Philip Pullman’s most avid fans probably know him from “His Dark Materials,” a masterful trilogy of fantasy novels. They might guess from his writing that he’s also formidably well-read, opinionated on topics from religion to realism.
We get all facets of the author and scholar in Daemon Voices, a collection of essays and speeches gathered under the umbrella of “stories and storytelling.” Some pieces illuminate Pullman’s path to his own finished books, but the range is much broader, a kaleidoscope of topics viewed through Pullman’s particular lens.
Speaking at venues as diverse as a science fiction convention and a study day at Oxford College, Pullman explores his own atheism, the scientific metaphor of phase space, the artistry of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” and his distaste for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, among many other subjects. Always, he finds a greater truth in smaller observations, as when he draws readers through a new look at Edouard Manet’s classic painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere”:
“Art does not progress by improving what came before, by doing to it what chemistry did to alchemy: art does not progress in that sense at all. Great art has always had this double character, this ability to look at the world and to look at itself at the same time, and the greatest art is perhaps where we see the two things in perfect balance.”
Pullman, a former middle school teacher and former college professor, doesn’t like to slap age recommendations on books – he led a 2008 campaign against it – but adults were the original audience for most of these meditations, and it’s hard to imagine most younger fans plowing through them. His description of discovering William Blake’s poems, though (Pullman is president of the William Blake Society), would inspire anyone who is 16, as he was, or who remembers that age:
“I knew they were true in the way I knew that I was alive. I had stumbled into a country in which I was not a stranger, whose language I spoke by instinct, whose habits and customs fitted me like my own skin.”
The book’s not a beach read (I tried!), but Pullman can unwind certain dense topics as lyrically as a poet. We’re informed by his ruminations on favorites like John Milton (“Paradise Lost” was a major influence on His Dark Materials, as was Blake – as also, he discusses here, was an 1810 essay by German writer Henrich von Kleist.) He allies himself with readers, saying that “we all, if we’re honest” have experienced the ferocity of an intense read – an “obsessive, merciless, solitary, amoral, almost savage devouring of a text.” And he sees through the eyes of writers, talking not just about his own books, but imagining, for instance, Charles Dickens working on Oliver Twist. “There are few excitements comparable to that of sensing, not quite visible yet but nearby, very close, only an arm’s length away, a new kind of story to tell. The 24-year-old Dickens must have sensed the whole of his nature leaping to the idea like a magnet to a steel rod.” Diehard Dark Materials fans will also hear about the deeper meaning of “the mysterious entity I call Dust” in the books, the relationship of Pullman’s imaginary Oxford to the real one (“perhaps a great deal of Oxford is imaginary anyway”), and other items of interest.
Some of the topics in "Daemon Voices" are so specifically linked to events, publications, or particular audiences that they feel a little out of place collected back-to-back. (“Thank you very much for inviting me here,” begins one. Another starts out “I am very honoured to have been asked to give the Patrick Hardy lecture.”) More frustrating – and hard to avoid in this format – are the repetitions. Naturally, an author speaking before different groups of people will tell some of the same stories or points.
For this, among other reasons, it’s not a book to read in one sitting. Dipping in and out of it, though, the restatements seem to build a case, serving as reminders rather than frustrations. It’s particularly worth returning to Pullman’s thoughts on one of the topics he’s questioned about most: whether authors can or should weigh in on the meanings of their own work.
Pullman believes an author’s view is only slightly more authoritative than the reader’s, granting authors that extra edge only because of their greater familiarity with the text.
Different readers, Pullman reminds us, approach any work with their own different expectations, intellectual abilities, experiences, and predictions.
“We have to bring something to the text, and put something into it, in order to get anything out,” he wrote.
“This is the great democracy of reading and writing – it makes the reader a true partner in the making of meaning.”