The Book of Dust

by Harry on October 18, 2017

In late 2001 I had caught up with work enough to treat myself to leisure reading on my (at that time long) commute to and from work (Oxford to London). I can’t actually remember why I started reading it, but I was immediately gripped by His Dark Materials, and one dreary December morning was sitting on a Circle line train reading The Amber Spyglass when I noticed a young girl (12?, 13?) staring at me. I ignored her as best I could. As we pulled out of Edgware Road she pestered the man next to her (who, I quickly realised was her dad) and said something while pointing at me. Maybe she had recognized me from my recent one minute appearance on the BBC World News?[1] Then, that old familiar feeling: the train stopped between stations. I continued to read. She continued to stare. I was bemused rather than uncomfortable, but was relieved when we all got off at Euston Square and the father leaned over to me and said “She’s been admiring you ever since you got on the train because she’s never seen an adult reading her favourite book”. I grinned in acknowledgement and thought of saying “Oh yes, well, tell her I’m a professional philosopher” but thought that would sound pretentious and silly.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is published tomorrow. I guess that girl is in her late twenties now. And I bet that, like me, she has ordered it to arrive the day of publication but will wait until she can read it without distraction. I wish I could get it for her, but instead I’ve ordered it for a former student around the same age whose cat is named Pantalaimon.

[1] Not a success. I had been invited to comment on the 15th announcement of the government’s ‘new’ plans for schools: I had studied the policies in great detail (several times, over the course of the several times the same plans had been announced as if they were brand new and treated by the press as if they were, indeed, brand new—I think that was the period which undermined my taste for reading newspapers), and had prepared a minute or so of good things to say about them, but had failed to listen to the news on my way to the studio, so had not heard Campbell talking about “bog-standard comprehensives”. The interviewer opened with that phrase, which I’d never heard before, so I spent the entire time trying not to giggle and have no idea what I actually said.



bianca steele 10.18.17 at 3:47 pm

I actually haven’t read His Dark Materials yet. I’m currently trying to get my 9yo to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before she changes her mind and says to me, “But it says here it’s Book Two! I really do have to read The Magician’s Nephew first [which I suspect will end up meaning only, and kind of hope it would].” There are just too many Rick Riordan books. And then there are the Warriors books (fantasy worlds AND CATS).

I also wonder about the differences between the US and U.K. editions. (And ftm why autocorrect punctuates them differentially.)


Harry 10.18.17 at 4:45 pm

I’d say 9 is a little too young really to enjoy HDM fully (maybe 37 is, too, but I’d go for 11 or 12). Yes, there’s a lot of good stuff to read, kids are lucky (in that respect) these days. But, honestly, there’s not much that’s as good as HDM. Fantasy world AND POLAR BEARS. THAT TALK for goodness sake!

I read the UK editions, and haven’t looked at the US editions (though we must have some around and I think that’s what my eldest read). The first book is one of those curiosities –why did they substitute a new title for the US, which is no more transparent than the original UK title?


Doug K 10.18.17 at 6:08 pm

one of the Boy Scouts in our troop is named Panteleimon, Teli for short.
The Saint Panteleimon (meaning “all-merciful”) is one of the Holy Unmercenaries.
As Wikipedia says – healers or Christian physicians who, in conspicuous opposition to medical practice of the day, tended to the sick free of charge.
Always liked the idea of unmercenaries.. Doctors Without Borders does that work today I guess.

A long discussion of the derivation of Pantalaimon and relationship to Panteleimon at,

thank you for the publication notice, have ordered it from Powells now.
I’ll send it on to #1 son as he loved the books, though there were attempted bans in some of our Denver schools for blasphemy etc. I encouraged the reading of banned books, bad Dad: passing on a family tradition as my father gave me Kennis van die Aand to read in S. Africa, just before it got banned. S. Africa had a real actual live Censor in those days.


Doug O'Keefe 10.18.17 at 11:30 pm

Hooray for Philip Pullman!

The HDM trilogy, loosely based on William Blake’s “Satanic” reading of Paradise Lost, are, imho, superior in every way to Lewis (to some extent, HDM were consciously composed as anti-Narnia texts) and to Tolkien; and indeed, the first two volumes are the best kids’ novels I’ve ever read. I’ve taught them to ninth graders, and they love them.


Frank Ashe 10.19.17 at 12:21 pm

I know why I picked the books up; a TLS review described them as young adult novels that were a Blakean retelling of Paradise Lost.


J-D 10.19.17 at 9:12 pm

When I read His Dark Materials, the first two books built up powerful expectations and the third disappointed them.


Doug O'Keefe 10.19.17 at 11:12 pm

Yes, JD, me too. P Pullman has said that he wished he had had another six months to work on the third book.

Well, he’s had lots of time to write the new one, so let’s hope!


SJ 10.21.17 at 11:15 am

I finished it yesterday. It’s quite entertaining and well worth reading, but it doesn’t add to the original trilogy in any way. It’s a light weight prequel, a story of a few weeks worth of events when Lyra was 6 months old.


harry b 10.21.17 at 4:45 pm

Simon Russell Beale reads an abridged version on Radio 4 (about 2 1/2 hours):

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