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?

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“A healthy, thoughtless child”

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

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
Illustrations by Philip Pullman, cover alethiometer illustration by David Scutt
His Dark Materials: Book One
Alethiometer edition, with additional text by the author
Scholastic Press 2007 (1995)

It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.

Northern Lights is the first, and in some ways the best, of Pullman’s imaginative and innovative His Dark Materials trilogy. Crammed full of ideas and yet never tripped up by them, this starts in lively fashion with a mystery and a murder attempt, then turns into a rollercoaster ride that gets more and more intense, eventually ending with the enigmatic words “and walked into the sky”. Pullman’s skill is that even a sceptical reader can accept cliff-ghasts, speaking polar bears and a sky full of witches at the same time as scientific terms such as elementary particles and technology such as gas balloons.

In fact, the world that’s described sounds so often like something out of a Victorian steampunk vision that it’s often hard to recall that this is also a world with modern concrete structures and even atomic power stations. It is, in fact, a little like the world the author was himself brought up in: born in 1946, Pullman grew up in a postwar England struggling with rationing (which only ended in 1954), a drear world which saw smog frequently devastate London (until the 1956 Clean Air Act began to tackle it, in the same year as the first civil nuclear power station become operational) and during which a paternalistic Conservative government were to be in power for some thirteen of the nineteen years after peace had been declared.

It is into a world like this, then, that we become aware of Lyra Belacqua, a “healthy, thoughtless child” (according to some Oxford scholars), a girl who unbeknown to herself is destined to initiate great and permanent change. The first indication that this is not our world is the mention of her daemon, Pantalaimon, an alter ego who appears in animal form and speaks.

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