“[T]he image of the reader is solitary. We are each alone when we enter the borderland and go on to explore what lies in it and beyond it, in the book we’re engaged with. True, we can come back and and talk about it, and if we talk well and truthfully and interestingly enough we might entice other readers into it, and they too will explore it—but they too will be alone there until they in turn come back and tell us what they found there.”

Daemon Voices is a collection of Philip Pullman’s essays, articles and talks, mostly on storytelling, reading and the craft of writing, but also on politics, art and religion.

Pullman is best known for his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Ostensibly for young adults, these books—like all good writing—crosses age boundaries (and it is worth noting that Pullman didn’t intend the trilogy for a particular audience). I find this happening less now, but writing for children or young adults has often been scoffed at as not being as “serious” or “important” as writing for adults. Pullman dismisses this and is passionate about the importance of children’s literature. Good writing for children or young adults, as he points out, is every bit as important as that for adults. And as for adults reading children’s books, he quotes CS Lewis: “I now like hock, which I am sure I did not like as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had one pleasure, I now have two.”

Writers have responsibilities, says Pullman. They have a duty to their readers to use language well (something that as an editor, I can’t agree with more): be clear and aware of what you are saying. But there is also their responsibility to their families: after all, to be a writer is a job, and they have to make sure they earn enough to provide for their loved ones. I have read a lot on writing and writers but very few say anything about the money-making side of it.  

There is so much here that I am only going to pick out a few things. We get a lot of insight on how Pullman wrote his books, especially His Dark Materials. It takes a single element to give an idea that spark that brings it to life. The first book fell into place when he came up with the idea (or the idea came to him, as he puts it) of daemons. A daemon is an animal version of a person that is constantly with them—the soul, in a way, that is external but part of them. It changes shapes in children and settles into a particular animal when they reach puberty. So when Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy, hears of children who daemons are being cut away from them, it is shocking not just to her but to the reader, and sets the trilogy in motion.

In His Dark Materials, the forces of good fight the Church to stop it taking control of Dust, the essence of consciousness. This reflects Pullman’s view of organized religion. He is not an atheist, because he finds that atheism can be equally totalitarian (something I had noticed too and was glad to find someone else agreeing with me).  

I loved Pullman’s perspective on the story of Adam and Eve, which makes sense. He sees the apple as the fruit of knowledge, which humans had to eat so they could be aware of the world around them. Hence the self-awareness that results when Adam and Eve bite into it, much as we become aware of ourselves when we cross the threshold into adulthood. Once you reach that threshold, there is no way back to innocence. But that does not mean that the Garden of Eden is closed to us forever—the way back is through what Pullman calls “the back door”, through wisdom and understanding.

The reader as explorer: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

There are also essays on narratives in art, where he examines well-known paintings (there are illustrations, both in colour and black and white). His dissection of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, which I’ve known for a long time (my interest in art was sparked by the Impressionists), made me see it in a completely different light. And the quote that I begin this review with is illustrated with “The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friederich: again, a different take on a familiar painting, where the explorer is the reader.

There is some repetition, but that’s hard to avoid in a collection like this. There are things that I disagree with (his dislike of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings, for one), but this book wouldn’t be worth its salt if I agreed with everything. If you are a budding (or already established) writer, if you’re passionate about words and stories, then get this book. You don’t need to read it cover to cover—as I did—but can dip into it. There are essays here that I know I will be going back to. His writing makes me want to sit down with him over a meal and have a long discussion about books, writing and everything else.