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Why won't Philip Pullman leave His Dark Materials alone?

By Charlotte Runcie ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-03-04 07:24:06

They say you should never revisit old loves. Maybe someone should tell internationally bestselling authors that.

Seventeen years after the conclusion of his enormously successful and richly constructed fantasy novel trilogy His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman is to publish a continuation of the story. The additional trilogy is described by Pullman as neither a prequel nor a sequel but an "equel", spanning time before and after the events of the first books.

Publishers, booksellers, journalists and readers have expressed delight that the already expansive world of Lyra, Will, Dust, daemons, the Magisterium and an alternate-universe Oxford will be expanded even further by its author.

But some of us have every reason to be cautious. A few years ago, I would have been thrilled about the prospect of more of Pullman's cerebral fictional-world exploration of theology and science (as well as more insight in to his irresistible concept of daemons - always the most seductive part of the books tome).

Pullman described his novels not as fantasy, but as realism about another world, and he puts it perfectly: the books speak to their young readers seriously about all the philosophical and existential messes that adults project onto the process of growing-up.

Yet the news has actually filled me with a sense of once bitten, twice shy. This isn't the only author's announcement of a new addition to a beloved work in recent years, and it hasn't always gone well.

Why won't Philip Pullman leave His Dark Materials alone?

It started with The Phantom Menace. George Lucas's original Star Wars trilogy was a cinematic masterpiece, perfect and complete. Many years after the original sensation, when Lucas decided to create prequels and add new CGI technology to the originals, fans were initially excited, but many were quickly disillusioned when they saw the results. Instead of expanding and adding to the universe Lucas had first conceived, these lacklustre new films managed to remove the sheen from the originals.

The Star Wars prequels have their supporters, but most fans admit they don't live up to the original trilogy, and Star Wars might have been a purer and better piece of work as a whole if they'd never been made.

Then there was Harry Potter. JK Rowling's original seven books are globally loved by a generation of readers. The series was carefully planned by Rowling to exist as a piece, and when she published the final book, Rowling said the story was finished and she didn't expect she would return to that world.

And yet, in the past two years, she has returned to them in grand style. As well as the five film prequels, beginning with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we have seen a stage play co-written and developed by Rowling as a sequel to the stories, focusing on the adventures of the main characters' children and revisiting events in the original books. Fans have, once again, expressed disappointment.

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child has great things about it and is unmistakably part of the world, but it just isn't the same as Rowling's first series. It wasn't conceived to be part of the story from the beginning, and something about it interferes with our memories of the original.

And now His Dark Materials is set to be expanded, trepidation is running high among readers. Before the trilogy was released, the story and characters existed only in Pullman's head, but when we read them, they became ours, too. And since the books were published, Lyra and Will have continued to exist in the minds of readers who loved them.

Pullman's pen stopped, and our imaginations began. Every reader has their own version of what happened next, and what might have happened before the events of the books. Great fantasy is a starting point for a world that we can then inhabit ourselves. What would your daemon be?, His Dark Materials fans ask each other, just as Harry Potter fans compare which Hogwarts house they would be in.

So when Pullman or Rowling or Lucas step back into their world, with all the authority of having created it in the first place, and try to fill in more of the gaps they left, or extend the place in a direction we didn't expect, it's an unsettling experience. Imagine the person who originally built your house suddenly turning up and building an extension. You'd certainly be interested to hear their thoughts. But you don't live here anymore, you'd say. This is our home now.

Pullman's new books could be marvellous, and I truly hope they are. Either way, I'd read them before the ink was dry if I could. But he holds in his hands something beloved and precious, and the next few months until publication will be an anxious time.

(China Daily 03/04/2017 page22)

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