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December 4, 2007

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'I Have Plenty to Say About Him'

Major upside to the impending release of The Golden Compass: lots of interviews with Philip Pullman making the rounds! This one is the best I’ve seen: an extended e-mail interview that goes deep, deeeep into his theology. And of course there’s this bit:

[Interviewer]: Your trilogy does an amazing job of interpreting certain aspects of the Old Testament (and the legends surrounding it) quite literally (e.g. Enoch), and it touches on Church history too — but if memory serves, there is no mention of Jesus as a character in this cosmology. To some readers, this has been a curious gap. Where does he fit into your mythos? Given that the depiction of everything that came before and after Jesus — God, Enoch, the Church, etc. — is pretty negative, would Jesus himself have been “bad” somehow? Or, as a “good” person, did he not fit in?

[Pullman]: His omission from HDM was deliberate; I’m going to get around to Jesus in the next book. I have plenty to say about him.


The next book, recall, is going to be called “The Book of Dust,” and Pullman has been working on it for many years now.

Posted December 4, 2007 at 9:53 | Comments (13) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted



I will certainly read this book, but I am wary of it.

The Golden Compass, in particular, and the HDM trilogy, in general, was masterful. But the further it went, and the more theological it got, Pullman became more C.S. Lewis like in being willing to sacrifice beauty & truth to allegory.

Inferno is always better than Paradiso; Paradise Lost is always better than Paradise Regained; and Fellowship -- especially once the Hobbits get on the move -- is probably better than Return of the King.

There's probably one great exception, which is Ezra Pound's Cantos, but that's only because his third, contemplative movement didn't turn out at all like he thought it would -- locked up in prison in Pisa, branded a traitor and collaborator, broken down, nearly silent, trying to discover where it all went wrong.

I disagree that Golden Compass > (All of HDM). Obviously GC is *necessary* for HDM as a whole to be great, but if GC stood alone, it would be a cool fairy tale with some excellent ideas & images, nothing more. It's the second two books that bring HDM into truly mythic territory.

And, more broadly, I think with all of these series -- HDM, LOTR, even Harry Potter -- the real genius is in the crescendo. The later books in each series could never stand alone -- they'd seem overblown, melodramatic, ridiculous -- but when they're anchored by those humble beginnings, they're uniquely able to serve up the truly mind-blowing scenes.

Tim: Oedipus Rex Antigone?

Also, IMO: Fellowship Return of the King.

But: Fellowhip - Tom Bombadil > Return of the King, op. cit. Peter Jackson, QED.

What about: Starwars Empire?

Somewhat spurious: Barber of Seville Marriage of Figaro

Admittedly I'm struggling to think of counterexamples...

Ugh, apparently the Snarkmatrix didn't appreciate my use of the greater-than and less-than signs... That should be:

Oedipus LT Antigone?

Fellowship LT RotK

Fellowship - Bombadil GT RotK

Star Wars LT Empire

Barber MuchLT Figaro

Also: Robin, crescendo, yes!

Well, my point wasn't about trilogies as such, but about how the engagement with the worldly and fallible (traditionally represented by the descent into hell) is aesthetically superior to the abstract, heavenly and triumphant (trad. the ascent into paradise).

The reason why Pound's Cantos (with which I'm otherwise preoccupied) is an exception is that what he thought would be a final, contemplative volume turned into his Inferno.

But, to address your examples... Antigone is actually biographically much earlier than Oedipus Rex. Oedipus at Colonus, which is the middle movement, is last, and is more lyrical, magical, redemptive, maybe more abstract. So Antigone = Inferno, Oedipus Rex = Purgatorio, Colonus = Paradiso (also youth, middle age, the elderly). It actually works pretty well.

Empire is great because it's the Inferno in the middle. With Beaumarchais/Mozart, comedy has a different structure, where a greater reconciliation is actually a better thing. And comedy also as a rue doesn't go for theological abstractions, except to send them up a la Aristophanes or Woody Allen. Mount Doom in RotK is awesome. (Inferno again.) The endless conversations at the end where everything is explained are much less compelling.

Another counterexample. In Shakespeare's great historical sequence, the Henriad, I like the triumphal Henry V better than the tragic Richard II, but almost everyone (me included) likes the historitragicomic Henry IV, the middle movement, better than either.

Ahhh, I see what you mean, and I guess my suggestions fit in pretty well in that case. Except Figaro is better than Barber simply because Mozart is much better than Rossini. Well, I suppose the play is also better as it is more emotionally mature. Actually, it again fits in: with a first play about getting married, and a second play about being married, of course Inferno is the second play...

The Oedipus/Commedia parallel is great. I forgot they were written in that order but it makes sense.

Your backward biography of Ezra Pound story reminds me of Primo Levi, who survived the Holocaust in his 20s, seemingly psychologically unbeaten, only to kill himself at 67.

