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

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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.