The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

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Intellect and imagination

The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’

Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.

Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.

At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.

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An abyss next to you

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

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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.

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No scruples

Inverted Commas 18: Hands tied

“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’

Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.

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Reading meaning in things

Lyra’s Oxford
by Philip Pullman,
engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2003

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— William Makepeace

The title enshrines a dichotomy. Superficially it asserts that this is a city from the world Lyra inhabits, a world both like and unlike ours, that ambiguity given visual force by a wonderful fold-out map in the first edition hardback depicting the moody streets of Oxford overlooked by an airship at the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station.

But by the final pages it becomes clear that it’s Lyra herself who is this world’s Oxford to keep: “The city, their city — belonging was one of the meanings of that, and protection, and home.” There is a feeling that Oxford is looking after her and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a sense that will last her through the rest of her teenage years. Will that protection last through the central events of The Book of Dust?

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“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

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Incidental extras

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

I seem to have abandoned — temporarily, I hope — my original summer reading plans and, instead of the titles I’d chosen for my Ten Books of Summer, other works (mostly rereads) are clamouring for my attention. And as I’ve always maintained that leisure reading should be for pleasure I’ve yielded to the temptation … which is absolutely fine in my book.

So I’ve just finished a reread of The Amber Spyglass and am preparing a considered review of that, followed with a quick shufti through Lyra’s Oxford to refresh my memory of that. Then it’s on — finally! — to The Secret Commonwealth.

While I gather my thoughts on the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy this may be also a good moment to pause and reflect on some incidentals.

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Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.

The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.

Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

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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.

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Dark matters

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)

What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)

The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.

The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.

And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.

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The nature of story

“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë

A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.

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Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

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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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