In the Everyman’s Library’s edition of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman allows me to look at my beloved characters in a rare, personal light. They are not following the author’s instructions in those moments; I find that idea fascinating.
As for why I call these little pieces “lantern slides”, it’s because I remember the wooden boxes my grandfather used to have, each one packed neatly with painted glass slides showing scenes from Bible stories or fairy tales or ghost stories or comic little plays with absurd-looking figures. From time to time he would get out the heavy old magic lantern and project some of these pictures on to a screen, and we would sit in the darkened room with the smell of hot metal and watch one scene succeeding another, trying to make sense of the narrative and wondering what St Paul was doing in the story of Little Red Riding Hood; because they never came out of the box in quite the right order.
Of all the universes and marvels which Pullman conjures up in His Dark Materials, my heart is after his Lantern Slides. I have fallen in love with them so much that I rushed from one book after the other, only to see how Pullman would marshal my favourite people in his slides after each book. Just some random vignettes, but to me, they are more beautiful than the books.
It’s so surreal to see them that way. I know I am saying that again but only to underscore its beauty, and because it’s unique for an author to let his characters’s guards down. Seeing characters that way is like entering my dear ones’s dreams and to see for myself what makes them smile and what fills them with terror. It is like standing beside my friend while she talks to her goddesses, supplying words to her wishes. It is like quietly watching my dog follow a fly. And it’s like watching a child doze off in her class as the teacher drones. It’s only that none of them are aware of my presence. My invisibility makes them vulnerable, but it makes me more compassionate. The bond that surfaces after seeing them in that naked light is stronger than I can imagine.
Pullman shows my favourite witch Serafina Pekkala in one of his Lantern Slides. And here, I see what a talented writer Pullman is.
Serafina Pekkala on her cloud-pine would find a still field of air at night and listen to the silence. Like the air itself, which was never quite still, the silence was full of little currents and turbulence, of patches of density and pockets of attenuation, all shot through with darts and drifts of whispering that were made of silence themselves. It was as different from the silence of a closed room as fresh spring water is from stale. Later, Serafina realized that she was listening to Dust.
Serafina Pekkala could be a great warrior, her spells could try forcing one’s blood to recede into one’s body, her ability to love is deeper than the ocean, but she is more than all of that when she stays still and listens to silence, and I want to remember Serafina Pekkala that way.
I meet many other characters and their unknown sides as Pullman changes the slides. However, my only complaint is, his box doesn’t have a slide for the bear Iorek Byrnison. If it’s not too late, I want to rename my dog Iorek Byrnison, or I must adopt another one only to turn that name in my mouth all my life. That bear is better than hundreds and hundreds of humans I have met. There! I said that! He is an animal. An animal who knows who he is. And an animal who can create wonders within the limitations of who he is. Oh wait! I wish I could be half as good as Iorek Byrnison.
Of course, Pullman wants me to remember that there is more to the book than meets the eye. I choose to be defiant and eschew the subtext though. Is it unfair to ignore the way that a book is supposed to be read? Is there one way to read a book anyway? As a reader, who prefers visceral rendezvous with books, I draw great pleasure from throwing light on parts which would travel with me forever. Passages like these:
“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All this time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
“Then,” said Tialys, “let’s make a bargain with you. Instead of seeing only the wickedness and cruelty and greed of the ghosts that come down here, from now on you will have the right to ask all the ghosts to tell you the stories of their lives, and they will have to tell the truth about what they’ve seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world. Every one of these ghosts has a story; every single one that comes down in the future will have true things to tell you about the world. And you’ll have the right to hear them, and they will have to tell you.”
These are what I would remember about His Dark Materials. Not the Subtle Knife, not the Alethiometer, not Pullman’s extraordinary commentary on religion, and not even the auroras. But the quiet reminder that this universe of ours is made of stories. That this very universe is a story. As luminous beings who claim this universe as our own, we owe it to every element of the cosmos to breathe others’s stories and tell ours.
That’s one of the greatest ways to nourish our existence and make this capricious travel less uncertain. That means, I will try to share more Lantern Slides from my journey.
What are your thoughts? I am listening.