What Philip Pullman describes as an “equel” – a story that extends the His Dark Materials trilogy with a complementary narrative – has become the fashion for continuing entertainment mega-franchises aimed at an initial audience of children.
George Lucas’s original three Star Wars films have been expanded backwards, forwards and sideways, while JK Rowling’s stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – soon heading for Broadway after breaking box-office records in the West End of London – fills in some of the long gap between the boy wizard’s farewell to Hogwarts Academy and the enrollment of his children in the school.
From the sparse details released so far, it seems that Pullman’s newly announced The Book of Dust trilogy – the first volume of which will appear on 19 October – will similarly explore the childhood of his heroine, Lyra Belacqua, before readers met her at Jordan College, Oxford, in the first His Dark Materials book, Northern Lights (known in the US as The Golden Compass).
Pullman and Rowling’s solutions to a common literary dilemma – balancing an audience’s desire for more of the same with a writer’s desire to try something different – continue a long synchronicity between the two authors. The latest example is the introduction of dramatist Jack Thorne, who (with Rowling and John Tiffany) wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and is currently adapting His Dark Materials for a BBC television version.
Thorne’s double duty feels appropriate because these narratives, rivals for the minds of recent generations of young readers, have constantly overlapped. Pullman and Rowling both began publishing their serial novels shortly before the millennium, and rapidly gained an adult audience as well. Each story involved an 11-year-old child who, in a supernatural universe existing alongside our own, is required to risk their life in order to defeat evil forces.
Although Harry is explicitly a quasi-Christ figure and Lyra a sort of Eve, both stories have been criticised by Christians for, in Rowling’s case, supposedly endorsing witchcraft and, as Pullman stood charged, for making the evil empire against which Lyra fights a specifically religious force, complete with a name – the Magisterium – that was historically applied to Roman Catholicism.
Although Pullman’s attack on the Vatican proved prophetic – as news stories of the last two decades increasingly showed, a percentage of the church’s priests have indeed been a grievous threat to children – one of the fascinations of The Book of Dust will be whether Pullman makes the metaphor broader. The suppression of dissent and enforcement of orthodoxy that the Magisterium represents are certainly still to be found in the Roman church, but also in the fundamentalist branches of American Christianity and Islam. Ideological crackdowns are to be found as well in the UK and US in political and academic institutions on a spectrum from right to left. Without letting the popes off the hook, Pullman might usefully hang others beside them.