September 29, 2005


The Scarecrow and His Servant. By Philip Pullman. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. Knopf. $15.95.

The Science of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” By Mary and John Gribbin, with an introduction by Philip Pullman. Knopf. $15.95.

     Here’s a good guideline when writing about books and their authors: Never. Underestimate. Philip. Pullman.


     Even in Pullman’s lightest fare, such as The Scarecrow and His Servant, there is depth as well as charm aplenty.  Like L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow, Pullman’s is somewhat lacking in brains, but he makes up for it with all the heart and courage that Baum’s Tin Man and Cowardly Lion eventually find between them.  There’s more than a bit of Don Quixote in Pullman’s scarecrow, too, and more than a bit of Sancho Panza in Jack, the orphan boy who accompanies the scarecrow on his adventures and addresses him as Lord Scarecrow.  Readers of Baum and Cervantes will have a wonderful time picking up cognates, but absolutely no such in-depth analysis is necessary to have a rollicking good time with this book.  The scarecrow’s fight with a road sign is wonderfully funny for readers who know nothing of Don Quixote’s battle with windmills – and even funnier for those who know Cervantes.  You need not know Virgil, Gluck or commedia dell’arte to laugh at the notion of “The Tragical History of Harlequin and Queen Dido…with Effects of Battle and Shipwreck, a Dance of the Infernal Spirits, and the Eruption of Vesuvius,” but you will laugh even more if you pick up some of the background.  Pullman’s work is also full of twists, turns and not a little heart.  The story has the scarecrow come magically to life; go on a series of journeys while being pursued by a minion of the evil Buffalonis (who are after his “inner conviction”); and eventually emerge triumphant, to the betterment of the environment.  Never underestimate Philip Pullman: he makes all this make sense, even bringing a tear or two to one’s eye at the scarecrow’s sacrifice for the starving Jack – and a glimmer of added amusement at the plot twist that event later produces.  This is, in a word or three, a wonderful book.

     To read Pullman at his full depth, one turns, of course, to his magnum opus (at least so far): the His Dark Materials trilogy.  It reads like heroic fantasy, but Mary and John Gribbin argue persuasively that there is real science at the trilogy’s heart.  Pullman himself professes little understanding of science in his introduction to the Gribbins’ book, but understanding may be beside the point: the Gribbins quote Richard Feynman, one of the greatest of all physicists, as saying, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”  The Gribbins certainly do a good elementary job of explaining modern scientific ideas, anyway.  They show how the many-worlds concept, string theory and other abstruse notions of physics underlie His Dark Materials, also noting some of the scientific background of such important elements of the trilogy as the Northern Lights and the Golden Compass (the first book is called Northern Lights in England, The Golden Compass in the U.S.).  Science and pseudoscience mingle oddly but interestingly here, as in discussions of the I Ching and the “spirit companion” called Philemon that psychiatrist Carl Jung believed he had.  The Gribbins’ book is more a byway than a deep exploration of His Dark Materials, but it is an entertaining and informative supplement for readers fascinated not only by Pullman’s characters but also by his settings.  There are many such readers: never underestimate Philip Pullman.

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