One of the editions of His Dark Materials that has given me a lot of pleasure is the Folio Society one that was published in 2008.
Folio Society books are beautifully designed and printed, and the illustrations are often superb. In the case of His Dark Materials the illustrator was Peter Bailey, who had drawn the pictures for my four fairy tales, and his work for this edition is magnificent. On the right are some examples.
Folio Illustration from The Northern Lights
Sometimes, by chance or fate or the workings of an inscrutable Providence, we meet exactly the right work of art at exactly the right time to have the maximum impact on us. We raise the steel-framed umbrella just as the thunderbolt gathers in the cloud.
For me, this happened one day in 1978, when I came across an essay in the Times Literary Supplement by an author I’d never heard of: Heinrich von Kleist. It was called On the Marionette Theatre, and it was translated and introduced by Idris Parry. It had the force of a revelation. The theme of the essay (it’s very short) was the difference between innocence and experience: the contrast between the unconscious grace of a child, an animal, or a puppet, and the clumsy self-consciousness of those who are older, further from the inanimate, more tangled in the nets of reason and thought.
The theme interested me firstly because I loved and revered William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which as Blake said were written to show those contrary states of the human soul; and secondly because my own childhood and adolescence were still painful and fresh in my mind, though I’d left them behind over fifteen years before; and thirdly because in 1978 I was a schoolteacher, and my pupils were at the age when they were going through precisely the sort of change described by Kleist. At some point in a young life comes the realisation, for example, that the paintings they used to do so joyously and freely when they were very young, and which expressed joy and freedom so vividly, are not as finished, not as practised and skilful, as the paintings that hang on gallery walls or the pictures they can see in books. The child becomes self-conscious about art; rejects the work of a year or two before as “stupid, childish”; says “Oh, I can’t draw.” And as often as not, gives up.
Folio Illustration from The Subtle Knife
So far, so conventional. Grace and innocence are a paradise from which we are cast out, and all we can do is lament. That view of things is what underlies a great deal of children’s literature of the so-called “golden age”, which at its worst wallows in a sort of sickly nostalgia for nursery teas, and teddy bears, and bathtime, and wishes it had never grown up.
Where Kleist’s essay differed from this was in its bracing optimism. We can’t go back, he says; as with the original Paradise, an angel with a flaming sword guards the way; if we want to return we have to go all the way around the world, and re-enter Paradise through the back gate, as it were. In other words, since we cannot dwell forever in the paradise of childhood, we have to go forward, through the disappointments and compromises and betrayals of experience, towards the fully conscious kind of grace that we call wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent. “Grace appears most purely in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite consciousness,” as Kleist puts it. “That is, in the puppet or in the god.”
I thought about Kleist’s essay and everything it implied for a long time, but I didn’t think of writing anything about it. There was nothing I could add to what was already perfect. It became part of the way I thought about everything.
Folio Illustration from The Amber Spyglass
Then one day I found myself beginning to write a long story of a sort I hadn’t tried before, a sort I could only call fantasy. There was another world, and there were landscapes of Arctic wildness and Gothic complexity, there were gigantic figures of moral darkness and light engaging in a conflict whose causes and outcome were invisible to me. And it began with a little girl going into a room where she shouldn’t go, and having to hide when someone comes in, and then overhearing a conversation whose meaning she doesn’t fully understand, but which fills her with a sense of excitement and dread …
I daresay some writers begin with a theme they want to write about, and then find a story to fit it, and characters to embody the various arguments within it, and so on. I never do. It would feel mechanical, contrived. I don’t know what my theme is until the story is already well under way.
And it wasn’t until this story was advanced enough for me to have written a dozen or more versions of the first chapter, and to have discovered that Lyra had a dæmon called Pantalaimon who could change shape and who was a part of her very self, that I discovered what the theme of this book was. I discovered it in the same moment that I realised something very important about dæmons, which was that whereas children’s dæmons could change shape, adult dæmons couldn’t.
Because I knew enough about storytelling by that time to know that if something doesn’t help, it’ll hinder. If a shape-changing daemon were something that every character had as a matter of course, the reader would get fed up with it, and so would I, because it would mean nothing. It would be a silly bit of decoration that had no purpose or significance.
But if the difference between children and adults were this visible and dramatic …
And if the theme of the whole story were this very change from innocence to experience …
Then all kinds of possibilities opened up, including the possibility, after a dozen years or more, of doing something like justice to the matters touched on so lightly, so gracefully, in that essay on the marionette theatre by Kleist.
My debt to Kleist doesn’t quite end with adopting his theme. There is a bear in his essay, and there happens to be a bear in my story as well, and at one point I stole an incident involving Kleist’s bear and gave it to mine. I hope I shall be forgiven for that, because after all I can hardly own up to it without drawing attention to that wonderful essay in the first place. My story is much longer than the essay, but that is because I am much less of a genius than Kleist was; he managed to say in 2500 words or so what I could only cram into 1200 pages. Nevertheless, I think there are some incidents in the story that might divert the reader, and a character or two who might engage the interest and affection. I hope so, anyway. It is my way of thanking Providence, or chance, or fate, for that original and unforgettable thunderbolt.
Here is a link to the text of Kleist’s essay:
Preface and Peter Bailey’s pictures reproduced by permission of the Folio Society