he did actually say that, or whether that just sort of passed around. But anyway, it… didn’t do very well in America and as a result, there were no, there was no Book Two and Three.
JH: I feel like that opens up two interesting conversations. The first is Pullman saying that he wants to undermine Christian faith
JW: If he did say that, in those stark terms. that’s what I’m slightly…
JH: I think, you know, I view this book more as an anti-establishment, ergo anti-Church book, more than one that’s anti-spirituality. And there are several points in the book where this idea of spirituality - because what is the concept of a soul, if not spiritual? - is given a lot of credence alongside essentially the work that Pullman carries out as an author. And I’m not dissing it because… I just rewrote my second book and I frequently found myself telling people that I was swinging between crippling depression and a God complex. And it’s very similar in this set of novels where, you know, perhaps Church is bad, but the idea of a spiritual imagination or spiritual living isn’t so bad because it enables narrative, imagination. It enables all the things that basically lead one to write a novel.
JW: No, I was working on theory, which I haven’t fully worked out, that that idea of Blake’s - that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it - whether Pullman’s of God’s party without knowing it.
JW: Okay, Jo, well, I did promise you that I had worse filth than the bit before so, I’m afraid, prepare to have your childhood dreams slightly shattered even more.
JH: It’s not dreams, James, it’s memories. It’s heartfelt memories that you’re ruining right now.
JW: Here we go, it’s one of those memory-ruining lines. So this is Will and Lyra. ‘Will put his hand on hers. A new mood had taken hold of him and he felt resolute and peaceful. Knowing exactly what he was doing and exactly what it would mean, he moved his hand from Lyra’s wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her daemon. Lyra gasped.’ Well, you would! ‘But her surprise was mixed with a pleasure so like the joy that flooded through her when she had put the fruit to his lips, that she couldn’t protest because she was breathless. With a racing heart, she responded in the same way. She put her hand on the silky warmth of Will’s daemon and as her fingers tightened in the fur, she knew that Will was feeling exactly what she was.’ Come on, that is filth!
JH: Thanks, James.
JW: I suppose one thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is a Booker Prize podcast. We haven’t mentioned the Booker Prize yet. Apart from the fact that this was… Well, I introduced it as the only children’s book ever longlisted for the Booker Prize. So where do we stand on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time? This is where it all gets a little – that was longlisted as well.
JH: It’s very woolly. I haven’t read it.
JW: I’ve read it. I think… it’s really good and I have no idea if it’s children’s book or not, but then felt the same about His Dark Materials.
JH: It’s very interesting.
JW: Maybe it isn’t. I don’t think it is necessarily - I don’t want to invalidate my own introduction maybe. So this is the only one, and it, I mean, it was a good year, 2001. It was won by True History of the Kelly Gang. Although the hot favourite was Atonement by Ian McEwen. I think it’s, it’s pretty good.
JH: Oh, it’s amazing. Another child at the centre of the narrative, in that one.
JW: Indeed, indeed. I mean, you might be more in touch again, if such a thing can be imagined, with recent children’s literature, but I mean… is there lots of great stuff going on in children’s books? Should more children’s books have been shortlisted or longlisted for the Booker, do you think?
JH: I can’t quite think of any children’s books that match what Pullman does in the His Dark Materials trilogy. And I was also a huge fan of the Sally Lockhart series, which he also wrote. And those don’t hand hold a candle to these, either. I feel like he’s created an incredibly singular achievement.
JH: It’s interesting, because there’s nothing in Booker submissions guidelines that stops people from submitting children’s fiction or any kind of genre fiction. The remit is just that you need to believe that it’s good quality literature, that the author is alive at the time of submission, and I think that the work is published in English, and that the press that publishes it releases two books, or two novels, a year. That’s the only thing you really need to submit for the Booker Prize.
JH: I was running through what I read as a child last night, to see if there’s anything I wished had made it onto a Booker longlist or shortlist. I really couldn’t think of anything. It’s not to say that I didn’t have some great reading through childhood: Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket - although he wouldn’t have qualified at that point because Americans hadn’t been let in yet. And I do wonder, you know, if A Series of Unfortunate Events were to be published as one massive book, would that stand a chance, because that’s similarly kind of morally murky and strange, but maybe… I don’t know, these books are really incomparable.
JH: To anything.
JW: I must say, nothing I read as a child I could think… would be on the Booker shortlist. My memory, which is now getting a bit faint, is cutting from… William and Billy Bunter and straight to Agatha Christie at about the age of 10 or 11. Or even 12, even. And then I read things like The Silver Sword - a really good book, but I think that was the 50s. There’s ones you read that you thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a bit… a cut above the, my usual fare’.
JH: To our faithful listeners. If there is a children’s book that you can think of that… could potentially have been longlisted, shortlisted, or even won - please, please tell us. The only thing that’s really creeping to my mind, and I’m not sure because I read it so long ago, but something like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. But again, can you really call that a children’s book? I’d love to hear about a clearcut children’s book that could have potentially made it onto a Booker longlist, at least. Okay, so.
