Pullman himself is a woodworker, artist and calligrapher; his tradecraft aligns him with another important strand in the sensibility of Victorian Oxford and American transcendentalism: the independent-minded, visionary Henry David Thoreaubuilding his cabin, William Morris with his ideals of beautiful handmade things, and John Ruskin, who shared those dreams. Pullman has come to resemble the Ancient Mariner, shaking hoary locks, demanding we pay attention to the calamities gathering on all sides. The radiant devices and other wishful dreams of alternative futures have rather faded from view in this new book, and the child heroes are beleaguered and alone in their valiant struggle against huge, massed forces of harm.
The tension in Pullman between deep attraction to magic and fierce atheistic pragmatism resolves itself into a commitment to art – especially shipshapeliness; this is a properly Romantic attitude. Just as his concept of daemons owes a lot to Coleridge’s ideas about inspiration, and his absolute trust in imagination rings with the hopes and beliefs of Keats and Shelley, so the commitment to the making of things as well as possible in the here and now expresses his faith that a well-made story, like the small, well-trimmed boat that carries the children on their long, dangerous journey, will offer shelter in any storm.