Æsahættr

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Delacroix (detail)

I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.

But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.

Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.

Let me start with the foursquare tower situated in the old town of Cittàgazze, the Torre degli Angeli or Tower of Angels. Here resides the last of the city’s guild of philosophers, Giacomo Paradisi, Keeper of the Subtle Knife, though in the story a young man, Tullio, has taken it from him. Pullman, who knows that names have meaning, hasn’t chosen these names without thought: Giacomo’s surname suggests the Garden of Eden, with himself as the angel with the flaming sword guarding the gate. In keeping with the trilogy’s reversal of mythical chronology, Will Parry is not only given the knife to create portals to new worlds but also instructed in the means to close them up. Tullio’s Italian name (from the Latin Tullius, ‘he who leads’) implies that this is what he’d like to be, but this will not prove to be the case.

What is the significance of the tower? Here I am reminded of the second book of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which was entitled ‘The Two Towers’. The Torre degli Angeli recalls to me Saruman’s tower Orthanc, in Isengard. Here Saruman has his headquarters, where he hopes to subvert Frodo’s quest, and from where he plans to join Sauron in his conquest of Middle Earth. Though Giacomo isn’t a Saruman-type figure, the guild he belongs to was responsible for creating the knife and opening up portals to other worlds which, left unclosed, allowed the despair-producing, soul-devouring Spectres to travel between worlds and devastate the inhabitants.

If Cittàgazze’s tower is like Orthanc, what is the second edifice? Here I fancy we must look to the fortress which we hear from the witch Ruta Skadi is being constructed by Lord Asriel (Chapter 13 ‘Æsahættr’).

“Sisters, it is the greatest castle you can imagine — ramparts of basalt, rearing to the skies, with wide roads coming from every direction, and on them cargoes of gunpowder, of food, of armour-plate… And coming to this fortress are warriors of every kind, from every world.”

Though Asriel isn’t a Sauron figure by any means — nor even a Denethor, Gondor’s steward at Minas Tirith — neither is he without his dark side, as we saw in Northern Lights.

From Laurie Frost’s guide we know that Pullman was a fan of Brian Aldiss’s picaresque fantasy The Malacia Tapestry (1976) which featured a Venetian city by the Illyrian sea (based on Dubrovnik, the ancient Croatian city of Ragusa); clearly Cittàgazze was inspired by Aldiss’s concept though I can’t at the moment recall any specific tower in that novel which equates to the square Torre degli Angeli.

A plan of Malacia which I drew in the 1980s, based on ‘The Malacia Tapestry’ by Brian Aldiss

I also wonder if Pullman had the image of ‘The Tower’ from the Tarot cards in mind when writing this. I’ve used card XVI from the 20th-century Rider-Waite deck to illustrate this as it includes some details that may have inspired the writer. First there is the foursquare structure, as in the novel; then there is a crown structure at the top which may echo the “wood-and-glass structure like a little greenhouse” in the novel. There is of course no lightning striking the tower in The Subtle Knife but later, when Lee Scoresby’s balloon is being pursued by zeppelins the shaman Grumman calls down lightning to set them alight. Tullio at one point falls through the glass onto stairs below but not like the figures falling from the tower in the tarot card.

Now, the knife itself. The aged cliff ghast calls it Æsahættr. Though translated as ‘god-destroyer’ the suffix hættr might be better rendered as ‘dangerous’ if in Old Norse, or ‘hazards’ if in Icelandic. In our world the Æsir were the gods of Norse mythology, so maybe Æsahættr is Pullman’s made-up ghast word for ‘god’s danger’: this looks forward perhaps to its function in The Amber Spyglass. Here, however, I want to look at its other functions — as door-opener and heavy burden.

Of course one wouldn’t normally want to use a knife to open doors, yet that’s precisely what Æsahættr does: by gently feeling with its point Will is able to slip the edge between particles of air to cut open a window or portal to a parallel world. Conversely, he has to use his fingers to pinch the edges of the portal back together, presumably a bit like crimping pastry at the edge of a pie dish. It’s not an exact parallel but I am reminded of traditional wooden Suffolk latches, once principally used for sheds and farm buildings or internal cottage doors.

The two types were thumb latches and string latches, but I remember reading that either an index finger or a wooden latch ‘key’ could be pushed through the hole on the outside of a door to lift the inside latch. Sadly I can’t locate this particular reference but the mention of a finger latch ‘key’ takes us to Will’s horrific loss of his ring and little fingers on his left hand. This savage mutilation by Æsahættr of the appointed knife bearer seems not only absolutely horrendous but senseless — until we dig a little further.

