Ideas of North

If you want to know in general what His Dark Materials is about, read chapter 2, “The Idea of North,” in Golden Compass/Northern Lights. The North is not the Arctic, it is conceptual rather than geographic, and a malignant site, although others have been attracted to its pristine quality. The Jordan Scholars fall in the first category, fearing it as the home of vicious armored bears, witches, and vile peoples.

Their stance is Biblical. “Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Jeremiah 1:14. See also Isaiah 14:12-19 and Jeremiah 6:1, and 4:6.

This is also part of Scandinavian mythology or folklore. In Robert MacFarlane’s The Underland’s chapter “Red Dancers,” he visits a very remote archipelago north of Norway to see cave paintings. It is a difficult journey, and MacFarlane notes that writer Hein Bjerck says of the artists who made the paintings that visiting the caves were “‘ritual actions,’ journeys to the ‘outer fringe of the human world'” and that some of the traditional names for the spot are “Church-Cave, Hell’s Mouth, Hell’s Hole, Troll’s Eye” (264).

The Idea of North by Peter Davidson: read its table of contents here is the best all-around book on the subject I’ve read.

On polar exploration, I recommend The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. A good deal of it is about Sir John Franklin’s early life, when his qualities of deliberateness and slowness were widely condemned. But they proved needed in the trudge to try to get to the North Pole.

Nadolny’s prose is slow in the way Franklin’s approach to life was, making the book a stylist’s dream, whatever the subject,

What amazes me about polar explorers isn’t their initial voyages, but that once home, they turn around and do it again. The audacity of Vitus Bering’s two expeditions across the whole of Russia to the Pacific is the subject of The Island of Blue Foxes by  Stephen R. Brown. The logistics of lugging from St. Petersburg all that was needed to build ships on the Far East coast is mind-boggling. Again, he did it twice.

One of my favorite movies about life on the taiga of Siberia being lived traditionally in contemporary times is Happy People by Wernher Herzog.

As a native Miamian, I had (have?) a romanticized notion of North. I didn’t see snow fall until I was 19, and have never been in snow deeper than 10 inches. But as a child, North was the Other: a place never hot or humid.

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Picture: Iceberg in North Star Bay, Greenland. By Jeremy Harbeck – NASA

Comment here, or join the discusssion on Facebook in the public group, Compounding His Dark Materials at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/

Greetings from Oxford University!

A kind reader sent me some pictures to share of contemporary Oxford University of the epicenter of Oxford University in Lyra’s and our world.

First up, is a picture of the Bodleian Library.


This is the University Museum, of great significance in The Subtle Knife (Pitt-Rivers). Below is Hertford College with welcoming banners.

The Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian. Our kind reader toured a bit of its tunnels, which I hear are quite extensive and used for storage and safety.

Here is Brasenose College’s lawn with a view of the Radcliffe Camera. Brasenose is letter R on John Lawrence’s map in Lyra’s Oxford. Hertford is letter G. Jordan (unlike the other two, not of our world) stands in for Exeter and is represented by the letter H. So Jordan is north of Brasenose, which is west of Hertford, and all are south of the museum and north of the Botanic Garden.

Here’s an Oxford skyline:

And finally, the bench in the Botanic Gardens on which Will and Lyra said goodbye before he left for his world, with the sculpture of Will’s cat daemon Kirjava and Lyra’s pine marten, Pantalaimon.

Many thanks again to the kind reader who prefers to remain anonymous. If you want to join the public group page on this blog and you use Facebook, it’s here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/ .

Magic Lantern and Athanasius Kircher

Possibly invented by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) and a precursor to pre-digital 20th century slide projectors that used 35 mm slides, the projector Lord Asriel requests was once called a magic lantern. A reflector and lens focused light on a glass slide; oil (naptha in Lyra’s world) provided the source of light.

In the 2007 10th anniversary editions of His Dark Materials include what Pullman calls “lantern slides,” ideas or images that came to mind after the books’ initial publication. He uses this term because they remind him of his grandfather’s collection of painted slides for storytelling, a way-back precursor to film.

Athanasius Kircher makes an appearance in Lyra’s Oxford in an ad as the author of Polymathestatos: A Festschrift in Honour of Jocelyn Godwin.

In our world, Jocelyn Godwin is a composer and author of Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (1979).


The magic lantern image is from Giorgio de Sepibus, Romani Collegii Musaeum Celeberrimum, p. 39, and is among the Athanasius Kircher ((1602-1680)) collections and research activities at Stanford University. Public domain.

 

Poppy in the Retiring Room

When first we see Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon, they are sneaking around in the Dining Hall. But when they hear someone approach,they head for the Retiring Room, a private spot off the Dining Hall, used only by the Scholars and their male guests.

Among the usual decanters and crystal, there is a smoking-mill and a rack of pipes, chafing dish, and a basket of poppy-heads. Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, favors an 1898  Tokay. Wine is part of the culture to the extent that Asriel speculates to his dæmon that failure to dress properly for dinner may mean a fine of so many bottles.

