Philip Pullman’s Dæmon Voices – Essays on Storytelling is pleasurable reading for English teachers, students, writers and anyone who loves stories. Best known for the trilogy, His Dark Materials, Pullman has a deep, highly practical understanding of what it takes to craft a story to delight both novice and experienced teachers of writing. His obvious affection for other storytellers, the ones who have meant the most to him, further illuminates Pullman’s philosophy of writing successfully, and with integrity, for young people.
Where does a story come from? Pullman never constructs a story around a theme but starts “with pictures, images, scenes, moods – like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. That’s how they all begin.” He relates how “the business of the storyteller…is with the path and not the wood”. Pullman explains that there are many stories in these woods but he has to create a path the reader can follow from an infinity of choices. He keenly feels his responsibility “to language, to his audience, to truth, and to his story itself” for constructing these paths.
These essays, often delivered as keynote addresses to audiences of authors, educators and librarians, are particularly interesting to those who read adolescent fiction. Most have updates at their conclusion with new information, interesting asides or with the internet and e-books in mind. Pullman tends to talk about “storytelling” rather more than “writing” and has strong opinions on what works for him as both a reader and writer. Key questions asked include: who is telling the story? whose words do we read? whose voice do we hear? He is very clear that the “storyteller should be invisible…and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just… disappears”. Pullman often quotes or paraphrases filmmakers, especially David Mamet and Alfred Hitchcock, to illustrate his points about storytelling:
“The best thing to do is tell a story as though you’re seeing it… Just tell it normally. Most of the time, my camera stays on eye level now. Once in a while, I’ll move the camera as if a man were walking and seeing something. And it pulls back or it moves in for emphasis when you don’t want to make a cut. But outside of that, I just use the simplest camera in the world.”
Pullman has “a personal rule” to never start a story with a pronoun. “‘She stood at the window, gazing down at the …’ If I read a story like that, I’m irritated before I begin. Who stood at the window? What’s her name? How am I supposed to know who she is?’” He believes that reading a novel written entirely in the first person and the present tense feels “like being in a room where they have those Venetian blinds that go up instead of across – you can only see out in vertical strips, and everything else is closed off to you”. Pullman especially appreciates the subtle storytelling skills of Hitchcock. If a story begins with “a burglar ransacking drawers then when the lights of the owner’s car show up outside the window, we think: hurry up! They’re coming! We don’t want them to catch him. We’re on his side, because we started with him.” This is evident in much of Hitchcock and one scene (from my memory) when Norman Bates is dispatching the murdered Marion Crane’s car into the swamp and it stops sinking, the viewer, like Norman, anxiously waits, hoping desperately that the car and body will be submerged. We are, for a moment, complicit with ‘the psycho’ due to the artistry of the storyteller.
Pullman’s insight into teaching poetry is particularly interesting. His analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost is excellent; hardly surprising considering the importance of the text to his own work. Pullman says, and I am certain educators will understand the profound importance of his commentary, much about this form in classrooms:
“I have come across teachers and student teachers whose job was to teach poetry, but who thought that poetry was only a fancy way of dressing up simple statements to make them look complicated, and that their task was to help their pupils translate the stuff into ordinary English. When they’d translated it, when they’d ‘understood’ it, the job was done. It had the effect of turning the classroom into a torture chamber, in which everything that made the poem a living thing had been killed and butchered. No one had told such people that poetry is in fact enchantment; that it has the form it does because that very form casts a spell; and that when they thought they were bothered and bewildered, they were in fact being bewitched, and if they let themselves accept the enchantment and enjoy it, they would eventually understand much more about the poem.”
Most teachers would likely admit, at least sometimes, to guilty as charged.
On a more positive note for us English teachers, who can argue with Pullman’s observation that the experience of reading poetry aloud, when you don’t fully understand it, is a curious and complicated one:
“It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realise that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it. So at this stage it doesn’t matter that you don’t fully understand everything: you’re already far closer to the poem than someone who sits there in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes.”
The author’s passion for ST Coleridge, William Blake and John Milton clearly evident in these essays, as well as his novels.
Fairy tales are particularly thrilling for Pullman. His admiration for the achievement of Katherine M Briggs, who spent a lifetime collecting British fairy tales, is evident. He has good insight into this genre, that is very useful for students, pointing out that:
“William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or any other literary work, exists as a text first of all. The words on the page are what it is…But a fairy tale is not a text of that sort. It’s a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale.”
He regrets that he did not know terribly much about Grimm’s tales when he was a teacher, tending to retell the Homeric epics rather than fairy tales. One imagines The Iliad, retold by Pullman, must have been a treat for some students who probably did not realise their good fortune.
Pullman never shies away from social commentary, especially about religion, dogma and education. He is often generous to his opponents, living and dead, even occasionally finding a good word to say about CS Lewis. Pullman does include some sharp right-jabs though, aimed at the current managerial vogue in schools, throughout these essays:
“…the obsession with targets and testing and league tables, the management-driven and politics-corrupted and jargon-clotted rubbish that so deforms the true work of schools.”
“The view of Grammar depicted here is not the one currently held by the British Department for Education, which is that grammar is a set of facts about which children must be drilled and tested so that their school can be ranked in order in a league table.”
The book is arranged thoughtfully for teachers. The contents page lists a “topic finder” for recurring themes and groups together the essays in which they are discussed. This includes: on writing; on writers; on pictures; on other writers’ stories; science and culture; religion and story and much more besides.
Dæmon Voices – Essays on Storytelling is a “must-read” that will provide professional sustenance and great personal reading pleasure. Highly recommended.
Other titles read during November
Winter – Seasonal #2 (2017) by Ali Smith
Artful (2013) by Ali Smith
Draft No.4: On the Writing Process (2017) by John McPhee
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2005) by David Foster Wallace
The Peregrine – Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (1967/2017) by JA Baker
The Illustrated Man (1951) by Ray Bradbury
The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001) by Edmund White