The World of Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (“The Golden Compass”) (1)

Most readers of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, experience from the first few pages something like being caught in a riptide — pulled inexorably further away from the shore and helpless to resist the drag. His matter-of-fact, unfussy way of creating his world — a genuine storyteller’s gift that has surely been cultivated by reading masters of the succinct like Chekhov — is part of the secret. He trusts his readers to synthesize quickly an abundance of new details and surprising juxtapositions, whereas a writer like Tolkien takes his time and expands in a gentlemanly manner. Pullman takes the daring step of opening the novel with a clandestine, claustrophobic meeting of scholars in which information is doled out in an intimidating density of hints and glimmers. Within about twenty pages, we hear about northern geographical expeditions, new interpretations of the aurora borealis, chocolatl, the custom of heating and mixing poppy for scholarly gatherings, distant wars, the fearful churchly organization that rules the western world, a civilization running on steam and “anbaric power,” Skraelings, Tartars, Gyptians, panserbjorne, a mysterious element called Dust investigated in the science of “experimental theology”…The names of these things are casually dropped, as if the reader might reasonably be expected to know about them — and thus we are cajoled into the book’s world, lured into it, as if into something familiar. Tolkien paints; Pullman runs, and we sprint after hm. Here is an example of his characteristic seductive density:

In every part of the kingdom there were dyeworks and brick kilns, forest and atomcraft works that paid rent to Jordan, and every quarter-day the bursar and his clerks would tot it all up, announce the total to the Concilium, and order a pair of swans for the feast. Some of the money was put by for reinvestment — Concilium had just approved the purchase of an office block in Manchester — and the rest was used to pay the Scholars’ modest stipends and the wages of the servants (and the Parslows, and the other dozen or so families of craftsmen and traders who served the College), to keep the wine cellar richly filled, to buy books and anbarographs for the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground, and, not least, to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel.

   It was important to keep the chapel up to date, because Jordan College had no rival, either in Europe or in New France, as a center of experimental theology. (Ch.3)

It is worth pausing to marvel at Pullman’s mastery of exposition. Throughout these sentences words such as atomcraft and anbarographs (which are never defined, so that we guess or assume we know their meanings) sit comfortably with the evocation of a 19th century Oxford college that is, realistically, wealthy enough to extend into an industrialized and urbanized landscape: the dyeworks and brick kilns, the office block in Manchester. The governance structure of the college, together with its hierarchy and its workers, are quite true to life, with its air of tradition and perpetuity from medieval times to the present. Middle Ages and 19th century have been fused; later, we will get an evocation of something like the London of Conan Doyle and Dickens (Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend), with its dark alleys, fog, gaslight, lawlessness, and scampering urchins.

The mixture of science-fiction or anachronistic technology with Victorian street-setting has given rise to the term Steampunk, but the medieval connotations of kingdom, the suffix -craft, the word served, and the climactic placement of chapel all embed the Steampunk elements in a world gripped by a more feudal authority.

Crowning that first sentence are two wonderful details: “Concilium” and the swans. The Concilium has been mentioned previously in the story, a shadowy ruling body that is part of the tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium. (Ch.2) Pullman’s omission of the definite article involves us in assumed familiarity, as when we “government tells us to do this” instead of “the government.” There is a Consistorial Court of Discipline and an Oblation Board, whose workings are murky as yet. Who governs this kingdom? We are told, Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The sentence is impishly constructed: an event that would be impossible in our world, namely the accession of Calvin to the papacy, is tossed to us in a subordinate clause, while the main clause presents what would seem a fact of 20th century totalitarianism, the absolute power of an institution over every aspect of life. The latter adds yet another layer to the anachronisms: the struggle against absolute power, which will be the major theme of the book.

