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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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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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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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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Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Laurie Frost:
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)

Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.

Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.

Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.

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Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

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Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust,
Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

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Like a Hyena

Eftsoones out of her hidden cave she called
An hideous beast, of horrible aspect,
That could the stoutest courage have appalled;
Monstrous misshaped, and all his back was specked
With thousand spots of colours quaint elect,
Thereto so swift, that it all beasts did pass:
Like never yet did living eye detect;
But likest it to an Hyena was,
That feeds on women’s flesh, as others feede on grass.

— Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Book III, Canto VII, 22

In Spenser’s extraordinary allegorical epic in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and her government he comes up with striking image after image and kaleidoscopic incident after incident. I’ve only dipped into The Faerie Queene now and again but this incident came to mind when I was reading Philip Pullman’s first follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage. For those struggling with Spenser’s language, here’s a prose version of the circumstances surrounding the creature’s appearance, which includes a young innocent maiden fleeing from perils:

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Dust off those cobwebs

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Nicholas Tucker
Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman
Wizard Books 2003

Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will have been cheered by the announcement of the publication of the (as they say) long-awaiting follow-up entitled The Book of Dust. Like HDM this will appear in three volumes, and the first — titled La Belle Sauvage — will be published in October this year by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books in the UK, and Random House Children’s Books in the US, according to the author’s own website.

Eager to revisit HDM in some shape or form, especially as the series has been around a score of years since I first read the three books (rather less for the two slim spin-offs that appeared subsequently) I looked at Nicholas Tucker’s brief study as a kind of refresher course and to see if it duplicated or complimented Laurie Frost’s encyclopaedic Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide first published by Scholastic in 2006.

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