This other Eden

‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’: illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Blue Fairy Book

This is planned as the first (and probably ‘final’) discussion post on Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass following my earlier review. What I want to do is pick up on a few random themes and thoughts which don’t necessarily or frequently appear in commentaries and reviews.

So there won’t be discussion on anticlericalism and religion; nor do I wish to discuss the science of Dust or lodestone resonators, the multiverse or quantum entanglement. But I do wish to make some observations about John Parry, Asriel and Marissa Coulter; about the broad structure of His Dark Materials; about one or two of the beings in the trilogy which I haven’t yet discussed; and a couple of other matters.

Above all, I want to point to His Dark Materials and in particular The Amber Spyglass as examples of Pullman’s skill at novelistic collage.

Aurora seen from the island of Kvaløya in Norway 23.01.2011 (Lars Tiede)

Collage has a long history, having affinities with, say, mosaic techniques in antiquity and photomontage in more recent times. In art it represents a technique of taking either natural materials or materials fashioned for particular purposes and, by selecting portions of them, repurposing them to form a new composition.

In His Dark Materials (and, I would guess, much of his other fiction) Pullman does what many authors do but which he seems to excel at, namely to take themes and motifs and threads from other narratives and, by assembling them in a new narrative, give them a new significance. I suppose this is an aspect of intertextuality — “the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text” — but I want to approach Pullman’s novel as though it’s a patchwork quilt, its ‘patches’ drawn from a common store of narrative motifs.

The first item I want to pick up to illustrate Pullman’s ‘sticking-together’ technique concerns the Norwegian fairytale ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. This tale of course has similar motifs to those in the Greek myth of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ and to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — all related to a tale type, the Search for the Lost Husband. Now, though Pullman is very familiar with traditional fairytales (having retold some of the Grimms’ tales), I’m not pushing for any part of the trilogy being firmly based on this tale type; I merely want to point out some motifs that he may have consciously or unconsciously absorbed and reused.

One motif is the image of a girl or young woman riding on a polar bear (the ‘beast’ in this version of the tale). Here surely is a parallel with Lyra riding Iorek the panserbjørn or fighting bear, even though their relationship is not at all akin to that of, say, Cupid and Psyche. When the White Bear’s secret — that he is a human bespelled by a witch — is discovered by the girl, he has to leave her to travel to the witch’s castle east of the sun and west of the moon, there to marry the troll daughter of the wicked stepmother witch.

The girl journeys in search of her lost lover, showing charity along the way and thereby gaining golden objects — an apple, a carding-comb, and a spinning wheel — which eventually help her rescue her lover after he’s twice been rendered soporific whenever she manages to gain access to him. While these three gifts help in rescuing the lover of the folktale, I fancy we have a distant echo of the three objects in Pullman’s trilogy — the alethiometer (reputedly Blake’s ‘golden compass’ though the reference is to a pair of map dividers), the subtle knife, and the amber spyglass — which together lead to a resolution, as in the Norwegian tale.

As for the lover in the tale being drugged to prevent the girl communicating with him, the parallel in The Amber Spyglass is with Lyra being drugged by her mother Mrs Coulter while being hidden in a Himalayan cave from both the Magisterium and from Lyra’s friends (which includes Will).

I now want to look at Pullman’s treatment of the ancient theme of the Harrowing of Hell, familiar from the Christian myth of Jesus descending into Hades to bring out the righteous who’d previously died and lead them to a better place. Lyra of course fulfils this role in the novel, becoming what the Greeks called a psychopomp, a ‘soul-guide’. We can see Pullman structuring his novel through visits to different worlds with biblical and mythical resonances, ranging from Lyra’s world to the heavens, from the Land of the Dead to an Earthly Paradise.

But while she’s down in the Land of the Dead Lyra discovers something unexpected. Each individual has not only a dæmon or animal counterpart, and the possibility of their ghost (another entity?) haunting a physical space, but each person while waiting on the shore for their passage from the ferryman is also accompanied by their own death; this appears as a human entity of the opposite gender, rather as dæmons tend to be. I suppose this is Pullman’s way of accounting for phrases like “going to one’s death”, as though “one’s death” is personal to each one of us, visible as a companion while one is waiting to cross the final river.

An individual’s death, their possible ghost, their visible dæmon — it all mounts up to a human’s complicated and complex existence in Lyra’s universe. But there’s more. To properly enter the Land of the Dead Lyra has to separate from her dæmon Pan, and that is a painful event which will have lasting consequences for hers and Pan’s future. But we have also discovered earlier that it is possible for humans from our own universe to acquire a dæmon: Will’s father John Parry takes on an Eagle dæmon after he becomes a shaman in Lyra’s universe, and Will himself is able to have a relationship with a cat in Cittàgazze which Lyra sees as akin to her and Pan’s relationship.

I now come to Will and his role as the bearer of the subtle knife which, inexplicably, seems to have chosen him rather than vice versa. Not only does it give him entry into other worlds but it also proves an effective defence against Spectres as well as offence. The knife also lets him down, at the very moment when he thinks of his mother.