First, deliberate mutilation of fingers has apparently been practised for centuries, if not millennia, as truncated fourth and fifth digits have been noted from prehistoric cave stencils of hands. One might speculate that they represented that a rite of passage had been passed because the practical problems that would arise from not having an efficient grasp can be imagined. Yet there is no doubting that there is a symbolic aspect to Will’s deformities being sustained by the knife. What is it?

Could it be a variation on the mark of Cain? You’ll remember that in Genesis Cain was described as a murderer — the first — a description that the alethiometer gave Lyra when she first met Will. Nobody knows what this mark is though Jean Daniélou suggested that early Christians were branded or tattooed with a tau cross on their foreheads — tau being the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, like Greem omega — and this may have been to mark them out so that, like Cain, they would be restless wanderers and the mark would prevent strangers from killing them. Curious logic though this is, Will’s disfigurement may be a visible mark that he too is a murderer as well as someone with a special dispensation, due to his being the bearer of the cross-shaped knife and the opener of doors into other worlds.

There is another sacred aspect to Will’s injury. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings was the self-appointed ring-bearer, a burden that became harder and harder the closer he got to Mount Doom. It was what permanently affected him so that, like Bilbo’s retirement to Rivendell, he too was to leave his mundane life and go to the Undying Lands in the West. Will’s burden is the knife, and throughout the second half of his journey in The Subtle Knife the stumps of his two fingers continue to bleed profusely, meaning lost blood and greater fatigue; this scapegoat aspect is familiar from other creeds and cultures, of course, and Will has taken on this role whether he will or no. Of course, Frodo loses the third finger of his right hand in The Return of the King, removed by Gollum in his fatal attempt to secure the Ring.

Philip Pullman’s heading for chapter 15: Will wrestles with the shaman

It’s not until the chapter entitled ‘Bloodmoss’ that his wounds can be salved, but that isn’t to be till he has wrestled on a mountain with a man who has an osprey daemon and wears a feather-trimmed cloak — the shaman Jopari, who is also his father John Parry. I was very struck by the resemblance of this incident with Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32: 25-9:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?

I don’t intend to go into the theology of all this — mainly because I neither know nor care — but I do want to draw attention to common factors that Pullman the atheist was choosing to include in this description of Will’s bittersweet completion of what he saw as his primary quest. Neither Jacob nor Will know who it is that they’re wrestling, because it is night; both receive an injury (though Will’s came about at the Tower); both antagonists are associated with feathers and wings (though Jacob’s opponent in Christian iconography is depicted as an angel). You will notice too that Pullman’s own silhouette illustration resembles post-medieval iconography of the encounter, whether by Delacroix or Doré.

There are other points about The Subtle Knife that I want to explore, not just Pullman’s purloining of biblical imagery, but as this reader’s response has already been far too long I shall leave them for another post or two.


Jean Daniélou, Primitive Christian Symbols. Translated by Donald Attwater. Compass Books (1964), chapter 9 ‘The Taw Sign’.
Laurie Frost, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: the Definitive Guide. Scholastic (2007).
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife. Scholastic Press (2001).

32 thoughts on “Æsahættr

    1. I’ve not actually read any Fish, Bart, only looked up various online references to reader response theory where he gets mentioned as its original proponent.

      I think the danger of this theory is that it feeds into the current malaise of everybody thinking their viewpoint and opinions have equal or greater value, validity even, than anybody else’s, quite regardless of their expertise, experience or knowledge of a particular subject — or, too often, their actual lack of such attributes. (You see I’m trying to distance myself from any claim that my speculations here are the only correct ones!)

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      1. Yes, there’s always that danger, but I guess the opposite is even more dangerous, for that would get us back to authorative readings that leave no room for discussion, and in that case the dominant viewpoint often is simply the one with the most ‘power’ behind it, and that is also regardless of expertise, experience or knowledge.

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    1. Thanks, Jo — I’m sure that as an artist you’ll recognise the process! As a classical musician I’m used to analysing pieces, especially those I perform, all the better to try to express what the composer intended but also perhaps beyond that — what they hadn’t realised they intended! Beauty of line, emotion, storytelling — so much art strives towards the same ends but in different ways.

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      1. It does. What gets me about your ability is that you are able be aware of these things and articulate your understanding so well. I have the awareness but lack the ability to talk about them clearly. I think that’s why I love to read. I get to hear other people give voice to the things I can’t say.