The action begins when Lyra sees the Master adding a white powder to the wine. Too late to escape, Lyra and Pan sneak into the wardrobe where the Master keeps his academic robes. When Asriel is about to drink the Tokay, Lyra spills the wine.

It’s too late to escape; Asriel lets her return to the wardrobe, with orders to keep an eye on the Master.

There’s a brief interlude before Asriel’s presentation.

While it is not unusual for gentlemen to retire with their wine and tobacco (in Lyra’s world called “smokeleaf”), there’s also this:

“The Master lit the spirit-lamp under the little silver chafing-dish and heated some butter before cutting a dozen poppy-heads open and tossing them in. Poppy was always served after a Feast: it clarified the mind and stimulated tongue, and made for rich conversation. It was traditional for the Master to cook it himself.” (NL/GC 19).

In other words, the Master is preparing opium, or perhaps morphine. A rack of pipes for smoking tobacco seems rather odd; pipe smokers chew their mouthpieces, etc.

But if the poppy heads are under the direct control of the Master, if only he is allowed to prepare them in the most private room in the college, then the rack of smoking pipes is understandable. The preparation of this at once stimulating and relaxing substance seems to fit into the category of arcane knowledge.

By growing his own poppies, the Master avoids the nefarious opium trade Philip Pullman described in Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart novels. The special occasion, controlled by the Master use of the drug would preclude addiction.

Anyone who lives where recreational use of opiates is a problem knows better than to underestimate the drug. If you’ve had major surgery, you have probably had morphine. It works. But even pharmaceutical grade, delivered in monitored doses, has side effects, including slowing down the digestive system and causing unpleasant nightmares.

Opiates are so tightly controlled in the US that there is a thin line between gardening and manufacturing. Michael Pollan, who specializes in botany and culture, writes extensively about this.

The Master’s method for cooking seems a bit simplistic, according to the very few descriptions I can find of the process of going from flower to a resin, the most probable way of smoking. Just watch Peaky Blinders for examples of post WW1 use in England.

I doubt if further details will be forthcoming in the miniseries.


Featured image:  Five styles of tobacco or opium pipes]; Created / Published: 1878  https://www.loc.gov/item/2009630115/  [Library of Congress]

Scene 1: Dining Hall of Jordan College

The picture above is of Oriel Dining Hall, c. 1865. Jordan College’s would look much the same: “The three great tables that ran the length of the Hall. . .[with]  the long benches . . . pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former masters hung high up in the gloom” (page 1). Slightly raised, running the width of the hall, would be the High Table with fancy chairs (rather than benches) suited for the College masters. 

When I was at University College, the long benches facilitated some camaraderie among the students, primarily about the food. It included some kind of meat and potatoes (often prepared two ways at the same meal), something like Brussels sprouts, and a salad in which a piece of iceberg lettuce was topped with Spam or some other potted meat.

Young men were to wear jackets and ties to dinner, and ladies, dresses. I have no idea what I wore, but if hose and heels were required, I must have looked a sight.

And there was no ice.

Has anything changed?

Image: Oriel Dining Hall, c.1865. Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection, Cornell Univ.

 

Let’s Make This a Community, Not a Blog

I invite readers of this blog to become contributors. This may go as far as writing posts or taking the more typical route of adding comments.

I have another 10 or so posts ready to go; whether I continue depends on your interest.

In particular, I would be delighted to receive some copyright and license-free pictures of Oxford. Most people who post on the net assume that their pictures are up for grabs unless they say otherwise.

I don’t want to proceed under that convenient surmise. Moreover, while I will give you a credit line, I can’t promise anyone else ever will. So if you give me a picture to use, please state that you are placing it in the “public domain.” This means it can be used by anyone for any purpose.

I also think American readers in particular would want to understand how the Oxford experience differs from their own.

There are private colleges in the USA that cost in the region of $60,000 a year for tuition, room and board. Some public universities can cost as much; the difference is that people who are citizens of that state pay less (so if you live in Texas, you should pay less to go to one of its universities than if you cross the state line into New Mexico, Louisiana, etc.).

Colleges have a very limited number of graduate programs. Universities contain colleges, but colleges do not contain universities.

Let’s say you want to study birds. You’d be in an area of ornithology at a Department of Biology or Zoology, in a School of Arts and Sciences, at a University. Something like that. You’d graduate with a Bachelor of Science (BS) or of Arts (BA) after four years of full terms.

If you wanted to be a librarian or lawyer, you’d add a few years. If you want to do medicine, you’d add a lot more. And so on.

So how much does it cost to go to Oxford? Do Colleges within the University vary a lot? Are meals eaten together?

What do others want to know? More importantly, what do you want them to know?

And let me know what I get wrong.

