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Author combines adventure with allegory
Philip Pullman weaves spell with 'His Dark Materials'
(CNN) -- At first glance, Philip Pullman's books appear to be children's books -- fantasy, specifically, and the label makes sense. The books from "His Dark Materials" trilogy are filled with talking animals, "daemons" and a future-telling device called an alethiometer.
His work's popularity, though, extends beyond grade school as readers of all ages have eagerly snapped up the first two installments of the three-part series. His latest, "The Amber Spyglass," is no exception.
The frenzy over this last book appears to have taken Pullman's American publisher, Knopf, by surprise. Before "The Amber Spyglass"' release date, the company offered 1,000 pre-publication copies of "Spyglass" to bookstores for use as a promotional item. The outlets responded with 200,000 requests for the book in two hours.
Advance orders on Amazon.com of "The Amber Spyglass" drove it to the No. 8 spot on the Web site's bestseller list before it hit stores October 10. The book is currently No. 5 on The New York Times' children's bestseller list.
What's the attraction?
The trilogy follows the adventures of young Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in Oxford, England. In the first book, "The Golden Compass," Lyra embarks on a mission to rescue children who are being kidnapped by beings called Gobblers, but before she leaves, overhears a conversation about a mysterious entity called Dust.
In book No. 2, "The Subtle Knife," Lyra has rescued the children, but now is on a quest to find out more about Dust. She's joined by Will Parry, a boy on his own quest -- to find his missing father. At the end of the book, Lyra has been kidnapped, sending Will on a new journey, which is chronicled in "The Amber Spyglass."
Each book's title features the object around which the story revolves. The golden compass is a truth-seeing device that reveals Lyra's destiny to commit a betrayal that will determine the future; the subtle knife is a blade so sharp it cuts through the material between different worlds; and the amber spyglass, a device for seeing the mysterious Dust.
The books abound with a host of villains and mysterious figures: Specters, the phantom-like beings that feed on the consciousness of adults, cattle-like creatures called mulefa, and Gallivespians -- tiny spies.
Realism, not fantasy
Children's fantasy? No, it's "stark realism," Pullman said in a recent interview.
There are, indeed, fantastical creations throughout the trilogy, but Pullman says he uses them to reflect certain truths about human nature, not merely for decoration.
In "The Golden Compass," we meet daemons, the animal soul mates of humans in Lyra's world. Daemons can change form as long as their soul mates are children, but once they become adults, those creatures become fixed -- a reflection of "the inner nature of its human."
"Books which satisfy us and feed us and nourish us have to have this substratum of genuine truth in them," Pullman said. "And I don't see much of that in most fantasy."
Rewriting Adam and Eve
Pullman began the trilogy with an outline of the whole story already mapped out in his head. It began as a "series of unconnected pictures," he said, about growing up, innocence, love and betrayal. It can be viewed as coming-of-age adventure story or a sophisticated, allegorical retelling of man's beginnings.
The trilogy's title comes from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the epic poem about man's creation, redemption and fall: "Unless the almighty maker them ordain/His dark materials to create more worlds."
Pullman uses themes of good versus evil, betrayal and morality from the story of Adam and Eve to explore the young travelers' loss of innocence and their struggle toward self-awareness and knowledge.
He also challenges traditional Christian concepts in the trilogy. The fall of man was not the "source of all woe and misery," as he called it in an earlier interview with his publisher. Instead, Pullman depicts the fall as "the beginning of true human freedom -- something to be celebrated, not lamented."
Fans of all ages
Pullman's previous works include plays, picture books and a series featuring a young Victorian heroine. Still, Pullman doesn't consider himself an author of young-adult stories.
"I don't know about this business of writing 'for' this audience of that one ... it shuts out more readers than it includes," he said. "If I think of my audience at all, I think of a group that includes adults, children, male, female, old, middle-aged, young -- everyone who can read. If horses, dogs, cats or pigeons could read, they'd be welcome to it as well."
Pullman says he was "gratified" to learn that his trilogy had adult fans.
In an essay for Amazon.com, novelist Margot Livesey ("The Missing World," "Criminals") wrote that she was reluctant to read his books, but "underwent a profound experience" a half-hour after she opened the first book.
Younger readers are just as enthralled. "From page one, I could not put it ("The Golden Compass") down," a youngster wrote in an online review. "I was staying up ... just so I could finish that last sentence of the chapter. With every chapter, I was thirsty for more."
Storyteller, not a writer
Pullman has stressed in the past that he is, foremost, a storyteller. "The story is paramount," he said in his 1996 acceptance speech for the Carnegie Medal, England's highest honor for children's literature.
"In a book for children, you can't put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated," he said. "They've got more important things in mind than your dazzling wordplay. They want to know what happens next."
But not only children need a good yarn, Pullman said.
"There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too," he said. "We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them."
Pullman has plenty of experience as a storyteller. After graduating from Exeter College, Oxford, England, with a degree in English, he spent 12 years as a schoolteacher, writing plays for his students to perform. Some of his later works were based on plays he wrote for his students. He also taught courses on the Victorian novel and the folk tale at Westminster College, Oxford. He now writes full-time.
After spending the better part of a decade writing "His Dark Materials," Pullman has no intention of slowing down. He hasn't ruled out revisiting Lyra and Will at a later date, and has several new projects in the works, including a dark thriller for adults.
The film rights to "His Dark Materials" have been sold. While there are no plans yet to make a movie, Pullman says he'll be happy to sit back and let someone else tell the story for a change.
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)
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