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        1. Thanks again for your kind words but I have to admit I’ve cultivated the Art of Waffle over many years writing school reports… I jest, of course! I was a very conscientious teacher most of the time. 🤔

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  1. If ‘reader response theory’ is what it’s called, I’m all for it. A few months ago, I heard an interview with Deborah Levy on Open Book about her latest, in which she said she deliberately writes to make readers develop their own interpretations of her work, which she loves. I can vouch for that, I had a long conversation with another blogger about one of her previous books because we had very different ideas about it. Again, your wonderful thoughts about Pullman make me want to re-read these books, but my review pile and other plans won’t let me do it for a while.

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  2. piotrek

    Never heard of The Malacia Tapestry, but it seems to be quite a book… I’ll add it to my list and perhaps one day I’ll get a copy 🙂

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    1. Hi, Piotrek, I hoiked this and two other comments out of spam after you alerted me — no idea how they landed up there.

      I’d so like to reread The Malacia Tapestry and may go for it sooner rather than later now, and see if I can persuade you of its worth!

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  3. Such an interesting response, Chris. Thank you for sharing it. This trilogy fascinates me, too. I felt the pull to other texts and ideas all the way through, though I kept promising myself I would go back and trace some, I haven’t yet. I’m really looking forward to seeing where you go next.

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    1. Daemons. Carl Jung. Angels. Assyrian winged genies. Witches. Ancient Greek. The Radcliffe Observatory. And more…

      Glad you found this interesting, Cath! C S Lewis threw a lot of random motifs into Narnia — Father Christmas, Fauns, talking animals, for example — which to my sensitivities jarred; Pullman’s worlds, on the other hand, feel more linked in and integrated, and in these posts I’m trying to justify to myself why that should be so. Track and trace as a process applies here equally well!

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      1. I can’t wait.
        Hmm, Narnia is tricky. I have fond memories of ‘the wardrobe’, thanks to having it read to us at Junior school, but I’ve never thought of it as being organised, and I didn’t work my way through the various accompanying volumes.

        As an adult, I moved on to The Screwtape Letters, and the three science fiction novels, but that was a long time ago. They were all so much slimmer novels, that maybe they can’t stand beside The Dark Materials trilogy…

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        1. I only read all the Narnia Chronicles five years ago, Cath, (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-narnia) and can’t say I was too impressed, though I have to add that I hope to read them all again to assess each one individually. The wardrobe portal feature — which he apparently nicked from Nesbit — is referenced by Pullman, though instead of going through the wardrobe to access new lands (as Lucy does) Lyra sees a new world from a wardrobe when Asriel does his lantern slide show.

          I couldn’t manage past the first page of Screwtape (I was at a Catholic school and it was too like what else I was being taught at the time) but I did read the SF trilogy and even the unfinished ‘The Dark Tower’ fragment which again features Ransom. I’ve a bit to say about Lewis in a non-fiction review I working on just now!

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          1. You are a mine of useful information and insights, Chris. I hadn’t thought of Lyra’s positioning as referencing Lewis, and it makes so much sense.

            Maybe it was my sketchy CofE background that triggered my enjoyment of Screwtape. I remember loving it, though I’ve never returned to it, and I don’t feel drawn to. I didn’t get to The Dark Tower, perhaps I should. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on his writing.

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            1. I’ve got a paperback of the Dark Tower fragment and some other short pieces, but I’m wondering whether to at least reread That Hideous Strength first. There was a spate of publishing unfinished writings in the late 20C (T H White’s The Book of Merlyn for example) and I suppose they’re helpful for academics and completists but don’t add much to the original series.

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  4. Is it weird I can separate my storytelling self and reading self from the faith self? I still get weird looks from people around me (yes, including church folk) that I like these books…anyway…

    I find it fascinating how a writer like Pullman uses these Biblical moments to create a conflict that fits perfectly for his own character’s and their world’s stakes.

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    1. I don’t see it as weird, Jean, a true artist/writer/poet can appreciate notions that appear to directly contradict each other while retaining their quintessential beliefs. As an atheist I can still be moved by Bach’s St John Passion without subscribing to its underlying creed, and the same with enjoying fairylore without in the least imagining the blessed creatures exist — and the same I’m sure applies to those with faith who still appreciate a good story well told.

