Posts Tagged ‘His Dark Materials’

Richard Holloway: Stories We Tell Ourselves

January 2, 2021

     I’m not sure what it was that prompted me, last year, to read Richard Holloway’s autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, which tells the story of how a Scottish episcopalian, who rose to become Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus of Scotland, eventually found himself unable to believe in God any longer, and consequently laid down those high offices. But I found his story, and his thinkings on all sorts of questions, both very thought-provoking and also very helpful.

This, his latest book, is basically his exploration of God as a human construct, and the stories we have told ourselves since the dawn of ages, about a higher being, and our need for one: the idea that we construct God in our own image, rather than the biblical trope of God creating Man in His image (upper-case deliberate there).

Holloway writes about the flawed nature of us humans, and our therefore necessarily flawed knowledge and understanding of what we ‘know’. There is no easy answer to the question of existence or non-existence of a deity, no universal or all-encompassing answer, especially one that any group or organisation has a right to force on others. Equally, there are dangers in accepting or welcoming the ready-made, neat answers of others as solutions to our, or the world’s problems. At this point I felt I was reading a book which offered nothing new, other than a great deal of common sense, all gathered together in one place, satisfying enough. But it got better.

He struck a chord with me when he referred in some depth to a book I remember from many years ago as an important insight into the world of my youth, Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counterculture, and I wished I’d retained my copy to refer back to it.

Clarity is here: Holloway’s disagreement is with the organised, structured, regulating church rather than the religious or spiritual impulses within us, and he is honest enough to admit that someone like himself, steeped lifelong in religion, as it were, even when he works his way to a clearer understanding such as the one he is presenting us in this book, nevertheless is drawn to what he knew and what used to sustain him… He writes of a ‘general tendency in subsequent generations to over-define and concretise the original revelation’, and suggests that ‘gods always fail: they are us absolutised, enlarged with our own worst nightmares’.

In the later chapters, he moves on to considering a world in which a supposedly loving God allows so much suffering, which he rightly thinks poses a major ethical problem for any believer who thinks. He then comes on to consider what sense can be made of Jesus, and his life and teaching, nowadays. He outlines his own position, which he links back to earlier philosophers, and particularly to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is that we ought to act ‘etsi deus non daretur’ – as if there were no God: to strive to be good and do the good that religion enjoins us to anyway, out of a love for our fellow- creatures. I found a powerful and intriguing link there with Philip Pullman’s conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy: that it’s up to us to build the Republic of Heaven ourselves, here on earth.

After Leaving Alexandria, it was astonishing just to read an account of this man’s spiritual journey, a very personal affair at one level, offered to all: here is someone who thinks, and reflects, continually; the quest never ends. As I mentioned earlier, at one level there’s a lot of the pretty obvious to many here, but to accompany someone working it all out for himself, as I strive regularly to do myself, I found very liberating: here was someone who spoke to my condition.

I was very tempted to go straight back to the beginning and start a re-read immediately, but thought better of the impulse, and decided it would be helpful to wait a little while. But return I shall.

Philip Pullman: Serpentine

October 19, 2020

     It’s another of the slim volumes complementary to His Dark Materials, like Lyra’s Oxford, and Once Upon A Time in the North, with a chapter’s worth of narrative and some good illustrations in a nicely-produced little volume, a sort of taster to keep readers alert for the next big volume, which will probably be the final volume in the Book of Dust series, as well as the end of Lyra’s adventures…

We’re back in the frozen north, as Pullman and Lyra explore the interesting idea of humans able to separate from their daemons, which of course Lyra and Pan have been able to do since she and Will travelled through the world of the dead. How many others can actually do this? Witches can, but evidently there are more humans with this ability, and of course the situation in Will’s world is quite different. And what about the effect on both the human and the daemon of separation? How can Lyra manage her changed relationship with her daemon? There is now the potential for each to know and experience things that the other does not…

This also sent me back to thinking about the enforced separation of human and daemon – intercision – for which the centre at Bolvangar was set up.

