Monday, June 3, 2013

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

My blind audio librarian friend, Nicholas, was raving about the full-cast recording of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (published in the U.S. as The Golden Compass). I'm sure the BBC 4 production, featuring Terence Stamp, Emma Fielding, Bill Paterson, Kenneth Cranham, and Ray Fearon is marvellous, but I reached for the e-book and was no less smitten.  As this is the first of the books in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the other two are hovering in my future, and the anticipation is delicious.  I think I'll draw it out a bit, just as I'm waiting for just the right time to read Hilary Mantel's Bringing Up the Bodies, the second volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  Gluttony is a deadly sin.  No gobbling allowed.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I was born in a far northern place, and now I'm settled in Malaysia, where January is indistinguishable from July. I never complain about the tropical heat, but I do miss certain aspects of life nearer the poles.  Another bookish friend who moved from Kuala Lumpur to Edinburgh insists that there is a certain northern psychology, a northern temperament.  He gave me two books to keep me in touch with my geographical roots, Moominland Midwinter by the Finnish artist Tove Jansson and The Idea of North by his friend and University of Aberdeen professor, Peter Davidson.

The Idea of North came out a decade after Northern Lights, but both authors borrowed the phrase that Glenn Gould, the brilliant Toronto pianist, coined as the title of his radio documentary on the place of the north in the Canadian mentality -- Davidson for the title of his book and Pullman for the second chapter heading of his.

In Northern Lights, characters are drawn to the polar realm by the mysterious forces and substances at play there -- faint images of an alternate universe can be glimpsed behind the wafting drapes of the aurora borealis, and the search for a magical substance known only as "dust" brings all the greatest forces of good and evil to the far north to battle for power over it.

As our young heroine, Lyra, leaves her home at Oxford, one of the dons gives her a brass object that looks like an elaborate compass, with many wheels and dials. He tells her it is an alethiometer -- a truth-telling device. Over time, Lyra learns to use the alethiometer by posing questions to it and then sinking into a deep, trance-like, meditative state as she watches the needles flutter around and point to one arcane symbol after the next.

In the introduction to The Idea of North, Peter Davidson explains how a very different compass gave him the title for his book.
The talisman that brought this book into being still lies in front of me. A working compass is set into a disk of cloudy Perspex (the occluded texture is like ice, like the milky air of Dutch snow paintings, like the smoke-pale sky of 1930s photographs of northern towns). On the Perspex is written The Idea of North. The compass is translucent, so that it can be held up to catch a landscape in its lens. Whatever place embodies your own idea of north, you can see it through the clear glass, with the red compass needle always indicating the north of what you see... This sculpture was made -- as a multiple artwork -- by the Scottish artists Dalziel and Scullion. It is simple, ingenious and eloquent.
The needle of traditional compasses unfailingly point north; the alethiometer looks like a glorified compass, and its needles indicate truth. Lyra and all the various characters who will assist and oppose her know that that the truth lies to the far north.

What child (of any age whatever) doesn't swoon at the idea of riding a polar bear? Iorek Byrnison is far from a cuddly parody of a bear. He would no doubt devour any Moomins he might encounter. As Pullman says in his introduction, this novel takes place in a universe like ours in many ways, yet different. Iorek is a very real polar bear in most ways, yet just different enough to win our undying love.

My favourite difference between the Northern Lights universe and our own is the fact that humans have daemons which take the forms of animals, almost always of the opposite gender of the human. The daemon stays very near its human (although witches' daemons can travel significantly longer distances), offering solace, advice and assistance. When Lyra has the misfortune of seeing a boy whose daemon had been severed from him, the sight sickens and horrifies her. Someone had surgically removed the child's soul.

Lyra's daemon is Pantalaimon, and because she is still a child, he can change forms. He flutters around her as a moth when the novel opens, but later shifts into a wildcat, a bird, a dolphin, as needs dictate. An old seaman watches Lyra as Pantalaimon frolics with a pod of dolphins and speaks to her of the time when her daemon will take a fixed form. What follows is possibly one of the finest descriptions ever of what it means to grow up.
"Why do daemons have to settle?" Lyra said. "I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he."
"Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That's part of growing up. There'll come a time when you'll be tired of his changing about, and you'll want a settled kind of form for him."
"I never will!"
"Oh, you will. You'll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form."
"What are they?"
"Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm a kind of seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are."
"But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don't like?"
"Well, then, you're discontented, en't you? There's plenty of folk as'd like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they're going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is."
Take Mrs. Coulter, for example -- charming, brilliant, elegant and evil to her very core.  Her daemon is a golden monkey who is no less stunning and wicked than she is.  I love this illustration by Kate Baylay.  One day I would like to find an illustrated print copy of the His Dark Materials trilogy, though perhaps not Ms. Baylay's. Much as I think she's captured the essence of Mrs. Coulter and her monkey-soul, her style doesn't really suit the novel overall. (Her illustrations for The Great Gatsby, though, are a perfect fit.) This book is a classic, and well worth the investment in a lushly illustrated hard-cover for readers who live farther north. Alas, Malaysia has no polar bears, but we do have ravenous silverfish. The tropics are unkind to paper. Books need more than the idea of north -- they need the climate.

1 comment:

  1. My roommate Jake is a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, and it was thanks to him that I was introduced to Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy to help me through my insomnia. The books kept me awake and excited for far longer than either of us had intended. So much pathos in a series originally intended for young adults! I cried buckets when a certain individual and his daemon died. They had become my good friends in the space of one week.


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