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Philip Pullman Returns To The Dark Materials Universe In A New Prequel — Er, 'Equel'

Author Philip Pullman — pictured at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England — is resurrecting his famed fantasy world for a new trilogy.
Daniel Leal-Olivas
AFP/Getty Images
Author Philip Pullman — pictured at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England — is resurrecting his famed fantasy world for a new trilogy.

The world Philip Pullman created is back—in his hands, and now ours.

The His Dark Materials trilogy, which was introduced more than 20 years ago with a book called The Golden Compass, is set in a world ruled by theocratic overlords collectively known as the Magisterium, and in which children often disappear into the hands of people called the Gobblers. However, human souls — especially those of children — take shape outside their bodies as daemons: talking animal spirits who give humans aid, comfort and companionship.

That world has been called, "the last great fantasy masterpiece of the 20th Century" (in the Cincinnati Enquirer) and has been honored with the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Book of the Year and many other awards. Now, the His Dark Materials universe returns with the first book of a new trilogy called The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. With a first printing of a half-million copies, it arrives with a global publicity campaign unseen since Harry Potter.

La Belle Sauvage precedes the previous series by 10 years, and the second and third books in The Book Of Dust take place 10 years after the action in His Dark Materials. But Pullman says these books are not exactly prequels or sequels, but "equels."

"I could see the shadow of another story waiting to be told," he says. "At the end of His Dark Materials, the heroine, Lyra, is about 12 years old. Now she's at the very beginning of her adolescence. She's going to be a teenager, she's going to grow up, she's going to become a young woman, she's going to have a life and a profession. All that was very interesting to me, and I wondered how she would get on, how she would cope with and what would happen around her. Because the world isn't going to remain fixed either – things are dynamic and they're going to change."

Interview Highlights

On teaching middle school in Oxford

That was over 20 years ago – over 30 years ago, what am I talking about, I'm getting old. It was a time in our country before there was such a thing as a national framework for education. So I had a kind of freedom to tell stories that I wanted to tell – stories that I thought the students would enjoy, and even stories I thought they might remember years later.

And I learned a great deal from it about myself as a storyteller. Things like timing – you know, if you know the lesson's going to come to an end and there's going to be a bell ringing in four minutes, you've got exactly four minutes to get to that point in the story at maximum suspense so they all want to come back next time and hear what's going to happen next. So I learned all that kind of stuff, and it was extremely enjoyable, and very useful to me.

On his criticism of Winnie-the-Pooh

Yea, I was asking for trouble with that one. It's really his creator [A.A. Milne] whom I was criticizing, and it wasn't even so much Winnie-the-Pooh as his work as editor of ... the English comic magazine Punch.

Milne, as editor of Punch, printed a number of cartoons of a sort that we'll feel pretty dodgy about now. Little children, often with no clothes on in the bath or something, making sweet, cute remarks, and their beautiful mothers looking on with a fond smile on their face – it's all a bit peculiar. And I didn't like the atmosphere of a sort of unremitting nostalgia for childhood. Adults want to go back to their childhood – Milne clearly did – but children don't want to be children all their lives. They want to grow up, they want to have adult concerns, they want to get out in the world and do big things.

On his books being labeled for age and gender

I do behave a bit like a dictator when I'm writing. I have absolute power of life and death over every word, every punctuation mark, every character in the story. But when the book is finished and edited and out there in the world – in the bookstores, in the libraries – that dictatorship stops, and a democratic process begins, which is the interaction between the book and the reader. I don't like to tell ... in any case, you can't say this book is for 12-year-olds. They might not like it. It might turn out to be an ideal book for kids who are younger or older than that.

So I really criticized some publishers – not all of them, but the publishers who were trying to limit my readers to those between this age and that age. I thought, this is a very silly thing to do. I'm trying to tell a story here. Anybody who wants to stop and listen is welcome. And I don't want anybody at the door turning people away, thank you very much.

This story was produced and edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for the Web by Patrick Jarenwattananon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.