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His Dark Materials Tehanu's Seventeenth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

I had to wait three years for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to be finished but now with the publication of The Amber Spyglass, I am certain at last: This is what I’ve been waiting for since the year I discovered The Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Earthsea. I thought it’d never happen again: A fantasy trilogy to be read again and again, each time finding discovering more, each time being swept away completely into another world and its unforgettable story.

It’s not trying to be The Lord of the Rings (what a relief!) so don’t look for that immediate otherworldliness that Tolkien’s language gives just by its archaic nature. The strangeness and startlement are elsewhere, in the worlds and characters Pullman invents, and the mystery that the story unravels. Big mysteries, in the end, like ‘why are we here?’ and ‘What is the purpose of consciousness?’ They may look like kids’ books, and the main characters are children, but don’t be fooled.

Ever play that game of imagining a dinner party where you could invite anyone you liked, living or dead? If you’re a reader, you’d probably invite your favourite authors. Now, here I hit a snag: I can’t imagine any way that Pullman and Tolkien could inhabit the same room without breaking into some uproar. There’d grievous bodily sarcasm breaking out and possibly even raised voices. Well, raised voices for sure, because I’ve already heard Pullman raise his voice once when asked what he thought of C S Lewis (He thinks he’s wicked and abominable) and he doesn’t think much of Tolkien, besides crediting his ability to write a ripping good yarn. What The Lord of the Rings says about human nature is not very interesting, in his opinion.

Well, isn’t it always embarrassing to have friends that can’t stand the sight of each other? This is one dinner party that would crash and burn.

For a start, Pullman’s trilogy has been called ‘the most vicious attack on organised religion this reviewer has ever seen’ and it’s been accused of satanism. In the interview I heard, Pullman retorted mildly that anyone who read his books and found they’d been converted to satanism was welcome to write to the publisher and ask for their money back. He had a dry wit and gracious manner uncannily like Tolkien’s, I thought. Their view of the world is shaped by different times, and one change that would have affected Tolkien most is the secularisation of the present time. If in a parallel universe Tolkien had been born 60 years later could they have been twins? Would they meet over a decanter of Tokay and still fight anyway?

Happily for me, it’s unofficially Philip Pullman week here in NZ. Wham, suddenly everyone who’s anyone is reading His Dark Materials and talking about it including on the marvellous Kim Hill show on Radio NZ. I can’t tell you how strange this interview was. There was Pullman with his mild, gentle Oxford don’s voice and his inflexible will, brain as sharp as a tack, sidestepping any questions about whether or not he was an atheist with a certain practised elegance, though he’s elswhere described himself as a ‘Church of England Atheist.’

Gordon Campbell of the NZ Listener was able to get closer to the answer: "...the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer are still deeply in the cells of my brain. I don’t want to be rid of them, or be without them. I do believe and try to uphold the injunctions towards charity, but I don’t take any notice of the commands to believe.....But the actual textures, sounds, smells of an old country church on a cold winter’s morning...The light coming through the stained-glass windows on a summer’s evening. The sound of the organ. These are all part of my childhood. My grandfather was a country clergyman, and the example he set me of charity and kindness is still profoundly important to me."

Coincidentally, as well as being Pullman week, the current state of Christianity is in the news a lot here for various reasons. This appeared in the Feb. 10th Listener’s "Letters to the Editor: "Many Christians today understand God not so much in images of a "supernatural being called God", but in terms of spirit, transcendence, mystery, awe - a spiritual reality in life that is something other than human existence, yet integrated with it."

That’s from the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland. He’d count as a reliable witness on the state of faith today - or at leas,t I’ve heard similar things from other theologians.

Pullman’s trilogy moves more towards that idea than towards anything Tolkien could agree with, I suspect. It’s fantasy that is the child of a mind born more than half a century later thanTolkien. Those two wouldn’t mildly dislike each other, they’d probably detest each other. Weird, because they’re so similar: Oxford dons, writers with a gift for lyric prose, world-creators and fantasists who are concerned with the state of the human soul and the beauty of the world, be it created or evolved.

Why that strange title, His Dark Materials? It’s a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It takes about halfway through the trilogy before you begin so see why that’s relevant. The full quote’s on the flyleaf. I remember starting these books wondering if this was another one of these authors that puts up a few favourite quotes in order to show that they’re really into literature and up to writing a bit of it themselves. Oh no, no no no. This time it’s not a cheap pedigree, it really is a clue to the depths in this book. Pullman’s said he hoped it made more people read Milton, and from what I gather, it’s worked. Isn’t it strange that two books could be based on Paradise Lost - the Ainulindale in The Silmarillion is the other - and use it to reach such different conclusions? Now at last here’s a smashing defence for the view that Satan is the most interesting character Milton wrote...(great, so I’m not alone there.)

I’m not going to tell you much of what happens in His Dark Materials because it would destroy the fun of figuring out what’s going on but I will say what got Pullman started - the Biblical story of the Fall from grace in Eden. He recasts it as a fall from ignorance into knowledge. Escaping ignorance is another thing I heard him argue for passionately. A major theme in Pullman’s trilogy is the difference between childhood and adulthood and the journey into knowledge of choices. It’s experience that makes us fully human, according to Pullman.

