His Dark Materials

I  am giving my children an unexpected Christmas present: a story I listened to ten Christmases ago.  Philip Pullman‘s trilogy, His Dark MaterialsWhy?  Because it:

  1. invites the children to question the meaning of almost everything (and therefore invokes higher-order thinking)
  2. offers a way in to literature that will enhance their own writing, should they choose to steal or learn from it
  3. presents a strong, far from perfect, female hero (Lyra) and a strong, far from perfect male hero (Will).  And an armoured polar bear (go figure).
  4. mixes some very challenging ideas about life, innocence, self-consciousness and ethics with a cracking story
  5. introduces children to a mighty work of literature, Milton’s Paradise Lost, without them knowing it.

I hope that they take advantage of my gift.

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[David Harewood in the National Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials.]

A few years ago (2005 to be precise) I sat, with my wife and daughter, through six bottom-numbing hours of Nick Hytner’s production of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials.  I’d been along to hear the pair of them talking about the books and the play a few days beforehand, and had the pleasure of listening to David Harewood (pictured above), who’d been sitting with fellow cast members in the audience, ask his author and director questions.  David, a majestic and powerful Lord Asriel, autographed my tatty copy of Northern Lights.

Two years earlier, over a Christmas holiday, I had listened to BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of the stories: I was transfixed.  Magical stories of childhood, danger, armoured bears, Heaven and Hell, animals, hot air balloons, gypsies and so much more.

Somewhere in between, I read the trilogy – to myself and then to my nine year-old daughter (on occasions over a speakerphone in a conference room at Norwich Union Life’s York offices).  They were our books; it was our world.

And a little later, while studying my specialist subject of children’s literature as part of my BA in English, I wrote about the book.  Here is a copy of my Pullman Essay if you’re really finding it hard to sleep.  No, really.  Interestingly, the final lines of the essay bring me back to my favourite subject: my daughter.

As an adult, I can distinguish the revolutionary from
the traditional.  For a nine year-old child, it is not so easy.  My daughter loves Lyra and her world and through its myths she has learnt more of our own world.  But when it comes to living like Lyra, she may well say, “That’s alright for her, but it’s not my place.  It’s not my destiny.”

This led me into a considerable amount of research – into Philip Pullman himself, his reasons for writing the books, the ideas that run through the stories and his continuing debate with, well, anyone who’ll listen.  One of his sparring partners was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Here is a transcript of their discussion. Apparently they agreed on about 80% of their issues they debated.  Goodness me: you can even listen to it!

I want to draw your attention to one aspect: the loss of innocence that our children must experience if they are to become adults.  I look on my own daughter’s growing-up with a sense of bereavement – especially at this time of year, when I remember the little girl who waited breathlessly for Father Christmas but never managed to stay up to see him.

Pullman, drawing on an essay by Heinrich Kleist, argues that we cannot return to this mental Garden of Eden through the front gate: we move from a state of unconsciousness to a state of what I might call mindfulness.  We learn to live with a greater knowledge of ourselves – however unattractive that may be – and become comfortable with that knowledge.  It can take a lifetime, if we achieve it at all.

I am beginning to introduce my class to the concept of mindfulness.  Until I’d read the wiki page on it, I hadn’t realised that it drew on Buddhist thinking (handy, when our RE topic for this term is the aforesaid religion).

I came across it explicitly (it is a name for something towards which I’ve been striving for four decades) when I was talking to the seventeen year-old daughter of a friend of mine.  She is anorexic.  She looks good on it, having reached rock bottom and decided that she’d rather like to live.  But she lives with the knowledge that she may never be entirely well again.  She said she’s glad she’s had mindfulness-based psychotherapy because it has helped her deal not only with her anorexia but with growing up.  She thinks that many other teenagers face mental growing pains without that help.

So whether it’s something as serious as she’s experienced, or simply the occasional pain of growing up, a little mindfulness may help any Year 6 child.

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