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.

 

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).

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.