Once Upon a Time in the North
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Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
‘The pilot [of the battered cargo balloon] was a lean young man with a large hat, a laconic disposition, and a thin moustache.’ Devotees of ‘His Dark Materials’ will be delighted to encounter the youthful Lee Scoresby on the opening page; they must wait another 50 pages for the arrival of the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. This is the first meeting, and first adventure, shared by two of Pullman’s most attractive creations; the bond which grows between them is so strong that, many years in the future, Iorek will devour the corpse of his old friend, accepting this ‘final gift’ to fend off his own starvation.
As the title suggests with its nod to Serge Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, our Texan hero finds the Northern port of Novy Odense almost a home-from-home, when he and his daemon Hester make a bumpy landing, swept in on the rain and wind. A politician in cahoots with a mining company looks like a shoo-in at the upcoming elections; Lee gets involved in a saloon brawl on his first night in town; and he ends up in a cat-and-mouse shoot-out to the death with a ruthless gun-slinger. It is in this tale that he acquires the Winchester which serves him so well throughout the trilogy. He also discovers, though he’d be slow to admit it, that for all his street-fighting skills and his eager fancy for women, he is a man of honour.
The action is always tempered by Pullman’s irrepressible playfulness; it is evident, for example, in the dialogue between Lee and his daemon (a jackrabbit who knows she’s classier than that). Then there’s the ephemera scattered through the text – a bill of lading or a couple of pages about landing a balloon extracted from a tattered copy of ‘The Elements of Aerial Navigation’. At the end, we leap forward beyond the trilogy to some correspondence which reveals a tantalising glimpse, stemming from this adventure, of Lyra’s future at Oxford University. The text insists that we engage in mental play ourselves throughout; finally Pullman invites us to try a pull-out board game, ‘Perils of the Pole’, with punch-out Wind Compass and balloon counters. Characteristically, his game rewards the slowest competitor in a kind of inverted snakes-and-ladders. This hardback, only 12cm x 18cm but comfortable and substantial in the hand, is a physical pleasure in itself (and cheap at the price). John Lawrence’s satisfyingly detailed engravings complement the text in spirit, somehow ranging from the muscular to the reflective and even to the comical.