Measuring the heavens

The Ancient of Days: William Blake

A post I wrote recently for Witch Week explored one aspect of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Theory of Binary Opposites, namely that of the nasty and irredeemably dastardly antagonist. Because the week’s theme was Villains I dealt rather less with the figure on the other side of the continuum, the relatively innocent protagonist.

In fantasy fiction written for younger readers that figure tends to be a person one can identify with: whatever their gender they as youngsters usually have to face up to their morally corrupt binary opposite by mostly using inner resources; and often they have to cope without familial — especially parental — help.

A typical scenario might play out in this way: a notional orphan — one who believes their parents dead, or at least missing — is pivotal in a conflict against an evil regime. They spy another world from a wardrobe, cupboard or similar hidey-hole; they are susceptible to abduction but ultimately prove instrumental in releasing other children from slavery or worse; they exhibit quick-wittedness, or bravery, resourcefulness, loyalty or compassion, or any combination of these; above all they are individuals to admire, cheer on and wish well.

Is this outline possibly ringing bells for you?

I have, with many another viewer, been watching the television adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (the first series largely based on Northern Lights, known in North America as The Golden Compass) and been impressed by Jack Thorne’s script, the principal actors and its production values.

But I am also struck by how Pullman’s novel plugged into the quintessence of the fairytale protagonist while portraying Lyra as a credible and rounded individual, and Mrs Coulter as an ambivalent parental figure. Pullman establishes Lyra as no cardboard cut-out heroine but as one who shares aspects of the several personifications of fairytale protagonist; it is even possible to identify those aspects in each of several traditional hero/ine categories:

  • Morally upright character: Lyra has a deep-rooted sense of loyalty to friends, compassion for the down-trodden and antipathy to cruelty
  • Rogue/thief: while at Jordan College she habitually disobeys injunctions, a rebellious behaviour she retains throughout the trilogy
  • Trickster: she is adept at deceit, for example when hiding the drone spy in a sealed container; and in a sequel she is distressed when her name is echoed back to her as ‘Liar! Liar!
  • Innocent/fool: she follows her inclinations regardless of dangers and often in complete ignorance of possible consequences
  • Chosen One: one of her aspects which she has to remain ignorant of is the witches’ prophecy concerning her, an ignorance which is an essential prerequisite if she is to fulfil the trope of one destined by fate to accomplish great things

Because she is no single simple archetype from this gallery but a judicious mix she remains credibly real and complex, and thus able to sustain our involvement and investment over a series of books.

When we add to all that vulnerabilities which we can each appreciate — susceptibility to betrayal of trust, disappointments, setbacks, physical jeopardy — it becomes so much easier to also root for her when positive achievements loom large and friends prove supportive.

Lyra of course is not alone in eliciting our sympathies: literature is replete with them. Not just literature: the lives of stars from film, from TV soaps, along with celebrities, authors and politicians are all avidly followed in the fictionalised reportage that appears in gossip columns, magazines and online. Highs and lows — both real and imagined — tittle-tattle from acquaintances and speculation from tabloid journalists, they form the matrix that turns individuals into heroes or villains, victims or bullies, successes or failures.

Fantasy however, as a successor to myth, legend and fairytale, allows story arcs that can celebrate positive outcomes achieved by individuals we can unreservedly admire, even those with flaws and failings. These arcs then include motifs that become common to several independent narratives; the notion that hiding in a wardrobe allows a vision of other worlds is given not just to Lyra but, before her, to Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Joan Aiken’s resourceful child Dido Twite is in the habit of rescuing enslaved children, as is Lyra after her; Harry Potter is teased about being The Chosen One (though at least Lyra is unaware of this role assigned to her); and Terry Pratchett’s young witch Tiffany Aching has powers which she can’t always predict, much as Lyra is able to intuitively ‘read’ the alethiometer without always being sure what it means.

Here now is an opportune moment to clarify the significance of the North American title for Northern Lights, where it’s known as The Golden Compass. Of course the alethiometer is neither golden* nor a compass pointing to north, though new readers might be forgiven for thinking that: perhaps Northern Lights might originally have been considered as too confusing for a New World audience — too mundane possibly, or maybe even a textbook on the aurora borealis.

The golden compass is in fact Pullman’s reference to William Blake’s painting, sometimes called The Ancient of Days. This shows the Creator measuring the universe before bringing it into being, as any good inventor or engineer should; and for this he is using a pair of dividers … made from gold. Blakean and Miltonic images and themes infuse Pullman’s trilogy, as it well known, and the Ancient wielding his instrument to encompass worlds is a strand that runs throughout His Dark Materials.

In a sense all authors are god-like in being able to create their own worlds: they too measure and structure their stories, and craft characters and matrices in which to place them.

Pullman himself is thus a veritable Ancient of Days. (I can call him this because I’m around the same age as him!)

* I understand that the recently published second volume of The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth, has tried to integrate the originally brazen alethiometer with the American title for Northern Lights by having the instrument crafted from Welsh gold as well as bronze.

8 thoughts on “Measuring the heavens

  1. Pingback: Measuring the heavens — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. I’m enjoying the BBC adaptation too. What a find Dafne Keen is. I had already decided I needed to reread book one, at the least. Thanks for the pointers on ‘side-readings’. I can see I’m going to have plenty to think about during my Christmas break.


  3. piotrek

    I haven’t yet had a chance to see the new adaptation, but I’m really looking forward to. It seems to be well received, contrary to the deservedly bashed movie… I have high hopes this time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t so much dismayed, Piotrek, as disappointed by The Golden Compass — it had become like a rich tapestry, its trimmings removed, its gold threads tarnished, colours faded by exposure to fear of recriminations from conversative Christians.

      The actors did the best they could within the confines of a truncated script but really it needed something like the present series to bring out the fierce philosophies and forceful personalities expressed by the novel. Looking forward to how it all pans out!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Alyson Woodhouse

    As strong heroines go, Lyra certainly ticks a lot of boxes, but when I re-read His Dark Materials a couple of years ago, I realised I have possibly out grown her. I was drawn to her impulsiveness and hard edges when I first encountered her. Basically, she was everything I wasn’t, or thought I should have been. I’ve noticed recently though that I am beginning to gravitate twould heroines who are more like myself, either as I am now or used to be. I’m not quite sure of the reasoning behind this shift, but I guess I no longer want to be someone like Lyra, however wonderful she is. I’ll see how I get on with her now when I get around to watching the current BBC series.


  5. So much to like in this post, Chris. Just as a general comment, I wonder if you have ticked another box called, “What started you reading as a child?” And I think my answer might be the same today as it was when I was 10: I like to/want to relate in some way to the main character. As was true then, I still like to live vicariously through the characters in whatever adventure or issue they are dealing with. I cannot count the number of times some revelation struck me by what I read in a novel or how a phrase or discussion answered some dilemma I faced at the time or remembered back when I needed it.

    Even as an adult I love to see adventurous girls outwitting the adults/monster/alien/meangirls, being brave, knowing the answers when others-the boys?-don’t! I think that is one of the big reasons Hermione struck a chord with adult women. She lived true to herself and didn’t dumb down her talents (well, yes, adolescence did have some minor blips for her in that regard)! Overall, she never apologized for her passions and intellect.

    Anyway, a little off topic, but once again your post made me think!


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