Don't most people prefer Richard II over Henry V? I finished my history of hunting book, so maybe I'll try Henry IV!

Except I just had the brilliant idea of following my history of hunting book with Sketches from a Hunter's Album!

I think we're all missing the point of this post, which is that there is another HDMish book coming out! About which I want to reiterate, "Eeeee!"

Most people do like Richard II better than Henry V. I'm perverse, but I'll stick up for Harry the King and the march from Calais to Agincourt forever.

Its speeches are great, as is its broader use of language -- Scottish, Irish, proto-Cockney, and even French, as Shakespeare makes his play for pan-British unity in diversity. And the Branagh film version is the best direct Shakespeare adaptation in color.

Oh, yeah, Pullman. I'd say "Eeeee!" but I share Dan's apprehension. I hope he goes all dark and Last Temptation of Christ-y, not lame and Da Vinci Code-y. So many ways to get Jesus wrong, and yet it seems like we've tried them all.

I think there is virtually no question Pullman will go dark. I also predict Jesus will be peripheral and talked-about, not like, Lyra's new adventure buddy.

Wow. "Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial." Certainly lays down the gauntlet there.

Anyway, I worry a bit about P.P. "getting around to Jesus." I feel as though I have a very different and kind of diminished perspective on the HDM trilogy than I do on the Narnia series because I read Pullman's books as an adult. (Sorry, we got through a whole, great discussion on Pullman without once mentioning Narnia, and I'm spitting all over that.)

A huge portion of the appeal of the Narnia books to me is the extraordinary wildness of C.S. Lewis' imagination as manifest in these books. When I think of almost every book in the series (Last Battle being the biggest exception), my mind conjures this flood of spectacular images. A glowing lantern amidst snow, glimpsed from a wardrobe. Giant, invisible feet clomping through a house. A banquet table encircled by a crowd of royal revelers, frozen in time. A drastically undersized bracelet wedged onto the arm of a chagrined dragon. A shaven lion lying motionless on a table, beset by mice. I mean, just say a title, and tons and tons of the most vivid scenes play out in my head.

I'll never know how much of that is because I read these books as a child, when my imagination was vibrant enough to spin pictures out of words almost without effort. When I was a child, and read Narnia, I was definitely not relating what was happening on the Dawn Treader to what we were being taught that day in Bible class. But the images have stuck with me remarkably well as an adult, and whenever I read those books, only in the back of my mind do the religious parallels present themselves (except in Wardrobe and Battle, which are both all kinds of Biblical). According to Lewis himself, the images came first, and the broadly religious shape of the narratives was an aftereffect.

If I hadn't read Narnia till I grew up, would those parallels seem predominant and cloying, the way they do to many people? Whenever Pullman is called on to rail against Lewis, he brings up the notorious Susan passage, which he reads as reflective of Lewis' distaste for sexuality (female sexuality in particular): "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up." As a child, I read that passage very differently -- Susan had lost the gift of youthful imagination, and Narnia was no longer real to her. After all, the existence of Narnia and the willingness to believe it was real was always a matter of some anxiety for the characters in every book. If one thing did come across to me from that passage when I was younger, it was Lewis exhorting his reader to indulge fantasy, to allow ourselves to imagine, and to believe.

I'm sure Pullman caught that reading of the Susan passage as well, but it clearly doesn't interest him the way his more academic reading does. I think the very same thing might have happened to me when I read His Dark Materials, which I appreciated, but didn't love the way I still love Narnia. Several marvelous images linger in my head from Pullman's trilogy, but the allegorical elements of the books are what stick with me most. Sure, a decrepit, dying God being carried along on a covered stretcher is a great image, but its strongest resonance is allegorical.

I agree with Dan; what I love about The Golden Compass particularly is that the images overpower the allegory. The very first scene -- Lyra hiding, trying to keep herself and Pantalaimon quiet as she spies her uncle in a trap -- remains beautifully vivid for me. But as the series develops, the allegory suffocates the fantasy. I find myself thinking of ideas, not images. (And we all know where that gets me.) So when I hear Pullman talking about "getting around to Jesus," I think, "Uh-oh, allegory alert." After you kill God, what could you possibly do for a sequel? Aw, yeah ... JESUS, BABY!

So to revisit your point, Robin:

I disagree that Golden Compass > (All of HDM). Obviously GC is *necessary* for HDM as a whole to be great, but if GC stood alone, it would be a cool fairy tale with some excellent ideas & images, nothing more. It's the second two books that bring HDM into truly mythic territory.

I wouldn't underestimate the mythic power of an excellent fairy tale. Narnia is a chaotic dreamscape so far from having a crescendo that if you take Book 6 and make it Book 1, nobody even cares.* But for many, me included, it holds a thrall an orderly allegory couldn't touch.

*(Except me. For me, Magician's Nephew will always be Book 6.)

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