Meeting Philip Pullman

On October 30, 2007, I met Philip Pullman for a few brief moments at a New York Times Talk in advance of the release of The Golden Compass.

I didn’t tell him in advance that I was coming. It was a rather momentous decision. I’d never been to NYC and had two young children and my husband worked long, long hours. But even so he encouraged me to fly up for the talk, spend the night, and come home the next day.

I went immediately to Times Square after checking into my modest but serviceable hotel. My aim was to be in the front row, and I succeeded.

So I sat at Pullman’s feet as he discussed the creation of His Dark Materials. The soles of his shoes looked new (the following morning I I would ditch mine in favor of some more appropriate walking wear), and he had on his customary bold socks.

One question I remembered his answering was that like so many children, he didn’t feel bound by his family of origin. Life was elsewhere, in a sense.

The interviewer, Charles McGrath, asked about progress on the Book of Dust. Pullman made a gesture suggesting the manuscript was already over 2 feet high. Of course, it would be 10 years before the publication of La Belle Sauvage, but I believe him. La Belle was luxuriant in its descriptions, and The Secret Commonwealth seems just brimming with details, a book that even at 600 pages could have satisfactorily been much longer. These are meticulously considered works.

I waited to be the end of the autograph line after I bought a copy of an anthology he had edited, Detective Stories, because it was the only book on display I hadn’t several copies of, and I am thrifty.

When I reached him, I said, “I’m Laurie Frost,” and when that didn’t register, the title of my first book, “Elements.” He rose from his seat and took both my hands and held them briefly. 

Then I went off into the night and still had time right before it closed to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I had on a full skirted dress and it blew in the wind.

When I’d been home a week or so I had a note. He and Jude had spent part of the next day at MOMA as had I. But I was very shy then, and thought all an author had to say to me was in his books, if I looked hard enough.

Quite by chance a very old friend has invited me to spend time with her when she has a cataract procedure November 5. So the evening of November 4, 2019, the release of the miniseries, I will be in NYC for the second night in my life.

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Skraeling Island

I was looking for something else entirely when I came upon Barry Lopez’s Horizon. Opening it at random I was on Skraeling Island. 

I had worked hard 15 years ago looking for connections between our world and Lyra’s, and thought I’d found what there was to be known of Skraelings. Either there wasn’t much on the web or I should have focused on Norse sagas.

Skraeling Island is about 660 miles nautical  north of the Pole, off the coast of Ellesmere, Canada, where there is evidence of 4000 years of human habitation, including migratory paleoEskimos or Thule habitation 800 years ago, and relics and materials found in Norse excavations. West Greenland can be seen from the East. SW Alaska is 1500 miles west.

A question that may come to unexpected consequences as the poles continue to melt is whether this is evidence of Scandinavian colonization of these remote horizons of Canada or instead of trade in neighboring Greenland.

Lopez is on this archaeological expedition because writing about living in extreme environments is his life’s work, and he speculates on what dealing with the scarcity of resources in a land of such stunning horizons could have been like, if, for example, the dreamscapes of people living through months of darkness would differ, if their shamans would guide them through. Perhaps ceremonies comparable to Navajo Beautyways helped in time of privation to reveal a high level of coherence existing everlastingly as these explorerers lived on the brink of survival in the harshest of lands.

Lopez speculates that the Skraelings’ relationship with the bears was quite complex. They needed their meat and furs, every part of them, to survive. But they respected them. In their isolation they saw the bears as the only other beings able to walk upright. Perhaps they lived in villages, too.

It opens ways of considering how Lee Scoresby of New Denmark [Greenland] fought Skraelings on Nova Zembla. Consider that the original Americans were thought to have arrived via the Bering Strait. As the Paleo-Eskimos came east through New Denmark and on into Muscovy lands, Russian archipelagos, this means peoples of the Old World came to the New, although in our world’s history, a mirror reality says that Europeans coming into New France [Canada] were inhabitants of  the Old World encountering the New.

Ruins on Skraeling Island. Nick Newberry Archive (see below).

Photo from Nick Newberry Archives. For educational purposes only.https://www.newberyphotoarchives.ca/in/photos/15-skraeling-island

Map by Mike O’Rourke. Used for educational purposes only. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-location-of-Skraeling-Island-in-the-Canadian-High-Arctic-Map-by-Mike-ORourke_fig1_264004582

Details below. The island is 7000 ft long y 4600 ft in width and is part of the Queen Elizabeth/Canadian Archipelago

Source: Barry Lopez. Horizon. Chapter “Skraling Island.” pp. 131 – 203. NY: Knopf, 2019.

 

 

Zeppelins

The night before they depart for London, Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra, “Now we’re going to leave very early in the morning bu the dawn zeppelin” (NL 72).

So I thought, we need some zeppelin images, for who can have enough of these? I turned to my favorite site for images that have public domain status, the Library of Congress’s Photographic division. There are dozens more you can search with keywords, zeppelin, airship. If you want to look at these in more details, I have included LoC call numbers. There are also some intriguing images in the Flick’r Commons, including some from Bergen, Norway.

Title: Wellman Lifeboat from “Trent.”

Airship (blueprint) Bain News Service, publisher

Cabin of Zeppelin airship, ggbain 08376 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.08376

The “Graf  Zeppelin” as it appeared in its last trial flight, which included a visit to England. 1928.

Zeppelin Passenger ship from 1920-15 appears to have an inside and outdoor passenger area. The outside basket in other documents refers to the “lifeboat.” Library of Congress, ggbain 09494 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.09494

Perhaps this onelike the mooring mast at Bolvangar is. Photo from the early 1920s shows shows a British rigid airship R33 tied to its mooring mast. (ggbain 32943 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.32943)

i’m very curious about the docking of this Graf Zeppelin in Norway, found on Flick’r Commons. I suppose it is a space-saving technique for unoccupied airships, which must  land on the ground, in spite of mooring masts, and at a horizontal position.

(Passing the Hotel Bristol
Artist: Atelier K.K. (Knud Knudsen), Date/place: 1930, Bergen/Norway, Subject: Graf Zeppelin over Bergen).

Trepanning

Lord Asriel lies in the Retiring Room when he presents a head packed away in ice as that of Stanislaus Grumman, formerly a scholar at Jordan College. It isn’t Grumman’s but some other unfortunate’s.

Immediately, the scholars deem the scalping patterns and evidence of trepannation to be the work of Skraelings (indigenous peoples of their New Denmark (our Greenland)) or Tartars of Siberia. These are perhaps the people least understood and hence most despised in Lyra’s world.

Trepanning is basically drilling a hole in the head. I first read of it way back in the 1970s, maybe in Village Voice, who knows, as a means of alleviating pressure in the skull. I suffered from sinus problems as the consequence of having moved to a place with open air iron smelting and terrible pollution, and it didn’t seem a half bad idea.

The next time I encountered it was here in Jordan College’s Retiring Room. The assumption is it was an act of aggression.

Sometimes you bore in to let something out, and sometimes you bore through to let something in. Stay tuned.

Caption for featured photograph: “The crude method of trephining [sic] with the sharpened edge of a stone practiced by peoples living in Peru some 500 or 600 years ago is revealed by the skulls at the National Museum.” 1926, LC-USZ62-115187

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/

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]

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