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.

Join the conversation at the Facebook page, Compounding His Dark Materials

Trepanned Skulls in Oxford: “the gods can talk to them.”

Thanks once again to @hisdorkmaterials, we have some very special pictures of Oxford to share: the trepanned skulls at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Will’s (our) Oxford, or at least those currently on display. Some, he said, had been removed for cleaning (perhaps attracting too much dust, as trepanned skulls do, according to Lyra’s alethiometer), or I suspect, for traffic flow purposes in this place on the Museum floor. Notice the precision of this operation, one voluntarily undergone by shamans and sorcerers as a way to facilitate conversations with spirit voices.

Trepanning is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of Golden Compass/Northern Lights; the fourth chapter of The Subtle Knife, when Latrom meets Lyra, is titled “Trepanning.”

It is also rumored that witches can be trapped in bottles. @Hisdorkmaterials provides an example from the Pitt-Rivers:

Pullman discusses these in an essay in The Guardian, “The Limits of Reason: Why Philip Pullman Believes in Magic“:

But could there be a Varieties of Magical Experience? Could the mental universe that produced witch bottles and sigil, and grimoires, and the whole idea of magic itself, be rich enough to sustain an examination of that sort?

Pullman believes so, describing an exhibit devoted to the subject at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford:

Whether witches were “filthy quislings” or harmless village healers, they and those who believed in witchcraft and magic existed in a shared mental framework of hidden influences and meanings, of significances and correspondences, whether angelic, diabolic, or natural. Everything in the exhibition testifies to a near-universal belief in the existence of an invisible, imaginary world that could affect human life and be affected in turn by those who knew how to do it; and so do millions of other objects of similar kinds collected, exhibited, studied, or uncollected, unknown, lost, throughout the world and every period of history. As do legends, and ghost stories, and folk tales. If anything is a permanent fact of human nature, this is.

I find it endlessly fascinating, and I call that world “imaginary” not to disparage or belittle it. Imagination is one of our highest faculties, and wherever it appears, however it “bodies forth / The forms of things unknown” (Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I want to treat it with respect.

Could the Republic of Heaven be The Secret Commonwealth?

Lapland

From Chapter 2 of His Dark Materials, “The Idea of North,” Golden Compass/Northern Lights: Lord Asriel began:

“As some of you know, I set out for the North twelve months ago on a diplomatic mission to the King of Lapland. At least, that’s what I pretended to be doing. In fact my real aim was to go further north, still, right up on to the ice, to try and discover what has happened to the Grumman expedition” and to investigate “phenomenon only seen in the lands of the North.”

Lapland has become a largely derogatory to refer to the land of the Sami, the indigenous people of the far North extending across Scandinavia and into Russia, boundaries largely irrelevant to the semi nomadic reindeer herders. Their problem isn’t within themselves, but with colonists from the South, seeking their land, lumber, and resources, and creating mayhem in the usual way — family separation: sending children to government schools or factories, fostering them with non-Sami families, and forbidding the use of language. Slow genocide.

Was there a King of Lapland in Lyra’s world? Perhaps; the scholars do not doubt Asriel’s claim. But more than a standing army, they seemed to fear the witch clans and further north, the armed bears. North and north are used throughout the book. North is the destination; north is the way there.

On the Sámi people of today, I recommend: 

Documentary: The Only Image of My Father.(https://www.amazon.com/Only-Image-My-Father/dp/B07H5P9MXY/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF80. May be found on Amazon Prime. Fifty years on, the pain of family separation endures. Also, see these websites:

https://www.unric.org/en/indigenous-people/27307-the-sami-of-northern-europe–one-people-four-countries

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A1mi_people

Join our conversation at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/. This is a group page for Compounding His Dark Materials.

 

9964732875_40d91762e5_z
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Byggnadsverk-Jordbruk, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Kiruna, Lapland, Other-Animals, Environments-Mountain environment
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Kiruna, Lappland, Övrigt-Djur, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lapland, Other-Animals, Environments-Mountain environment
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Övrigt-Djur, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö

Sami camp at lake Luossajärvi near Kiruna in Lapland. People, dogs and huts.

Sami family with reindeer, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Sweden.

Sami family in Lapland, with a sledge, reindeer and a dog.

 

91622_raa_kmb_16001000027564

 

Sources:

https://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/91622/raa_kmb_16001000027564.html. Allard, Björn. Riksantikvarieämbetet – http://kmb.raa.se/cocoon/bild/show-image.html?id=16001000027564. Public Domain Mark – http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

Featured Image: Njommelsaska i Lappland by Carl Svantje Hallbeck, 1856.

Satellite Image:

 Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC – Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Terra satellite.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/natural_hazards_v2.php3?img_id=2611, Public Domain

 


@Laurie Frost, 2019. all rights reserved. Photos are in public domain or Fair Use.

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

Exeter, aka Jordan College

From Jon at the enthusiastic Twitter @hisdorkmaterials come these pictures of Exeter College, aka as Jordan in His Dark Materials. Just as the novels do, the video release of the trilogy, His Dark Materials, begins at Jordan [Exeter} college and is shot on location. From Yaxley Quad, it is possible to look up at the building where Pullman the student had his rooms.

For this picture Jon stood in the Quad looking up to the second window at the top from the far left, right near the waterspout, and what appears to be a chimney or turbine, and the gutters and roof.One can easily imagine a lithe teenager deciding exiting by the window and avoiding the stairs and questions of older scholars not too bad an idea, and so Lyra’s journeys on the rooftops may have been not entirely imaginary. His would have been the rectangular shaped windows.

exeter-chapel-jon-2-atraight

These two pictures show the Chapel of Exeter. Tilting the one allows for the pathway and steeple to show, as well as conveying the sense that all the buildings abut one another.

Was it in these vaulted halls that Pullman first contemplated Dust? Or in such grandeur rejected  a rich and demanding presence obscuring the nature of spiritual life, which has naught to do with fine trappings and political powers?exeterart

exeter-chapel

exeter-chapel-front

All credit for these lovely pictures: the generosity of Jon @hisdorkmaterials. Follow his accounts of what is happening on the ground there.

You are also invited to join the open public Facebook group, Compounding His Dark Materials https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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]

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.

 

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