Friday, May 18, 2007

Archives Project: STL #20

Title: Bedtime Story
Description: Philip Pullman
Date: 13 November 2003

I've been reading some pretty dense criticism and writing a pretty confused synthesis of it for nine hours now. My eyes are bleary; it's time to quit. I think I'll turn in, maybe do a little reading. Yeah, I've been reading all day, but bedtime reading is my reward for sticking with my allday reading and work. The last book I finished in bed was Philip Pullman's brand new Lyra's World. It's a small book, what they'd call a duodecimo I believe, which is to say it would fit into the inside pocket of your coat. The story "Lyra and the Birds" is only 49 pages, so if you're not too tired, you can read it all tonight, and over breakfast look at the fold-out map and other ephemera like postcards and travel ads. The story is a further adventure of Lyra, the heroine of Pullman's remarkable His Dark Materials trilogy. Those three books--The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass-- take place in a world where "experimental theology" takes the place of physics, everyone has an animal familiar, and a girl might run into witches and talking polar bears. The books are "for kids" I suppose, but the world is so sharply realized that you forget in reading them. The fact that Pullman's themes are in dialogue with Milton and Blake doesn't hurt either. And did I mention God is senile?

I haven't read those books for a couple of years so don't want to comment on them here. The new installment occurs two years after they end, and as the title indicates takes place in Pullman's London, beginning, like The Golden Compass with Lyra learning what she shouldn't in fictional Jericho College. (She's a ward of someone there, not old enough to be a student.) This story is a meditation on interpretation: "Everything means something" Lyra tells her daemon, or other self, "we just have to learn how to read it." Not to give anything away, but Lyra's first interpretation of events turns out to be wrong in the end.

I'm not sure how to read this story: is it self-contained story, or does it suggest more to come? The answer might be with the parts of the book which are not the story: the map, the postcard from a character in The Amber Spyglass (also of our world, as it turns out), even the epigraph from Baedecker all suggest travel. Perhaps our new journey is just starting with this little book. In his foreword Pullman remains coy: these extras "might be connected with the story, or they might not; they might be connected to stories that haven’t appeared yet. It's difficult to tell."

He also write that these things "might have been put down absentmindedly in another universe, and been blown by a chance wind through an open window, to find themselves... in our world." That's sort of a parable for a strong imagination like Pullman's, who can assemble such fragments into a whole that we can read and delight in. After reading Pullman, I get the idea that in the real world, Harry Potter's cute shenanigans are read only by the kids on the short bus, and J.K. Rowling grumbles in envy at Pullman's name. But in our world, we haven't yet taught children to read such imaginative richness, or maybe we're afraid to let them.