It was 1993 when I thought of Lyra and began writing His Dark Materials. John Major was prime minister, the UK was still in the EU, there was no Facebook or Twitter or Google, and although I had a computer and could word-process on it, I didn’t have email. No one I knew had email, so I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway. If I wanted to look something up I went to the library; if I wanted to buy a book I went to a bookshop. There were only four terrestrial TV channels, and if you forgot to record a programme you’d wanted to watch, tough luck. Smart phones and iPads and text messaging had never been heard of. The announcers on Radio 3 had not yet started trying to be our warm and chatty friends. The BBC and the National Health Service were as much part of our identity, of our idea of ourselves as a nation, as Stonehenge.
Twenty-seven years later I’m still writing about Lyra, and meanwhile the world has been utterly transformed.
To some extent, my story was protected from awkward change because I set it in a world that was not ours. It was like ours, but different, so I could take account of the real-world changes that helped my story, and ignore those that didn’t. I didn’t want to write a pure fantasy of the Tolkien sort, unconnected at any point with the real world, because the real world was exactly what fiction ought to be dealing with; but I’d always felt ignorant about the real world, whatever and wherever that was. I could probably have written a realistic novel about teaching in the sort of school I was teaching in at the time, but I didn’t want to, probably because I wouldn’t have wanted to read one; and because of a combination of timidity and idleness, I knew practically nothing about anything else.
The only stories I could write confidently were set in this world at another time (the Sally Lockhart series, set in the 1870s and 80s), or fairy tales (Clockwork, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, and so on), or at our own time in another world: the kind of thing that became His Dark Materials. I hoped this new venture would turn out to let me write realistically about human beings while making up whatever they needed by way of a world to live and breathe and move and work in.
It wasn’t until I’d got halfway through Northern Lights that I realised I was writing a story about leaving childhood behind
Surely it should be possible to write fantasy (if that was what this was: I still don’t like that term) so as to embody a theme from the real world?
But that aim or purpose, or theme, wasn’t where I started. It’s far too abstract. I know some writers do start with a theme and make up a story to illustrate it, and some fine books have been written like that. But I can’t work in that way. In fact I don’t start with a theme in mind at all, but with characters in particular situations. If I’m lucky a theme becomes visible to me before I reach the end of the story, so I can go back and cut, or shape, or move, or amplify, or reduce various parts of the text in order to clarify the theme I’m beginning to see.
In the case of His Dark Materials, it wasn’t until I’d got halfway through the first part, Northern Lights, that I realised I was writing a story about leaving childhood behind, or the journey from innocence to experience. I was happy to discover that, because I thought I might have something to say about it; I was just rather surprised to find that the story I was writing had been perfectly shaped, no doubt by my unconscious mind, to contain and express it.
Anyway, the final part, The Amber Spyglass, was published in 2000, and I went on to write other things. But Lyra hadn’t finished the journey towards experience: she’d only begun it. There were many things she had yet to learn, and I was curious to see how this would happen.
So in 2004 I wrote a short story which I called Serpentine, set five years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, in which I discovered that Lyra’s lifelong and mutually devoted relationship with her dæmon Pantalaimon had a flaw in it, just the smallest hint of a crack or fracture; nothing serious just then, but it contained the possibility of something extremely serious that might come later on.
Dafne Keen as Lyra, with Pantalaimon, in the BBC’s
His Dark Materials. Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO
By the time of The Secret Commonwealth (2019), the action of which takes place when Lyra is 20 years old, that crack has secretly snaked its way between them, and become a gulf. Other factors have contributed to this estrangement, not least the influence of two books Lyra has been reading, both of which Pantalaimon detests: one of them sternly rejects the illogical, the irrational, the imagination, while the other rejects the possibility of truth altogether. Finally, unhappy and impatient, he vanishes, leaving her devastated.
I certainly hadn’t seen this coming back in 1993, when I discovered that Lyra had a dæmon, but it did provide a vivid way of picturing something I’d been obsessed by for years: the cast of mind that William James called “the Sick Soul” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902). A profound sense of alienation, from oneself and from the rest of life, is something Lyra is experiencing right now, as I continue to write about her. In her world this can be dramatised or pictured by the loss of her dæmon, but it’s an experience that torments its victims just as savagely in our own world, where it has no such visible consequence. The condition I mean can vary in intensity; at one end it’s experienced as something mild, no more than a lowness of spirits, a wistful sadness, an almost sensuous languishing in autumnal nostalgia. At the other end it’s monstrous, pitiless. It makes you hate yourself, and it can kill you. Medication might be able to dull it a little, and kindness helps; but it can’t be cured by reason. Rationality itself breaks down and retreats in confusion. This is something that Pantalaimon has to learn as well as Lyra, but I can’t say any more about it here. The story is still working itself out.
And it’s not only Lyra and Pan who have changed: their world has become a different and harsher place. The Magisterium, that loose assembly of different organisations that embodied the authority of the church, has come together in a single body with a single leader, and is so much the more of a threat to freedom of thought and speech. At the same time, civic and public life in Brytain and elsewhere is coming more and more under the influence of large corporations and other bodies with no democratic accountability. Turmoil in the Middle East and Central Asia has forced thousands of refugees to flee their homelands and take to the sea in the hope of reaching safety.
Lyra is caught up in all this political activity, and has to find a way through it that’s true to her vision of “the republic of heaven”. And the crux of it all is her, and our, understanding of the term imagination. Pantalaimon leaves her, so he says, in order to search for the imagination he claims she’s lost. She is surprised to find how hurt she feels by this accusation. After all, wasn’t a great deal of her childhood success as a liar, that talent that kept her alive in more than one desperately dangerous situation, due to her imagination?