If you’re a fan of Pullman’s alternate universes, then this little book, which time-wise sits between the end of the Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, then you won’t want to miss this one. And you get an afterword where Pullman explains the genesis of the story…

Nicholas Tucker: Darkness Visible

January 20, 2020

I’d forgotten how long it was since Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials first appeared; this slim and rather curious volume reminded me. Tucker provides an introduction and potted biography of Pullman; his tone is rather strange, at times almost lecturing his reader and at other times addressing him almost as a child. I found the way he was making judgements and apparently telling me that was the only interpretation rather off-putting at times, too. But he clearly had access to Pullman when he was writing the book.

What is both interesting and useful is the way he links Pullman’s life story and his writing, although again he can be rather sketchy here. He certainly canters through the early novels in an unsatisfying way, delivering rather pat judgements on them. However, Pullman does come across as a very political and a very moral writer, and consistently so.

Tucker’s best section is his very compact and succinct summary of the plots and action of the three novels in the trilogy, which makes and reminds us of all the necessary links and connections between them; it surprised me how much detail it is possible to forget, overlook or simply lose track of in over 1300 pages of superb story-telling. Finally, Tucker explores some interesting parallels between Pullman’s trilogy and C S LewisNarnia novels, which will be of interest if you like the latter – I don’t.

In the end, I think this book has been overtaken by time, and Pullman’s public role and reputation; no doubt someone will write (has written?) a more serious and detailed biography, and criticism of his literary output…

nb I re-read the 2003 edition; apparently there is a second edition from 2017

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North

January 1, 2020

51MctBCN2bL._AC_UY218_ML3_   A long time ago, shortly after the completion of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a couple of short books were published, extending and developing parts of the story. I acquired one – Lyra’s Oxford – at the time, but the other I haven’t had until now, and a very welcome stocking-filler it was, too.

Once Upon a Time in the North is a tale of Lee Scoresby’s very early days as an aeronaut, and his first encounter with the bear Jorik as they join forces to outwit various malevolent forces. It was also interesting as the source of an encounter shown in the recent TV adaptation, which I hadn’t recalled from the original trilogy, where Lee quotes legalese to outwit one of the local bureaucrats who are in the pay of the Magisterium…

But the little volume is most enjoyable for what I suppose I’d call the local colour: the development of the characters of Lee and Jorik at a time long before the events of the trilogy, and the atmosphere of the community in the far North which is fleshed out and brought to life. Neither this little book nor the other I’ve mentioned are anything special, but they are an added bonus for those who love the totality of Pullman’s amazing creation…

Philip Reeve: the Mortal Engines series

December 29, 2019

71nGj+Yiq7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Many years ago, while I was still teaching, Philip Reeve came to our school and did an inspiring writing workshop with our youngest students. This will have been at the time when this series of books was being published, and I remember thinking at the time that it was all rather in the shadow of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I binge-read the Reeve series when I was ill at the time and really enjoyed it: having recently been laid up for a couple of days I decided to repeat the experience, and have to say that I was rather disappointed…

It’s a much easier read, with plots that are less complex, although still extremely convoluted and confusing at times, and there are no deeper, underlying meanings for the interested reader to seek out, as there are throughout Pullman’s novels. The idea of constant warfare – Municipal Darwinism – between enormous mobile and travelling cities, is a very imaginative concept and one that Reeve carries off with great verve. He also has child/ adolescent heroes and heroines, who engage the reader, although they do lack a lot of the depth and development of Pullman’s characters. The underlying message is one about the wrecking of the planet through competition: the fixed, mobile, submarine and aerial cities are all vying with each other, screwing the past and the planet in order to survive. Where have we met this before?

I’m aware I’m treating Reeve as in Pullman’s shadow here, but I feel the comparisons are inevitable really. True, the stories are very different: Pullman’s parallel universe echoes our own and develops in a different but recognisable way and gains from the Brechtian effect of involving both alongside each other, whereas Reeve’s universe is set in a fantastical far future which sets his reader in a very different situation.

