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.
The writer’s longstanding interest in science also seems likely to come through in the new trilogy’s promised exploration of the origins and meanings of “dust”. In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium believes this ambiguous substance represents original sin – but it could clearly provide biological or ecological matter, in the areas of Hawking and Dawkins, in the new books.
In narrative terms, Pullman’s biggest challenge will be to negotiate the fact that readers of the initial trilogy will already know – or, as it may turn out, think they know – the solution to various mysteries in Lyra’s childhood, including her real parentage. Any appearance of Lord Asriel, her “guardian”, or Marisa Coulter, her mother, will trail future-story alongside any back-story that Pullman fills in.
He is, though, too subtle a writer not to have spotted that problem and, as Rowling and Thorne showed in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the filling in of gaps can create new resonances in known characters and storylines. Alongside the already guaranteed reappearance of Lyra, fans will also hope for plotting involving Roger Parslow, a child who crucially disappears early in His Dark Materials, and Will Parry, Lyra’s friend, who has his own back-story opacities involving his father.
Ideally, a prequel, sequel or “equel” to an adored story should resemble a party at which those present include some people you already know and love, but also many fascinating newcomers to whom we are thrilled to be introduced. Pullman’s track record suggests that he will understand this and that The Book Of Dust will show that – as in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Star Wars: Rogue One – the best way to go forward with a beloved franchise is to shift sideways.
Girls who like girls are so beautiful and magical and made of star dust and glitter and I’m so so proud of all girls who have recently realised that they’re lesbians and all girls who have been Gay™️ As Hell from birth also – I love you all with every single fibre in my body and you deserve the entire world and nothing less
One of my pet peeves about the Prequel Trilogy is the idea that Anakin Skywalker was a “virgin birth.”
Look, I know people like to sling around the term “immaculate conception." This is wrong wrong wrong. I’m Catholic; this is part of my catechism okay? TL;DR - to be an immaculate conception is to be born without Original Sin (which is basically Adam and Eve eating the Forbidden Fruit, passing this Sin on to all generations of humankind) and that goes into a whole lotta complicated theology that we don’t have time to get into but basically – Immaculate Conception is NOT a Virgin Birth. And unless we somehow have Catholic Jedi in the GFFA, this whole concept isn’t gonna make sense.
But I digress.
Seriously, how the hell did this work? Did Shmi just wake up with a case of morning sickness, realize she’d skipped periods but knew she’d never had sex with another man? (I shudder to think at the fridge horror here, considering her slave status). Magic midi-chlorians suddenly gave her a baby? Add water and stir?
Personally, I think it would have made a hella lot more sense if Shmi Skywalker’s husband/lover had been an ex-Sith Lord.
Maybe he was actually trained at the same time Palpatine was, and Palpatine tried to kill him because of the ‘Rule of Two’ tradition. And maybe, somewhere along the way, Darth Skywalker realizes that the Dark Side is ultimately weak, because it is rooted in greed and fear and selfishness and anger and hate.
And maybe he realizes that to use the Force is to achieve a balance in oneself - to be able to wield this kind of power to destroy but also to create. To be able to deal with death, but also to save lives. To understand that love isn’t a weakness - it is strength.
So yeah, maybe he falls in love with a Shmi who was still free and hopeful and they flee to make a life of their own, on their own rules. But tragedy strikes while Shmi is pregnant with their son and ex-Darth Skywalker is killed and Shmi can only tell her son stories about his father and hopes, one day, to tell him the truth about his past.
But the Jedi come and Shmi holds her silence and her secrets and she lets them take her son, for the sake of his future and is sadly disappointed when the great Jedi don’t bother to return for a boy’s mother, to free a slave woman. She’d thought, perhaps, the Jedi were better than that - her husband had spoken, half mockingly, half admiringly - of the "goodness” of these Light Side Force Users.
Shmi can survive, though and she builds a life of her own and finds love again with Cliegg Lars and waits and waits and waits for her Anakin to return, so she can tell him the truth about his father. The things that the Jedi cannot know, could never teach him.
Except Shmi is taken by the Tusken Raiders and there is not enough time, and it’s counted out in gasps and whispers and last words of love.