November 30, 2006


Wintersmith. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Book I. By Philip Pullman. Knopf. $22.95.

     Britain’s best writers apparently write so-called “kids’ books” because children are significantly smarter, more imaginative and more capable of thinking of things in new ways than adults.  Terry Pratchett’s four books for children are more serious and often darker than his many Discworld books for adults, although his trademark wit and humor are always present.  And Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – ostensibly written as children’s literature – is so vast, so awe-inspiring and so fraught with depth as to set the whole notion of “kids’ books” on its ear.  The trilogy’s very title is a quotation from Milton – about as adult a poet as one can find in the English language.

     Wintersmith is Pratchett’s third story of young witch Tiffany Aching and her odd camaraderie-cum-partnership with the Feegles, eponymous (and very blue, and often very drunk) heroes of The Wee Free Men and important characters in A Hat Full of Sky.  The Feegles, whose blue skin reflects Pictish warrior customs and whose constant mangling of the English language reflects Pratchett’s predilections, are under the strictest possible commandment to help Tiffany at all times, because she once saved them from a fate worse than death (perhaps not the right comparison where Feegles are concerned, since they believe they are dead already).  In Wintersmith, the Feegles journey hither and yon, and thither and to th’other place, as they try to help Tiffany untangle herself from the Wintersmith, the spirit of winter, into whose eternal dance with the Summer Lady the young girl inadvertently inserted herself.  As a result of this mistake, Tiffany is partially becoming the Summer Lady, who is partially becoming Tiffany; and the Wintersmith, who may now wrap the whole world eternally in ice, is determined to take Tiffany as his queen by becoming a human man – using a recipe derived from a children’s rhyme.  It’s all stuff and nonsense and quite, quite wonderful, as Tiffany ages (she turns 13); matures (she acknowledges feelings of more than mild interest in Roland, the much-put-upon son of a local baron, who eventually takes a heroic part in Tiffany’s tale); and learns what it really means to be a witch: witches can do magic but spend most of their time trying not to do it, and that puts Tiffany in the awkward position of helping out an unpleasantly whiny and self-centered young witch who thinks magic and witchcraft are the same thing.  Wintersmith slips into traditional kids’-book territory only rarely, when Pratchett cannot resist childish wordplay – “Tiffany was Aching all over” – or creates a character such as Horace the mobile cheese (which the Feegles dress in a kilt).  But the warp and weft of Wintersmith are far from childish, and the pattern Pratchett weaves here is one that adults would do well to observe and understand – if they could be as clever as children.

     There is nothing remotely amusing in The Golden Compass, which is now available as a “Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition” that contains, in an appendix, facsimiles of some of Lord Asriel’s papers as donated to the Jordan College Library.  The names Asriel and Jordan will not mean a thing to someone in the enviable position of encountering this book for the first time – and that is just as well, for there is so much to discover (or rediscover) here that the papers are merely…well, appendages.  What is central to this book is the character of Lyra Belacqua, who has depth and understanding far beyond what most adults will ever muster.  An even stronger character than Tiffany Aching, Lyra lacks Tiffany’s humor – there is much wit but only an occasional flash of fun in The Golden Compass – but has far more than Tiffany’s share of knowledge, mystery and portentousness (which is not to be confused with pretentiousness).  Pullman called this book Northern Lights for its British publication, and in fact its climax is every bit as wintry as anything the Wintersmith could think up.  But it is people – yes, including people who would be gods – who are the truly chilling ones here, their emotions and motivations frozen beneath a kind of psychological ice through which Lyra can pick her way only uncertainly, with the aid of her alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the title.  The book is entirely too rich to encapsulate, pervaded as it is with wonders in every bit of everyday life: the dæmons of Lyra’s world, external animal accompanists of every character’s life and expressions of important aspects of his or her being, are but a single example.  This is also the book in which Pullman introduces the mystery of Dust, whose solution has such shattering emotional impact later in the trilogy.  There is, in fact, nothing remotely childish about The Golden Compass, which may explain how it slipped under the radar of many parents to capture and captivate their kids – kids who now, a decade later, are grown or nearly grown, and have hopefully retained at least some of the sense of wonder with which Pullman so gently, so insidiously, so brilliantly infected them.

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