Posts Tagged ‘Northern Lights trilogy’

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

On reading – or not reading – fantasy (continued)

August 27, 2016

51-r1hfIqeL._AC_US174_And then I remembered Philip Pullman, and Philip Reeve and Jorge Luis Borges, and therefore needed to think a bit more…

The Northern Lights trilogy is surely fantasy – it’s certainly not science fiction in any extrapolative sense that I know, and yet it’s also anchored in our reality, in the sense that it’s set in a parallel universe (or even several of these) resembling our own but different in key ideas, too. So there is an Oxford University that’s not quite like the one a couple of hundred miles from here, and the idea that humans can have souls that are creatures and physically visible is intriguing, fascinating even, but definitely not within the realms of the possible or probable. Philip Reeve’s rapacious mobile cities are a marvellous setting for his novels. And Borges’ imagination is utterly out of this world, flights of fantasy and imagination that are vertiginous, bizarre, thought-provoking… and lightyears from reality. The Library of Babel contains every book that has been and could be written in its myriad rooms, and, thanks to a computer programmer with an imagination, can actually be visited here.

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So, I’m at least partly back with my choices and my prejudices here, having been used to looking down on fantasy as being less serious than real science fiction, or any other form of literature. Having had my fill of Tolkien at a very early age and never having felt moved to bother with Harry Potter (cue gasps from various directions) I’ve sidelined a whole genre. Just like I’ve sidelined various other kinds of writing which you haven’t read me blogging about, and about which I’m now old enough to use the feeble excuse ‘I don’t have the eyeball time for that…’

More seriously, now. The Name of the Wind was slow to start and took a long while to get into, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected to. Most of the novel is actually ‘backstory’, its narration rather crudely contrived, but well-told and engaging; when the real story occasionally intrudes, it’s much cruder and less interesting. It was a good yarn, escapist, with some interesting characters, encounters, rivalries and so forth. I wanted to know what happened, so plot drew me inexorably to the end. What the book didn’t do – couldn’t do? – and what I think left me ultimately unsatisfied, was to make me think. Because the characters and their adventures, entertaining as they were, didn’t really matter to me. There are clearly intended to be several more very long volumes in a series, but I was not convinced that the writer fully knew how he intended to develop or conclude his story.

To try and flesh this judgement out further, I’ll draw a comparison with The Northern Lights. The idea of, the possibility of parallel universes I find fascinating: how might they be just oh so slightly different from our own? The idea of sin or evil being seen as physical matter in the ‘dust’ and its link to the ideas of innocence and experience in the Blakean sense nags away at me each time I re-read. To be able to shift from one universe to another. The idea that organised religion is some overt conspiracy to enslave the mind and spirit, that we may perhaps seek to free ourselves from. I know I oversimplify grossly here, but these are exciting ideas to wrangle with, and Pullman draws me in, interests me, makes me really care about all his characters, and leaves me gutted as the hero and heroine part forever… this is fantasy of another order. And I cannot get away from the feeling that it’s because Pullman’s novels are somehow connected to and anchored in our world even while not being of it, that engages me so deeply…

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