Returning to our sentence, the bursar’s ordering of a pair of swans is an evocation of medieval luxury. Does any feast in a 19th century novel involve swans? — probably not, because by then swans have been ennobled into emblems of beauty and purity that are no longer edible. But Chaucer’s sensual, indulgent Monk loved “a fat swan more than any roast” — not only a swan (which should be big enough), but it has to be a fat swan. Here, we get a pair of swans, true medieval excess.

It is in the long sentence that follows the swans that Pullman shows his brilliance in exposition. Dropped in there, again like a less important detail, in a subordinate clause qualifying a subordinate phrase, is the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground. The notion of a “quadrangle” is familiar to anyone who has spent time in an older British educational institution; it is the formal term for what a student would call a “quad,” and “quadrangle” rather than “quad” would be used by someone in authority. You might have seen a quadrangle, but standing in one and viewing one of its sides, could you imagine that underneath it was a library labyrinth deeper than the college was high? Above ground, Lyra’s Jordan could easily be taken as a fairly realistic description of an idealized Oxford college, but the underground library moves it into myth. Moreover, while “quadrangle” suggests geometrical design, burrow-like implies improvisation — and not only the making of extra space, but also concealment, secrets. Yet we haven’t reached the culmination of the sentence: the money from the college’s investments is not least used to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel. The word philosophical together with apparatus could only derive from the 18th century, when philosophy was one word for what we would call “science” — but for a chapel? Again, Pullman cleverly uses these words as if we would know what he means by them, but philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel — like John Calvin’s papacy — shocks us with its historical absurdity. Notice how this sentence itself burrows like a worm towards its climactic provocation.

All of this creates an “atmosphere” of medieval religious oppression compounded with the bustling hurly-burly of city streets in industrial ferment — a close, confined world, of which the scholars’ parlor at the beginning of the novel is an intellectual center. Out of this world go the great explorers and scientists, creating currents of intellectual instability that have the power to undermine or even wash away a realm that is being held stable by doctrinal orthodoxy; and chafing at the borders of this realm are unpredictable foreign hordes:

Then there was the rumor that had been keeping the College servants whispering for days. It was said that the Tartars had invaded Muscovy, and were surging north to St.Petersburg, from where they would be able to dominate the Baltic Sea and eventually overcome the entire west of Europe. And Lord Asriel had been in the far North… (Ch.1)

The mention of “Tartars” is startling, like one of those random but fascinating details in a dream: suddenly we are faced with the barbarian hordes of the 13th century, invaders of Muscovy and and destroyers of ruthless Christendom. The image of Tartars seems distant to the preoccupations of the medieval western church, and an anachronism in terms of the 19th century frame of industry and exploration — but it does fit right in with the evocation of the dangerous exploits of pioneering ethnographers, interested in exotic customs such as trepanning and mummification of heads.

What we have here is a parallel version of our own world: the crazy scientific breakthroughs and ambivalent technological successes, together with the extremes of wealth and poverty,  and the constant threat of distant enemies against whom we are always seeking better weapons. Against all these stand our various fundamentalisms, guardians of traditions locked in a merciless war against what they see as “sin.” Pullman’s world is compelling because he has fused together elements of ours, in a kind of distorting mirror that re-presents our world to us in its strangeness. We are used to our world and so do not see the bizarrerie of its own blend: how do the elements of Christian, Islamic, Hindu fundamentalism fit with modern capitalism and our new understanding of genes and the heavens, and how do our legal ideas, our sense of “rights,” and our distinctive notions of inviolability fit with a systemic rapaciousness that we keep shadowy to ourselves? The power of imagined worlds such as Pullman’s lies in how they reflect the oddity and incoherence of our our own world back to us obliquely: such worlds are less fantasy than parallel or asymptotic, closer to us than we at first suspect, and no weirder than our own.

The reality created by Pullman in Northern Lights would be sufficiently satisfying, enchanting, and stimulating for all these elements — but the most interesting element of all is the idea of the daemon, a rich and brilliant conception, which elevates Pullman’s work to greatness.

[This series of essays is dedicated to my daughter Mira on her 14th birthday.]



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