Funny thing is that Terry Pratchett says similar things (and he’s supposed to be a funny writer so he gets a lot of profound and controversial things into print that go right under the radar of the book-burning brigade): "Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are... well....human beings."

He was describing how people do or don’t become self-obssessed little sociopaths. It’s experience that makes the difference; it’s part of growing up and understanding one’s place in society, one’s own self,coming to understand one’s own body. In the Pullman universe, puberty marks that transition from Innocence to Knowledge. (Yep, William Blake’s an influence.) It’s weird to hear him talking in his reserved Oxford don’s voice about sexuality, with that slightly hesitant air that politely assumes that you may be as embarrassed to hear it brought up as he is to discuss it. But he won’t back away from it. He maintains that there’s sexuality but no sex in the book, though he says too, "Well, for goodness sake, did I say it was a children’s book?" (Readership at the moment is about half adult, half children, as it happens.) Pullman’s writing celebrates the physical body and the material world. "If readers take nothing else away from these 1300 pages...I would like them to take away the sense I was trying to convey of the infinite preciousness of the physical. The sense of this material universe, full of grass and trees and flesh and skin and sunlight and rain and so on. It is our home. It is where we live."

That quote reminded me of something. This is Tolkien defending fantasy from the accusation that it’s trivial: "Actually fairy stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting…It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." And yes, to me that’s part of the power of his writing - the way his words make the world firm and celebrate its beauty. Pullman has this quality too. How strange that they should be opposed to each other, Tolkien loving the world because it reflects Heaven, and Pullman loving it for what it is and can be.

Another parallel to the phrase above turned up in the radio interview. Kim Hill brought up another book that bears comparison. Hill’s a voracious and insightful reader who doesn’t usually like fantasy or science fiction, but she loved Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow as she did the Pullman trilogy. Pullman and Hill chewed over the idea that it seems to be ‘genre’ fiction that allows itself room to cover the big questions. Science fiction can stretch out and discuss things like origins, the purpose of life, free will and good and evil on the largest possible scale. (In my opinion, fantasy could but is usually too mentally lazy to try - let’s cheer on the exceptions!) Literary fiction, Pullman reckoned, is often obsessed with smallness and detail and cleverness - the angst of Twenty-somethings. But children’s fiction has the wonderful advantage of being written for people at their most curious age. As he said in the Campbell interview, "In the early teens, the cosmic issues - the ones that soon get buried in the daily grind of making a living - have a brief chance to flower, as our minds make first contact with the great world beyond."

It was a tremendous relief to hear a writer say this. Suddenly it felt like there was good reason for loving less-literary fiction. I got an image of writers entering into genre fiction with the same unselfconscious joy of a dog let off the lead on a looong beach. If it’s a working dog bred for running, it’ll eat up the distances to the limits of vision. In such a place, writers go off like a hunting dog, following the trails laid down by a really good story....

That’s the other thing literary fiction’s had bred out of it - the passion for telling a rip-roaring, can’t-put-it-down yarn. That’s never been a problem in science-fiction and fantasy, or children’s fiction. It was good to hear Pullman say this because I’d just read some of Steven King’s essays on writing in Secret Windows. He says:

"My own belief about fiction, long and deeply held, is that story must be paramount over all other considerations in fiction; that story defines fiction, and that all other considerations - theme, mood, tone, symbol, style, even characterisation - are expendable. There are critics who take the strongest possible exception to this view, and it is my belief that they would feel vastly more comfortable if Moby-Dick were a doctoral thesis on cetology rather than an account of what happened on the Pequod’s final voyage. A doctoral thesis is what a million student papers have reduced this tale to, but the story still remains - "This is what happened to Ishmael""

Well, I’ve said all that and I haven’t said one thing about what happens in any of these books. Worse, I’ve made them sound like they might be stuffed fuller of theological argument than Perelandra. But no, they’re nothing like that. They’re the adventures of Lyra, a tomboy with scabby knees running wild in an Oxford that is not our Oxford but a para-Edwardian city where people’s souls accompany them in visible form as a daemon that can change shape until a person reaches puberty and the daemon’s form is fixed. It’s a terrific love story, not just between the human characters but between the people and their daemons. Somehow Pullman makes you believe in in a universe where everyone is always accompanied by this creature that is their heart and soul, their deepest love and a part of their inner life made visible. Some of the most heart-wringing moments happen when this bond is tested - proof to me that Pullman’s carried off the incredible feat of making a new and strange thing in fantasy that feels as true as anything written about our everyday reality.

Reading List: The trilogy His Dark Materials starts with The Golden Compass or as it is known in Commonwealth countries, Northern Lights. Amazon.com not only sells the book but has scads of customer reviews. One of the younger reviewers complained of the ending of the last book, that is as bittersweet as the last chapter of LOTR. they felt such an ending demanded a fourth book to make it all turn out happily ever after. Unwittingly that reader defined the very essence of that difference between Innocence and Experience that is at the heart of Pullman’s books.

Bouquets and brickbats to tehanu@theonering.net please!

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