When I ran across this little red book in a used bookshop in Saskatoon last summer, I snapped it up for one reason and one reason alone: because I remembered the title from this post by Adrian over at mssv.net.
Now, if you look at the post I just linked above, you’ll see that the book is, in fact, a kind of puzzle book. After I finished it, I had a sense — a very strong sense of it, one which Pullman works very hard to establish — that there was much more to the book than just the tale which was told in the main text. I felt as if there were snippets of another story — perhaps a more important story — which were scattered among the ephemera which Pullman fabricated and chose to scatter among the pages of his story. A map of Lyra’s Oxford, an Oxford in a parallel world where magic exists and mysterious [E]gyptians live in England alongside the natives; a page from a history book on places in Oxford, with some striking clues to the history of this alterate Oxford and to at least one of the characters in the main story; a postcard that according to Hon’s post and others contains pictures of places crucial to Lyra’s story in previous books; a pamphlet for a cruise line offering travel to the Middle Eas via a ship called SS Zenobia. As Pullman writes, “There are many things we haven’t yet learned to read”, and in a sense I have a feeling that a story of this sort is one of those things I have yet to learn how to read.
It’s not that I’m completely daft: after all, I come at all of this with a massive disadvantage, because Lyra’s world is otherwise completely unknown to me. I have not read any of Pullman’s other books, though I have at least one of them in my to-be-read pile, brought home from somewhere or other. But Lyra and her magical world are, almost thoroughly, an enigma to me.
However, I think I shall, as soon as I have the leisure time, remedy that. Like China Mié and a few others, it seems to me Philip Pullman is opening the little gated shire that fantasy had become, and letting fairytale and magic combine into something that is gloriously bereft of elves and dwarves and dragons and gold pieces, or reactions to them, handwavey gestures of “leaving out the elves” still set in the drudgey old pseudo-medieval world of every other weakly-imagined fantasy novel. (This may be unfair, since I’m generally hostile to swords-and-sorcery fantasy to begin with, but I have read far too much of it the bad stuff — stuff that was written as if with a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide were the main reference to how to write fantasy — not to be a little resentful and cynical.)
But no, this, this is something quite different, and I daresay this Pullman fellow may well have something worthwhile going on. More later, after further delvings. But for now, I shall set Lyra’s Oxofrd aside, and return to the deeper mysteries once I am better equipped to puzzle away at them After all, it will not take long to reread; my first time through, I read almost the whole thing just waiting at the dentist’s office.