Will with his knife reminds me of a group of motifs which all students of myth and legend will be familiar with. In Northern European mythology we know of the sword which the smith Regin reforges with the help of the hero Sigurd. Gram was the name of the sword of Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, and Sigurd (also known as Siegfried) had to make the sword whole again before he could wield it. Tolkien was to use this motif in The Lord of the Rings but it had also appeared in Arthurian epics: Sir Perceval’s cousin had prophesied to him that his sword would break at a critical moment. (A continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished The Story of the Grail describes how it breaks into pieces at the gates of the Earthly Paradise.)

Now, while Will goes searching for his father — with its tragic outcome — it is his mother (whom he has to leave behind) that he feels most guilty about. This is analogous to Perceval abandoning his mother to become a knight, which causes her to collapse in distress — this was much too reminiscent of her husband and her other sons disappearing to become knights for her to bear calmly. The immature Perceval doesn’t feel guilty about his mother, however, and doesn’t think about her until long after, when he is reminded of his abandonment of her by a spiritual adviser.

They say most stories and dreams are about familial relationships, don’t they? Will has to confront his fears for his mother and his curiosity about his father’s disappearance; Lyra has to come to terms with her mother’s vaulting ambition, later replaced by a maternal possessiveness, and with her father’s ruthless sacrifice of Roger in order to violently open a rift into other worlds.

In fact, ruptures of all kinds dominate His Dark Materials — the windows cut open by the subtle knife, Mrs Coulter’s intercision experiments, Asriel’s tearing a portal from the Arctic Circle to the world of Cittàgazze, the bomb that is intended to kill Lyra but opens a way from the Land of the Dead. Which makes the role of Dr Mary Malone so different and interesting and a contrast to everything else, and a character with whom I wish to close this discussion.

I don’t know if Dr Malone is a conscious or unconscious evocation of “sweet Molly Malone” in Dublin’s fair city, wheeling her barrow around the streets and crying “Alive, alive-oh” but she provides a more positive note to the thrills and spills of the trilogy. She is about communication — through her computer, with the mulefa in their own language — and about observation, not just through a screen but also through the amber spyglass that she makes. This is what many theoretical scientists do, they conduct experiments, they observe, they communicate results and conclusions.

And Mary is obsessed, as many others are, with Dust; unlike those others, however, she doesn’t want to use or abuse it, or condemn or condone it, but in her actions she is the ultimate catalyst that allows the problem of escaping Dust to be addressed. She is also of course the tempter in the garden, the one who introduces Will and Lyra to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — but then you knew all that.

Let’s finish with the amber spyglass and see what we can see. Mary constructs it with amber lenses, to which she adds a film of oil from the fruit of the tree that grows in the mulefa world, a world as close to an earthly paradise that Pullman’s saga describes. That oil is what allows Mary to observe Dust; and, as we shall discover, a different kind of oil is what will prove to be the grail sought in the second instalment of The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth.

The second televised series of His Dark Materials is imminent, due on November 16th on the BBC and HBO.

Yesterday was also the publication date of Philip Pullman’s novella Serpentine, which is set some little time after the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass (as was Lyra’s Oxford) and which I intend reviewing before I discuss The Secret Commonwealth.

A reminder too that Witch Week 2020 begins in little over a fortnight, hosted by Lizzie Ross on

6 thoughts on “This other Eden

  1. You cover so, so much here! I really need to revisit the stories. I don’t remember Lyra among the dead at all! I blame reading at 3am after getting the twins back to their cribs. 🙂 I hope you’ve been able to enjoy the time reading and…singing? Are you doing any sort of virtual singing for your choir during this holiday season? I’ve been rooting about for choral CDs to get Christmas into the house and wouldn’t mind a recommendation or two!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lyra among the dead was a long sequence that I only really appreciated after a reread — I seemed to remember it as interminable at the time but now entirely get what it was about. And it incidentally sets up conditions for Serpentine and The Secret Commonwealth though I don’t think Pullman was fully aware of that when he was writing The Amber Spyglass.

      No singing and precious little piano, I’m afraid, Jean — I lack the temperament to manage Zoom sessions or recording my performing, though I’ve joined in a couple of brief open-air sessions the groups I sing with have set up. Sadly, with winter approaching and weather permitting, I think this Wednesday’s daytime session may be the last for this year.

      I’m a bit conservative when it comes to listening to vocal music: I like period performances of Bach cantatas, Palestrina, Elizabethan madrigals, but found sopranos’ top notes in a recorded rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ a bit painful. But I love both singing and listening to Eric Whitacre…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will have to look Eric Whitacre up. I still remember…I think it was King’s College…but that magical moment of “In Dulce Jubilo” on Christmas Eve, sitting by the tree, watching candle flames flicker upon the table…yes, the right choir, the right song, it is a divine experience, but when the experience falls short, it’s…ugh.

        I wonder if my (im)patience with Amber Spyglass caused me to breeze through that part. I loved Subtle Knife, but had such mixed reactions with the third book that this new addition to the series makes me determined to revisit Dust and Daemons in 2021.

        Liked by 1 person

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