“…Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave–
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage…”
The epigram for His Dark Materials is lines 910 to 919 of Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674). “His” refers to “the Almighty Maker,” and “Materials” to Chaos; the precursors to creation. What happened earlier in the book was that Satan and some other angels, tired of their subservient position, waged war against their Maker. Predictably, they lost, and were hurled into the Abyss. There, Satan and his council (Pandenomium) discuss their options. Figuring that waging war again was a bad idea, they instead decide to bring their battle to a world newly created, held to Heaven by a gold chain — Earth.
Here, Satan has made his way out of the depths with suspiciously little trouble and is contemplating his next move.
Milton’s success in achieving his stated aim, to “assert eternal providence/And justify the ways of God to men” (Book I, lines 25-26), is dubious. He seems conflicted himself; Satan is a far more interesting character than Christ, and Eve is seduced by the promise that if she ate the fruit, she could fly. An omnipotent God could have stopped the Fall. Eve has never experienced pain or sorrow or evil: can she be faulted for not having fear of what she does not know? And so on.
In 2005, Oxford Press published a fine, well-crafted edition with brief comments on each book and a general introduction by Pullman. There are no notes. He says that what first attracted him were the poetry and the narrative, remembering fondly reading it aloud in Miss Enid Jones’ Ysgol Ardudwy, Wales, pre-college program.
While footnotes on a first read are distracting, should you decide to read Paradise Lost a second time, unless you are well versed in cosmology, theology, mythology, folklore, science, and literature of and prior to the 17th century, you are going to need a well-annotated edition. I used one in which there are more notes than poem, edited by Alastair Fowler.
Your experience of His Dark Materials will be deeply enhanced by knowing Paradise Lost. In fact, for hundreds of years running, it has remained the book you need to know to understand English literature.
But without spoilers, how does this fit with His Dark Materials? Lyra is every child who when her questions are silenced with a “because I said so, that’s why” response, thinks, no, that is not good enough. For many, over successive years of taking direct, inexplicable orders, their goal is to become the ones giving, not getting them. For a few, their purpose is to understand the why behind the what.
@ Laurie Frost, 2019. All rights reserved.