The target audience is rather different, too, I think. Pullman’s work is clearly accessible to younger readers, who will engage with it at the level on which they are capable and comfortable, and be challenged to grow up through their interaction with his ideas and characters; it’s equally accessible to adults who will be provoked by it in rather different ways. Reeve’s novels are certainly aimed at a young adult readership, but I’m not sure how challenging or satisfying they can be to an adult audience: I read them as pure escapism, and second time around I was rather underwhelmed. Pullman challenges us through encounters with violence and sexuality where Reeve, though acknowledging these aspects, skirts around them somewhat.

Mortal Engines is fast-paced, with multiple and interconnected storylines, and lots of cliff-hangers; shifting from plot to plot keeps use entertained and engaged; Reeve writes well. But there is nothing to slow down mere consumption of the plot: characterisation, apart from the main ones, is rather sketchy. At times I felt he lost control of the story and almost seemed to be making it up as he went along, but in the end I thought he was just about in control of his material: what it all lacked for me was depth.

I also found it hard to cope with the unevenness of tone: the comic character Professor Pennyroyal was annoying throughout and the episodes involving him detracted from Reeve’s attempts to be more serious, emphasising the far-fetched nature of the plot, and involving characters which never engaged our sympathies or loyalty. By the time I reached the final volume I was confused and itching to reach the end: Reeve was no longer master of so many plots and characters, even though he did manage to pull things together in a way in the closing pages, where he briefly explored the notion of humanity as a plague on the planet, and one worthy of being finally eliminated…

So, for me it bears one reading, for the originality of its conception and for being highly entertaining. But the notion of humanity as a scourge on the planet is insufficient to sustain four lengthy novels, and the notional utopia he establishes in the closing pages does not convince. However, he wasn’t writing for me…

His Dark Materials – the TV series

December 28, 2019

I’ve just finished watching the first series, so it’s time for a few reflections on how well the BBC and its collaborators have done with the first volume of Pullman’s trilogy. After the dire film The Golden Compass – of which my DVD has mysteriously lost itself – the bar was pretty low.

It’s a complex novel, both in terms of ideas and setting: Pullman makes his readers work reasonably hard, and it’s worth it. What the makers of the TV series threw out right from the start were the quaint alternative names – perhaps Victorian-sounding – for all sorts of objects and ideas. I hadn’t realised this initially, and on reflection I thought it was a pity, because in the novels it was one of the things that underlined the idea of Lyra’s Oxford and her world being a parallel universe that had evolved slightly differently from our own…

What I didn’t like: there was a lack of clarity, right until the final episode, as to what the aims of the Magisterium were, and who the Authority was, and quite a lot of vagueness about Dust. These are some of the complex ideas Pullman wanted his readers to be wrestling with, and obviously it’s easier to present them in the pages of a novel: it doesn’t make for very gripping television, and so there were clunky sections at various points where necessary information was dumped rather crudely to enable viewers to get with the plot… However, I was very pleased to see that no punches were pulled in that final episode, about the nature of Dust and its link to the awful Christian concept of original sin, and its malign effects on our society.

I also didn’t feel that daemons got a big enough look in. Perhaps it was very expensive and difficult technically to render them (I don’t know) but only the major characters seemed to be accompanied by theirs whereas everyone has one in Lyra’s world. However, the idea that a person can be separated from their daemon in a number of different ways, was clearly established.

There was far more that I admired than disliked, however. I thought the casting had been brilliantly done, especially shown in the complex and shifting relationship between Lyra and Mrs Coulter, her mother. I was also impressed by the multiracial nature of the casting and felt somewhat guilty that in my imagining of the novels as I had first read them, I had visualised all the characters as white… truly, stereotypes and conditioning run very deep. The sets, and the use of locations, were both superb throughout, I thought, and Lyra’s Oxford was a pretty good representation of an alternative universe.

