In a new series, Intelligent Life analyses the style of a well-loved author. Tim de Lisle gets the ballpoint rolling with a close look at Philip Pullman
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
Almost 150 years ago, Matthew Arnold, then professor of poetry at Oxford, gave a series of lectures, “On Translating Homer”. One point he made, about Homer’s essential qualities, has echoed down the ages. “He is eminently rapid; he is eminently plain and direct…in his syntax and his words…[and]…in his matter and ideas; and...he is eminently noble.”
Rapid, plain and direct: there is a writer of epic narrative, living near Oxford now, whose work is all this. Strip away the Victorian snobbery and Arnold could be issuing a blueprint for Philip Pullman.
Pullman has a new book out, a life of Jesus. But his masterpiece, “His Dark Materials” (1995-2000), has never gone away. It is widely recognised as an all-time classic. The pleasure lies not just in the parallel worlds he conjures up, or the odyssey of his heroes, Lyra and Will, but in the stamp of his prose.
Pullman writes in pictures, making ideas vivid. His thinking stays under the surface, working away like the legs of a swan.
(1) Making Lyra 12 – the age, Pullman has said, when “we realise we were born into the wrong family”. (2) Writing not one book but three: 1,200 pages, a giant canvas, made for flights of fancy. (3) Inventing daemons, the creatures that accompany people in Lyra’s world, embody their souls and, in the children’s case, morph to match their mood. The daemons turn thoughts into dialogue, and charm younger readers: this is an epic tale with aspects of a petting zoo.
Strong points The story comes first, making for crisp, declarative sentences of the kind Orwell advocated (he would have loved Pullman). Verbs and nouns do the heavy lifting; Pullman uses few adverbs, unlike J.K. Rowling, who, for all her popularity, is harder to read aloud. He writes with his ears: “often I know the rhythm of the next sentence before the content.”
Pullman is not a tricksy writer, but he has one little flourish: a pair of adjectives without a comma. “She laid it on the table, and she sensed John Faa’s massive simple curiosity and Farder Coram’s bright flickering intelligence…” Most writers would put two commas in, and slow the sentence down.
The title is from Milton. The opening line (“Lyra and her daemon...”) echoes Virgil, as does Lyra’s visit to the dead. The style leans on the King James Bible: as a child, Pullman loved “the thunderous power and majesty of the language”.
“His daemon gave a soft brief squawk.” Pullman, once a teacher, used to tell his class a story on Friday afternoons, which taught him not to bore children or talk down to them. He is happy to use words like “calibrated” and “galvanised”. But he prefers words like “soft” and “squawk”: rapid, plain and direct.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life.
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke