His Dark Materials

On Wednesday, 18 March 2020, we found out that Friday would be the last day of school and that they might remain closed until September or further notice. This brought up a number of questions and anxieties that I couldn’t deal with all at once. And I suppose, I didn’t need to. Not in that moment.

I decided to postpone the anxieties for a little while, and start dealing with more pressing and pragmatic matters, only one of which would be time management with the boys. I had been thinking for a while about reading a book as a family and felt that now would be the right time to do this—we were going to stay home because of the school closure and would have a lot of time to kill. The decision as to what to read was surprisingly easy: His Dark Materials. I had been waiting for an excuse or opportunity to read Philip Pullman’s trilogy.

So, immediately after reading the news about the school closure, I ordered a recent edition of the trilogy. The covers, designed by Chris Wormell, are just gorgeous.

The idea is this: my sons and I sit together each evening, and I read to them from the books. They are too old to be read to, but then perhaps you are never too old for that. My aim is to read around 30 pages a night, or as much as the chapters allow. On our first day of reading, Thursday, I read the first two chapters of Northern Lights, and we loved it. Beautiful language and a plot that makes it absolutely impossible to stop reading. Towards the end of the reading, my younger one made us hot chocolate, rounding off the evening.

To be accurate, Siavash and I loved the book immediately. Hourmazd had tried reading the book a couple of years ago at his mother’s instigation, was not taken by it and remained sceptical at first. But I had the feeling he would change his mind, and he has since. He now likes the plot and Pullman’s beautiful language. So, we continue to read every day.

At the end of the second chapter, the Master marvels whether to tell Lyra of her destiny. He knows he cannot, but believes telling her would make him less anxious. The chapter ends with this often quoted dialogue:

“That’s the duty of the old,” said the Librarian, “to be anxious on behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”
They sat for a while longer, and then parted, for it was late, and they were old and anxious.

Northern Lights, p. 33

In these trying times of coronavirus, food shortage, lock downs, and social distancing, the words of the Librarian have a peculiar feel to them. I don’t know how I would have read them before the crisis, but reading now, they seem to be written for our times. I suppose it is the ability of writing such meaningful and lyrical prose that makes Pullman the great author that he is.