The adaptation was really well done – it seems to have had Pullman’s imprimatur – and there were times when I was astonished, and reminded just how brilliantly a visual medium can telescope and replace many pages of textual description and explanation when it’s carefully and subtly done. Interweaving strands from both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife was clever, and worked well, with the idea of both Lyra and Will moving into another universe in the closing moments of the final episode promising much for the next series, which I await eagerly.

For a number of reasons I wasn’t able to watch the episodes as they were transmitted, and, whilst not exactly bingeing to catch up, did find myself enjoying being able to watch a couple of episodes at a time back-to-back. I’m sure some will find aspects they did not like, and be far more critical than I have been. I cannot imagine the books better translated to the screen: I thought the series was truly marvellous.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth

October 7, 2019

91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I am trying to avoid spoilers in this post, as it’s such early days…

Well, the two years’ wait for this, the second volume of the second Philip Pullman trilogy, has been worth it. And I assume there will be another couple of years to wait for the final volume: this one breaks off in medias res, ‘to be concluded’… Here are some of my initial reactions.

The broader picture begins to emerge with this second book. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, wasn’t quite for children, but was centred on children approaching adulthood as central characters. The plot and the narrative style was appealing to a younger and an adult audience, with a huge canvas of different worlds and varied plot-lines; it seemed to be almost leading younger readers towards adult themes and ideas, centred on the power of religion and the difference between innocence and experience.

Readers passionate about that series will have hoped for more of Lyra and Will, and the many worlds. La Belle Sauvage, the first in the second series, was a curious bridge, in a way, taking us back ten years in time to Lyra and her importance even as a baby in the grand scheme of things, and as the Will-Lyra story was ten years in the future, not a word of it in that book. Here, in The Secret Commonwealth, we leap forward to ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, but remain firmly anchored in Lyra’s alternate universe. And eventually, various characters from La Belle Sauvage re-emerge and take their places in the story. Mrs Coulter is missing, but her brother is a key character in the plottings of the Magisterium…

And we are now most definitely not in younger readers’ territory: Lyra’s adult world is much darker, and the plot and events of this novel are much darker, even if we found the idea of the research station at Bolvangar separating children from their daemons quite spine-chilling. Part of me felt that I was losing out with the absence of the different universes, but I’ve accepted that Pullman is doing something different here, in this more adult alternate world, which is much more ‘real’ and less fantastical. Lyra is now a grown-up, in her world: it’s a different world from that of her childhood.

In this world the tentacles of the Magisterium are extending in every direction as they attempt to prevent what would seem to be the potentially liberating nature of the knowledge of Dust being known, researched, spread. And the semi-underground opposition known as Oakley Street work to thwart the Magisterium and to protect Lyra and others as they seek out knowledge. The Secret Commonwealth feels like a thriller at times, fast-paced and exciting, unputdownable on this first reading…

And yet, the ideas are still very much to the fore: Pullman wants his readers to think about their own world…

Daemon as soul? – personality? – consciousness? In His Dark Materials, children are horrified at the idea one might be separated from one’s daemon. In The Secret Commonwealth, the world of adults, we discover it’s not an unknown thing: people lose their daemons, fall out with them, separate voluntarily, sell them for money. There are even philosophers who would have you believe they do not exist. This is the new strand to this book: Pan and Lyra have fallen out, are estranged and go their separate ways, although seemingly on the same quest. He feels she has lost something, forgotten a key aspect of herself: are we back in the search for the meaning of Dust, the contrast between child and adult, innocence and experience? I think so, on this first reading. And everyone who is separated from their daemon seems minded to assist others like them.

Topical ideas germane to our own world abound: Pullman explores the idea of those in power undermining the nature of truth in order to disorient, confuse and ultimately disempower people, and also the notion that the enemy’s power comes from its absolute certainty of being right. And, as a good writer should be, Pullman provokes our reflection without wandering into being didactic.

I can’t wait for the final volume – but I’ll have to, obviously…

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

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