Pantalaimon leaves Lyra, so he says, in order to search for the imagination he claims she’s lost
Well, not quite. As early as Chapter 15 of Northern Lights, I’d said of Lyra that “Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.” Imagination, as Pantalaimon understands, is not just a superficial facility for making things up. It’s much deeper, much more complex and mysterious than that, and it involves the whole of our being. A good deal of my own thinking about the imagination has been illuminated by William Blake, of course, and also by Iain McGilchrist’s inexhaustible book The Master and His Emissary, which explores the profound difference between the left and right halves of the brain.
But it’s not hard to be so affected by the powerful ideas of this poet or that philosopher that we end up by creeping about in our own invented worlds trying not to make a noise or knock something over, and checking everything we write against the authority of the great thinkers whose influence has come to dominate us. I learned long ago that while their authority might be supreme in their own books, in my book the authority was mine. I make the rules here.
Most of the rules elsewhere, though, are increasingly policed by algorithms. The publishing life of His Dark Materials happened to coincide with several enormous changes in the world of bookselling and publishing, all connected: the end of the net book agreement and the arrival of the massive discounting of bestsellers, the vast sudden undreamed-of might of Amazon and online bookselling, and the development of electronic point-of-sale data such as Nielsen BookScan, which enabled publishers to keep a much closer eye on what was actually selling.
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra with Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter in
The Golden Compass (2007). Photograph: Laurie Sparham/New Line Cinema
These developments affected His Dark Materials as they did every other book published in the past 25 years or so. I’m often asked whether the stories about Lyra are children’s books or not, because apparently they don’t seem like it. Sometimes categories like children’s book seem like the idea of species in the era before Darwin: divisions that are fixed, essential, ordained by God. But labels such as true crime, biography, fiction in translation, children’s books, travel, mind body and spirit and so on are there to help publicists, booksellers, librarians, marketing researchers, literary editors, and (ultimately) accountants. They were not developed to help writers. Our job is to tell the story as well as we can, not to decide how to sell it or work out which shelf to put it on; that’s someone else’s job. Northern Lights and its successors were initially marketed for children, reviewed by children’s literature experts, sold in children’s bookshops, confined to children’s libraries and so on, not because that was what I had wanted or intended or hoped for, but because they were published by a children’s publisher, so they had to be categorised as children’s books, for reasons that had more to do with algorithms than with anything else.
But these frontiers are permeable. Readers, I’m glad to say, seem to take little notice of them. Parents were happy enough to read His Dark Materials if urged to by their children; and I’ve often noticed that the most popular shelf in the library is the one labelled “Returned Books”, where the books are put before they’re sorted out and put back tidily in their proper places. Serendipity is a much better guide to discovery and pleasure than knowing what you like and sticking to it. There are large areas of life where algorithms are no help.
And I’m still writing about Lyra, but I’m fairly sure that this book will be the last. Whether my last or hers remains to be seen.
Illustration: Chris Wormell
Read an extract from Serpentine
Ever since Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon had been reunited, following their terrible parting on the shores of the world of the dead, Lyra had wanted to ask him about the time he’d spent away from her. But she had the obscure sense that she shouldn’t ask him directly: he would tell her when he wanted to. However, time went past, and still he didn’t, and it began to trouble her.
This feeling came to a head during a visit she paid to the northern lands (a year after the witch Yelena Pazhets had nearly killed her in Oxford: the time when Lyra had been saved by the birds). The curse of Bolvangar had been lifted, but the northern lands had still not recovered from the climatic devastation Lord Asriel had caused. However, the retreat of the snows and the loosening of the permafrost meant that all kinds of archaeological work was possible, and Jordan College sponsored a dig in the region of Trollesund to investigate some recently discovered settlements of the Proto-Fisher people.
Naturally, Lyra demanded to go too; but they made her work. So she slept in a tent and spent days sifting through the squalid rubbish in a mud-filled midden, while Pantalaimon snapped at mosquitoes; and as soon as the chance came, she begged a ride on the weekly supply-run into the town. She wanted to look at the places she remembered: the sledge depôt where she’d bargained with Iorek Byrnison, the dockside where she’d met Lee Scoresby, and the house of the witch-consul Dr Lanselius.
“Two hours, Lyra,” said Duncan Armstrong, the graduate student who was driving the tractor, as they drew up outside the General Post Office. “If you’re not here at three o’clock precisely, I’ll go without you.”
“You don’t trust us,” she said.
The sledge depôt was empty and derelict, but she found Einarsson’s Bar, where in the yard next to the alley she’d had her first sight of an armoured bear, and watched Iorek swallowing a gallon of raw spirits and heard him speak of his captivity. The yard looked just the same, with a rusty shack leaning over in a sea of mud. The docks, though, looked very different: the buildings she remembered were half underwater, and new cranes and warehouses had had to be set up further back.
“It’s a mess,” said Pantalaimon severely.
“Everything’s a mess. Let’s see if Dr Lanselius is in.”
The consul represented the interests of all the witch-clans, even those who were feuding. Lyra wasn’t sure if he’d remember their first meeting, and Pan scoffed.
“Not remember us?” he said. “Of course he will!”
“When we first came I’d have been sure no one could forget us,” she agreed. “But now … I’m not so sure about things.”
• Serpentine, illustrated by Tom Duxbury, will be published by Penguin Random House Children’s (£7.99) on 15 October. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. It will also be available in ebook, audiobook, download and CD.