Posts Tagged ‘His Dark Materials’

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

April 5, 2017

I’ve read the books at least three times, and listened to the unabridged recording in the car twice, and I’m even more impressed by Pullman’s achievement: the Dark Materials trilogy is a masterpiece. And as I approached the end this time, I was determined to try and work out why I think it’s so brilliant. Partly, he’s an absolute master of the English language, which he uses beautifully: you really notice this aspect of his writing when you listen to the audiobooks.

At times it’s quite easy to think: kids’ books. And I’m sure I’d have been stunned to read something like this at the age of ten or eleven, say. But I was in my forties when I first met them, introduced to them by my daughter who probably was about ten or eleven at the time. I had flu: I hoovered them up and remember dispatching someone to a bookshop to re-purchase the second volume, which had gone astray somehow…

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of parallel worlds, and the possibilities of moving between them. And there are lots in His Dark Materials; the story only focuses on three or four, moving between them quite frequently.

The link between Pullman’s novels and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I also love, is evident, and acknowledged by Pullman. We see good facing evil, innocence and experience side by side, the desire to move from the former to the latter state and then the impossibility of going back; there are links with mythology: what happens in the land of the dead? Can one ever return from it?

Pullman introduces fascinating new ideas: daemons, for instance: everyone in Lyra’s world has one, an externalisation of part of their personality (or soul?) in the form of a living creature which is visible to all, and accompanies them everywhere. Humans and daemons are inseparable. And in our world, we don’t have them. But what if we did? Here we shade into what science fiction does so well: the ‘what if?’: make your reader think… What happens – or could happen – after you die? There’s the land of the dead, there’s the Christian heaven, or there’s the idea that one becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, a different kind of eternity from the psalm-singing and God-praising one.

Pullman’s characters are vividly created, sustained and developed: if we ever feel he has strayed into the world of science-fiction, he certainly doesn’t do the archetypal cardboard characters of that genre. We come to know and like and feel for his characters, even quite minor ones, or very alien ones: their fates matter to us. And his imagination runs wild: armoured bears, gallivespian spies, the mulefa with their wheels. But these creatures aren’t wildly unbelievable, they have convincing personalities and feelings and they interact with the story’s heroes.

I would have to like Pullman anyway, because he’s a writer who loves ideas, and you know I crave stories which get my brain working. Friendship and loyalty are important to his characters, and he shows us the strength and value of these traits over and over again; we see many examples of individual resilience too, and reflection on the importance of doing what is right, and learning to discern what this may be. And, of course, Pullman shows us love, the love that gradually develops between Will and Lyra as they pursue their fates across the worlds. This time, I was struck by how subtly and slowly and carefully he prepares us for its flowering as the book draws to its close. Theirs is a second, happier Fall, a movement from innocence to experience that we can only welcome, a love that redeems the universe rather than requiring a redeemer to undo it… and inevitably, the tragedy of eternal separation is woven in there too: who can fail to be moved by the ending of their story. And yes, I know a certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary for their love to have meaning – just as in Romeo and Juliet…

I know I’ll read and listen to the books again; I’m really looking forward to The Book of Dust in the autumn, hoping that Pullman will sustain what he started.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

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