Posts Tagged ‘His Dark Materials’

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

June 7, 2021

     For some reason, despite being a great admirer of Philip Pullman, I’d deliberately avoided this novel when it was published; a chance encounter with a pristine copy in a secondhand bookshop was an impulse buy…

Mary has twins in this version of the story: Jesus and Christ, which did feel like a very clumsy device. Jesus is the human Jesus we would probably recognise, Christ a background figure who at times overlaps with the Tempter/Satan figure, and who is initially manipulated by a mysterious stranger – some kind of angel – who encourages Christ to see the future potential of Jesus’ story and message, if only it is recorded and used correctly… you can see pretty early on where Pullman is going with this, and it’s not very subtle at all. He’s doing what many have done over the ages, exploring the contrast between the original Jesus and what Christianity has become over the centuries, while recognising that unravelling the deliberate obfuscations of the past is pretty impossible. And, as an avowed materialist, Pullman is having none of the miracles nonsense.

It’s a roman à thèse, didactic, what have you. Christ starts out following the stranger’s instructions faithfully to record Jesus’ sayings and actions but soon realises that he can embellish for a more effective future purpose. And yet Pullman is a very skilled and experienced novelist, and his Christ character is not as baldly presented as this: he does have a character of his own, doubts and concerns about what he’s been drawn into, feelings and weaknesses that are gradually revealed. But in the end he does what is asked of him, and allows the obvious fraud of the resurrection to be perpetrated – you saw this coming a mile off, after all.

You can see why traditional Christians either avoided this novel like the plague, or attacked it roundly. So, what was Pullman trying to achieve? Obviously, to rattle his readers, to make them question what they may long have accepted as ‘the truth’. There is the idea that realpolitik ruins everything: for Pullman, it elides Christ and Judas at times, and he dares to offer a slightly sympathetic picture of Caiaphas, too. And there is the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which dared to suggest that Judas’ betrayal was a necessary part of the entire Christian redemption story, and therefore offered a judgement of Judas rather different from the traditional one: that Gospel died almost without a trace, too.

Pullman is clear that two millennia later we have no chance of separating truth from invention, and that too much is invested in the ‘accepted’ narrative. His Afterword is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting part, reflecting on his own journey and his motivations. His Jesus, in the novel, is abandoned or ignored by any existing God the Father figure. I think we have to go back to the end of His Dark Materials, to the idea that we must get on, by ourselves, and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth, for ourselves, etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no god) as it has been succinctly put.

An interesting read, and a challenging one if you are a traditional Christian. But then, your faith is strong enough to stand up to challenge.

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

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…

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