Tuesday, October 18, 2005

His Dark Materials

I'm not about to review Philip Pullman, though I've read his trilogy and the text Lyra's Oxford that Pullman has appended to it, making it an Adams sort of trilogy-in-four-parts (the last part being more like an afterthought).

I first became aware of Pullman in 1995 when I was living in and nearly leaving Tuebingen, Germany at the end of my European sojourn, already planning a stopover in the Ozarks to marry Sun-Ae there in an abandoned church in the woods before heading to Korea the first time.

I was reading articles in the Guardian and happened on a review of Pullman's The Golden Compass, then on one of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Both texts had come out in the same year, and the review of Rowling panned the book, disdainfully comparing it to the works of Roald Dahl before pointing to Pullman's text as example and exemplar of good children's literature.

Dahl, I'd heard of (and vaguely recalled reading as a child), but who were these upstarts, and why were they publishing and getting reviewed in the Guardian before I'd written my magnum opus! Or even my minimum opus.

The Guardian had an excerpt from Pullman that impressed me and stuck in my mind:

Lyra's heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear's presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no daemons. This strange hulking presence gnawing at its meat was like nothing she had ever imagined, and she felt a profound admiration and pity for the lonely creature.

He dropped the reindeer leg in the dirt and slumped on all fours to the gate. Then he reared up massively, ten feet or more high, as if to show how mighty he was, to remind them how useless the gate would be as a barrier, and he spoke to them from that height.

"Well? Who are you?"

The voice was so deep it seemed to shake the earth. The rank smell that came from his body was almost overpowering.

I had no idea why a bear could talk or received the personal pronoun "he" rather than "it" in this passage, but I knew that I needed to read this book someday.

I didn't expect to read anything about Harry Potter.

But Harry became famous while the Pullman characters fell into the penumbra of his shadow, eclipsed by Harry's fame. I forgot about them.

Until I started teaching Paradise Lost and heard rumblings of a modern author's reworking of Milton's themes. I followed up the rumors and rediscovered Pullman, finally reading him this past year.

What do I think? I'm both impressed and disappointed. The initial lines of the first book in the trilogy caught me immediately:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.

Who's Lyra? Why does she have a 'daemon'? Where is this luxurious place. Good beginnings raise questions that seek answers and promise fulfillment. Proof lies in the pudding. I read the first book with fascination, the second with declining interest, the third out of a sense of duty, and the fourth with a degree of boredom.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, has kept my interest.

Why? Maybe because Rowling promises less and gives more . . . and with humor. Pullman promises great things -- to demonstrate the injustice of God's ways to men and women -- but fails to fulfill.

Harold Bloom might disagree.


At 7:00 AM, Blogger James Brush said...

I agree. I enjoyed a similar experience. Harry Potter grows more interesting the farther I get into it and emerges as a story of far greater depth (at least in terms of character) than His Dark Materials, which kind of sputters as it grows more polemical. You're right about Rowling's sense of fun as well.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm pleased that someone agrees with me, and since you're a published author, I suspect that you have a well-honed sense for what makes a good story.

Anyone reading these comments can visit James's blog (just click on the name "james" heading his comment) or go to Amazon and read about his first published novel, A Place Without a Postcard:


I haven't read it myself, having found out about it only a few minutes ago, but it has good reviews (and also a note from a former student of James Brush who says that he was a great teacher).

Thanks for visiting.

At 11:40 PM, Blogger James Brush said...


At 1:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, the juxtaposition of Milton and Pullman -- do you know about this?

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Greg of Seven Roads. I wasn't aware of this text.

I knew that Pullman really likes Milton, and I gather that he's one of those who -- like Shelley ("Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God"), but best expressed by Blake -- believe that Milton was "of the devil's party without knowing it."

These days, some even argue that Milton was fully "knowing it."

But I think that Fish has it right -- Milton induces us to identify with Satan because he wants us to experience the fall and discover the baseness of sin.

The Pullman edition looks interesting anyway, with those dark illustrations.


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