You can figure this out; no spaces or course! laurie[dot] frost {at sign} yahoo [dot]com

Oxford

The first nine chapters of The Golden Compass (US) or Northern Lights (UK) comprise “Oxford.”  Not Oxford University, but the town and its surroundings.\

There are thousands of sites with pictures and maps of Oxford. Tours of Lyra’s Oxford include Philip Pullman’s Oxford Official Tour.

The University and its colleges are central to Oxford, but those that keep the city functioning live around its perimeter. I went to a summer program at University College for 6 weeks or so in 1979. The Colleges were not in session, so they rented out space to Americans and others, I guess, who brought their own faculty. I suppose these ventures have prospered.

What I liked best about the City was how easy it was to walk from place to place. As a young woman I could go to the movies alone and on foot after sundown. Imagine that!

John_Speed's_map_of_Oxford,_1605.

John Speed’s map of Oxford, 1605. I include this as a curiosity. The south is at the top and the north is at the bottom. Turning it upside down is no help because of the key to the map! It shows though that Oxford was once a walled city with a castle (P), but there were some buildings outside the walls, including Magdalene College. “P” is Oxford Castle.”N” is Oxford’s central crossroads at the junction of the High Street and St. Aldates. Broad Street and Holywell Street now run along the line of the north (that is bottom) wall.

John Speed (1542–1629) – The Digital Revolution: Changing Oxford. Map is in the Bodleian Library.

For contrast, SirMetal has contributed to Wiki this image and placed it in the public domain.

oxford_city_birdseye

The Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodlian Library, is at the center.

Interactive map: https://maps.ox.ac.uk/embed.html#/custom?ids=oxpoints:23233620,oxpoints:23233759,oxpoints:59085049

Lyra and Her Dæmon

Lady with an Ermine Leonardo da Vinci

The first words of His Dark Materials are “Lyra and her dæmon,” and we know immediately that we are in a different world. Pullman said “Dæmons came into my head suddenly and unexpectedly, but they do have a sort  of provenance. One clear origin is Socrates’ daimon. Another is the idea of a guardian angel.” 

The notion of the human-dæmon bond, he adds, was strengthened by Da Vinci’s painting, Lady with Ermine.

mons in Lyra’s world are readily perceived. They take the form of animals, and children’s dæmons change until they reach adulthood. Then the dæmons settle. Narratively, they serve the purpose of allowing us to hear the internal debates a character has with herself. Dæmons may encourage their person to do something  — or not — but finally the dæmons and their people act as partners. One cannot live without the other.

In several passages, dæmons are equated to the soul. Breaking the bond between human and dæmon results in the release of tremendous energy. Even very brief physical separation is usually devastating (there are exceptions) to both human and dæmon.

Some in Lyra’s world believe that dæmons are “infected with Dust” (NL/GC 285). Its Book of Genesis says that Adam and Eve’s dæmons were unsettled in Eden, and one of the things Satan promised Eve was that she would learn its true — or settled — form. Knowing this brought “sin and shame and death” into the world (NL/GC 372).

Their physical status is odd. They have the abilities and nature of the animal whose form they appear in; birds fly, wolves are aggressive. One does not touch another person’s dæmon, but their dæmons can. They can feel pain, but they don’t eat or reproduce. They can communicate when their people are ignorant of each other’s language.

mons do not go through an infancy and growth period. On Twitter, a reader asked Pullman on her daughter’s behalf, if they are born with the person. He replied he’d never considered that, and some things are best kept private.

I think their dæmons appear with newborns’ first independent exhalations. That feels plausible to me.

mons pose a problem for translating the novels to a visual medium. Puppets have been used in stage productions. Movies favor computer-generated images. 

The problem for viewers like me is the animals in any scene get my attention. There’s a commercial that has been running on US television in 2019. A family of golden retrievers are driving, and then the three puppies in the backseat are let out and trudge onto obedience school. I have no idea if it is a car company or insurance commercial. I just want to watch the dogs.


Pictured above is a pine marten, one of Lyra’s dæmon’s favorite forms. US Fish and Wildlife Services (public domain).

The Fandom: Ann Giles, Bookwitch

One reason I am doing this blog is for fans of His Dark Materials. Ann Giles, who writes the enormously popular young people’s book blog, Bookwitch.wordpress.com. A fan herself, Ann is the mother of one of the guiding forces for the UK fans, Ian Giles, who once devoted many hours to BridgetotheStars.net. She did a profile of me and my books yesterday, A definitive guide to HDM.

Bridge’s French Twitter affiliate, Twitàgazze, is now the best source for Pullmania on that platform.

I first “met” Ann when she wrote in 2007 about my sending a copy of one of the guides to her son to review for bridgetothestars.net, And How Son Eventually Became a Footnote. He supplied me with many of the photos of contemporary Oxford. Check the credits.

Ann’s son is a few years older than mine, as is her daughter. We’ve spent the last 12 years as e-mail pals, and it feels like we have brought our kids up together.

One time when they met Philip at a conference, they snapped this picture for me.

His Dark Materials: Whose? What?

“…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.

paradise

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.

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@ Laurie Frost, 2019. All rights reserved.