La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.

There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.

Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:

There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.

There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.

Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:

“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”

between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.

Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.

Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”

Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.

This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.

More on the long-predicted demise of reading

* Steve Jobs thinks reading is dead; Timothy Egan disagrees. If it’s dying, would it just hurry up?

* In the same vein: a paean to the departed past where civilization dwells. The Wonderful Past, redux.

* Philippa Gregory watches a novel with no literary merit anyway and still gets the Hollywood treatment. Compare to Philip Pullman, whose books have literary merit.

* Terry Teachout quoting T.S. Eliot. Compare and contrast to Richard Russo in Straight Man: “Virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. I know this to be a fact because before they all started filing grievances against me, I was asked to read them. Sad little vessels all. Scuffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal—to evidence a superior disposition.”

Philip Pullman profile

I mentioned Philip Pullman again as a contract to the execrable fantasy described here; I wrote about Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy here. Now I’ve come across an interview with Pullman. A sample:

“I had been thinking about the central question, which is the innocence and experience business, and the transition which happens in adolescence, for a long time. I’d been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really.” Once, when I interviewed Pullman in front of a packed house at the National Theatre, he drew a big laugh when he explained what was so special about this age: “Your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family.”

This article, like so many appearing now, is coming about thanks to the movie version of The Golden Compass. Originally I’d planned to watch, until critics panned it; the Seattle Timesreview is typical, saying the movie “has a by-the-numbers feel to it.” In other words, the movie appears to be what the studio sought: a slot machine instead of a story, and by jettisoning the latter is also seems to have lost the former.

Hollywood, The Golden Compass, and artistic corruption

About a month ago I picked up The Golden Compass to read the first chapter for something I was working on. It’s the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I wrote about a year ago. Rather than stopping at chapter two, as I’d intended to, I accidentally finished the novel in the course of the day. I’m not the who loves His Dark Materials: this month’s Atlantic has an article called “How Hollywood Saved God” (warning: it’s in a walled garden, so if you’re not a subscriber you should buy the magazine) that says Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide. Each book of the trilogy probably counts as a sale, and his other books are probably included too, but it’s safe to assume many people have read him. The number will no doubt increase with the release of the first movie.

“How Hollywood Saved God” describes the movie based on The Golden Compass. I’ll probably watch it in December, somewhat reluctantly, just as I saw The Return of the King despite knowing the high probability of disappointment. I was right about The Return of the King, a movie that provides an excellent of example of how more special effects can lead to an inferior result. With The Golden Compass, five years and a lot of wrangling have apparently succeeded in watering down the sharp content of the book. Hollywood as portrayed by this Atlantic story is the McDonald’s of art, seeking to dull strong flavors to make a more standardized product that will appeal to the widest audience, but also destroying what made the original good. Hollywood isn’t the only place with this tendency.

Some of this comes from technological fetishization, and some from the perceived effect of strong statements on financial aspects, leading to the end result:

To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.”

[…]

You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

Read the article to see how it happens and this for more on The Atlantic regarding movies, art, and commerce.

His Dark Materials

Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.

If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.

His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.

Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.

Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.

The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.

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