JW: I suppose again, what seems to be becoming a traditional question is: who would you recommend this to? Children, adults?
JW: I’m with you. I think everyone - and this was just not… I think the reason I’d never read it before is it doesn’t seem a direct mail shot. And partly marketed as a children’s book. Partly it is quite fantasy, which is not one of my big favourite things.
JH: No, but it’s… so sprawling.
JW: It’s so… so much else. And so much of everything. Yes. And I think it’s fantastic. I would warmly recommend it to anybody actually.
JW: Okay, Jo, time for our Booker Clinic, where we answer questions from listeners about recommending books to help them solve their problems. What’s our problem today, that we’re solving instantly?
JH: Our problem is -‘Having survived the trials of early parenthood, my children are now sleeping through, and I have sufficient time and mental concentration to start reading again. What book should I choose to reintroduce me to the joys of reading?’
JW: Okay. Let me take a couple of shots at this. As ever, slightly off the top of the head. I always think for the joys of reading, for sheer pleasure, I would always recommend Raymond Chandler. I think they’re brilliant. They’re… and I’ve read them, you know, when sick or… my mum read them when having children… maybe it’s just a family thing when you just… They’re wonderful to read and they’re not hard, but they are brilliant. They are, you know, it’s the classic hardboiled, sort of invented, LA hardboiled detective fiction. You know, things like, ‘It was a blonde, a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’, all that kind of stuff.
JH: But interestingly enough, Chandler himself was an English public schoolboy, went to Dulwich and, I think we’ve had this before, but Chandler and PG Wodehouse both had the same English teacher at Dulwich College. I mean, imagine looking back on your teaching career and thinking, well, I taught two of the greatest stylists of the 20th century.
JH: So, Chandler, and then if you want to sort of flashback and or to celebrate the fact that you’re free of this, I think one of the best writers about having small children is Helen Simpson, who wrote - perhaps significantly - wrote short stories rather than epic novels because she had small children. I know there’s one scene I remember in particular where there’s a couple on holiday with their small kids and the husband sort of goes off rather suspiciously for an hour, an hour and a half. And when he comes back, it’s not that he’s drunk or that he is been, you know, on the beach, you know or anything. And she realises what’s up and she says to him, ‘You’ve been reading!’ and the poor bloke has just snuck off for an hour with his book, and is obviously not allowed.
JH: And I think this, the collection that I’m pretty sure I’m thinking of, is her first one, Four Bare Legs in a Bed. She then goes on to write about having all the children than that. But if you want to remember those sleepless, hideous nights, then I think it’s Four Bare Legs in a Bed by Helen Simpson. I recommend all their work. She’s fantastic.
JH: I did have a… rough patch of reading around the end of my undergraduate degree, because I’d done so much of it and I really just didn’t want to read anymore. And the thing that got me back into it were the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn. And I think Mother’s Milk at some point was either longlisted or shortlisted.
JW: Shortlisted, it was, yeah. Because I had a friend on the judging panel who was actually heartbroken that Mother’s Milk didn’t win.
JH: Well, Mother’s Milk. I don’t know if for your purposes, dear listener, this really works, because it is a book about family upheaval, generally, and the main character, Patrick Melrose, is kind of suffering both the breakdown of his marriage and also his mother has requested that he effectively aid her in committing suicide. But that makes it sound really, really heavy. But it’s so pithily done, I mean -
JW: It’s funny, it’s really funny. It’s so funny. Line by line, it’s really, really funny.
JH: And they are fairly slender books. The whole of them, all four of them, I think it is?
JW: I think five by the end.
JH: It’s a lot, but… each one is actually quite slim. And you’d think they’d be tragic because they do concern fairly tragic family subject matter. But the thing is, Edward St Aubyn is so scathing, and I think the thing that really brought me back to reading, because of those books, was just remembering that I could laugh at a novel, even if it did contain serious subject matter. I could cackle.
JW: It’s funny that you’ve reminded me that if you want to read a Raymond Chandler that’s got a slightly smug title in the circumstances: The Big Sleep. You can finally have a big sleep.
JH: But if you have a dilemma that you think that books might remedy… To be honest with you, before we actually went on air, the problems were coming from the four corners of the producer’s laptop… But now we want to throw it over to everybody! So please do send any queries you might have to the Booker Clinic.
JH: Which you can do by sending an email to [email protected]. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do leave us a rating in a review. You can also sign up to our Substack at the Booker Prizes where you’ll get long reads, exclusive content and prize updates. And finally, please do follow us on all our socials at the Booker Prizes.
JW: Thanks so much. And of course, we don’t say that in a needy way. It’s been great to be with you today, talking about Philip Pullman and it’s goodbye from me.
JH: And me. See you next time.
JW: The Booker Prize Podcast is hosted by Jo Hamya and me, James Walton. It’s produced and edited by Benjamin Sutton, and the executive producer is John Davenport, in a Daddy’s SuperYacht production for the Booker Prizes.