      In any case, I don’t think Pullman is necessarily anti-religion or antagonistic towards those who call themselves Christian: what is crystal clear to me is that he’s attacking particular aspects of institutionalised religion that have nothing to do with common decency and everything to do with authoritarian control.

      Jesus’s core value, expressed I think in Matthew’s gospel, is to love God *and* to love your neighbour as yourself. Without going into full theological mode what seems to me the failure of much institutionalised religion and its adherents is the focus on loving their God — frequently fashioned exclusively in their image — but neglecting to love their neighbour. When critics focus on the ‘blasphemy’ or the ‘witchcraft’ in Pullman or Rowling they somehow seem to overlook the books’ central messages of love and compassion, and to ignore the attacks on arbitrary power and ruthless control which these authors and others point up.

      You and I know this, of course, which is why we, in your words, like these books. I feel that, without that love and compassion for neighbour — whatever race, ethnicity, creed, gender or political persuasion they may be — exhortations to love a God solely and exclusively defined by a powerful institution are unbalanced, even dangerous. This is Pullman’s stance, I sense, with his God figure, the Authority, becoming enfeebled and susceptible to a power grab by his authoritarian Regent Metatron: Pullman is attacking absolute power and control, not religion per se. The fact that we have fallible authoritarian leaders right now declaring if you’re not with them you’re against them is a contemporary instance of near absolute power corrupting absolutely — the real target of Pullman’s ire, I believe. That iniquitous abuse was even more evident in La Belle Sauvage than HDM, I believe.

      Sorry, I seem to have given vent to a lot of heat, Jean, sorry! See it as transferred but impotent rage against the madness our two countries and others have got themselves into at the moment!

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      1. No apologies necessary! I love your walk through theme and thinking here. You’ve struck what I wasn’t quite grasping inside, but now that you’ve got it in words, I can see it, too. The Church has a deep, mucky history of violence and conflict for the sake of power, and sadly, that history separated in the past, but still running fast under the ground of the present.

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        1. I realise I didn’t answer your point about how Pullman reuses biblical motifs, Jean, but of course that’s one of the strengths of both Old and New Testaments combined — there is so much storytelling and nuggets of ideas that chime in with human experience that it’s hard to escape from, even if one wanted to.

          Your other point now: you may remember that I’ve mentioned my own Catholic upbringing, rooted in the Latin tradition from before the Second Vatican Council and tinged particularly with the fierce Irish take on it in my latter years. Combine that with my History studies right up till I left school at 16 and my general involvement with archaeology and you’ll understand how I saw a mismatch between the high ideals claimed by the Catholic Church and the institutional failings, particularly as have come to light in recent decades. It’s those kind of failings — autocratic practices, a thought police mentality and hypocrisy — that difficult fiction like Pullman’s attempts to address, not the essentially humane gospel message of the NT.

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          1. Archaeology, history studies in high school…damn, I’m envying your education here. I suppose hearing about Martin Luther’s persecution from the Catholic Church every year of my childhood made me feel like EVERYone knew Catholics were “bad guys”–it was the norm that Catholic churches oppressed everyone. Of course I learned that it’s all much more nuanced than that, but I suppose this element of my own inner knowledge also made it easier to accept Pullman’s imagery than others. But then, I know waaaaay too many conservative Christians who can’t stand ANY sort of critical take on any church. (And then there are those who can’t even abide the Chronicles of Narnia because “the animals talk. God didn’t create the animals to talk.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?) It’s the hypocrisy–hmm, maybe not the best word–the double-standard, I want to focus on that term. The pointing out of splinters in everyone else’s eyes and ignoring the plank in one’s own. That boils me in my deepest marrows, especially when one brings attention to it and is ignored because, Jesus.

            And now you’ve got *me* wound up. 🙂

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            1. ‘Double standards’ is fine, Jean, I won’t argue!

              I owe a lot to one of my history teachers at school, younger than most of the established teachers, who taught us to question everything, including our own preconceptions and assumptions. He also had this precept that to be a good historian it was less helpful to know ‘facts’ than to know where and how to look them up. Because, as we find out, ‘facts’ do change: we don’t have to chew everything 32 times to digest food properly — eating carrots doesn’t let you see in the dark — Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th… I can’t tell you how much of a lightbulb moment that was for me, to become aware of the need to use one’s critical faculty properly.

              Sorry to get you wound up!

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            2. I’m better now, primarily because the kids were winding each other up and SOMEone had to be calm in the house. 🙂 But this just further proves the power of a good teacher connecting with students. Our current generation is in dire need of such individuals…

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