Shh! Don’t tell anyone else or the crowd will be so big we’ll never get in, but that phenomenal British author of books for young people that have captivated readers of all ages is making a single Chicagoland stop in the western suburbs this weekend. You know who I mean–the prolific writer of a hugely popular, critically acclaimed fantasy series, the one whose eager fans were beside themselves during the seemingly endless wait for the latest volume and are now reveling in every carefully crafted word. Yes! Philip Pullman will talk about his trilogy “His Dark Materials” and sign books tonight at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville.

If you were thinking of someone else, a little background is in order. J.K. Rowling isn’t the only wildly popular contemporary British author of genre- and generation-jumping fantasy. Pullman, whose sophisticated work is regularly shelved in both the adult science fiction and young readers’ sections of the public library, already had a sizable list of books to his credit before the first Harry Potter book appeared in 1997. The first volume of this series, The Golden Compass, was published in 1995 and was an instant hit, winning England’s prestigious Carnegie Medal and rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It introduced Pullman’s young protagonist, Lyra, her alternate universe, and her constant companion, the shape-changing daemon Pantalaimon.

Over breakfast last summer when he was in Chicago for BookExpo America, Pullman called the daemons attached to every human character in the trilogy “the best idea I ever had.” Born in 1946, Pullman was raised in Australia and England. He now lives in Oxford, where he spends every morning writing his stories in a shed “at the bottom” of his garden with breaks to watch Neighbours, a British soap opera. He studied English literature at Exeter College and for 12 years was a middle-school teacher, revisiting the classics of myth and literature while observing his pupils’ adolescent turmoil. His first novels grew from plays he wrote for his students to perform. This trilogy, he once told an editor, was intended to retell the story of Adam and Eve for teenagers. The title, “His Dark Materials,” is drawn from Milton’s Paradise Lost; the daemons are external, animal embodiments of the soul.

Nothing about this retelling is obvious, but suppose there was a second battle in heaven, with a different outcome? In an epic filled with warring angels and spies the size of dragonflies, where “science” is what goes on at chapel and “theology” refers to cutting-edge experimental research, Lyra’s supposed uncle, Lord Asriel, mounts a rebellion against “the Church.” Is that any organized church we know? Pullman says the struggle is between the “old forces of control and ritual and authority, the forces which have been embodied throughout human history in such phenomena as the Inquisition, the witch trials, the burning of heretics, and which are still strong today in the regions of the world where religious zealots of any faith have power, and the forces that fight against them.” It’s the “Kingdom of Heaven,” he says, against the “Republic of Heaven.”

Pullman’s fans were left hanging after the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, came out in ’97. It was only this month, with the publication of The Amber Spyglass, that he rescued them. Like its sister volumes, The Amber Spyglass offers Dickensian plotting and an intriguing blend of technology and myth. There’s also a chilling visit to the Land of the Dead, a friendship that turns to romance, snaky tempters, and an Eden full of surprises. Pullman, who balks at labels and says he’s writing for all age groups, claims the fantasy in his work is just a means of getting to interior realism. Like the Harry Potter books, “His Dark Materials” offers a British setting, struggles between good and evil, youthful heroes, and sometimes villainous adults. But in Pullman’s fantasy there’s no familiar school to return to and no perfect wands. Journeys, undertaken in an atmosphere of anxious escape, are more likely to remind us of the Odyssey or Dante’s Inferno. While Harry Potter’s parents are deceased and virtually sainted in the wizard world, Lyra’s parents, and the parents of the other “His Dark Materials” protagonist, Will, are more frightening because they’re alive–but missing, damaged, or seriously corrupted. The capacity of characters for both good and evil here startles us.

Pullman will be at Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson in Naperville, at 7 PM Friday, October 27. It’s free. Call 630-355-2665 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Neville Elder.