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(April 19, 2002)


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We all know where we were born, o my brothers, but not where our bones will lie buried.

el Cristo de Elqui

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Wednesday, August first, 2012


At Patrick Farley's sketch blog, an idea of what they look like:

posted evening of August first, 2012: Respond
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Monday, July 6th, 2009


In a funny way Baltasar and Blimunda is reminding me of The Golden Compass. Obviously far more is different between the two books than is similar; the passage that initially made me think of comparing the two was Padre Bartolomeu Lourenço's statement that he believed Blimunda would be able to see people's will if she looked:

I have never seen their will, just as I have never seen their soul, You do not see their soul because the soul cannot be seen, you have not seen their will because you were not looking for it, What does will look like, It's like a dark cloud, What does a dark cloud look like, You will recognise it when you see it,...
-- so he is looking for Dust to power his airship! That makes sense... There are some other parallels I could draw between the two works; the opposition to the Catholic church, clearly -- though Saramago's anti-Church streak is far less strident than Pullman's -- and something else as well, some similarity of atmosphere that I haven't been able to pinpoint.

posted morning of July 6th, 2009: Respond
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Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Weaknesses in Amber Spyglass

Michael Bérubé has a long post today about His Dark Materials and a few other things (thanks for pointing it out, Levi) -- it is a bit dense but as near as I can tell, he means to defend The Amber Spyglass against critics who think it is the weakest book in the series because it is too preachy, and simultaneously to point out a weakness in the series -- that it is written on too grand a scale -- and to talk about some other fantasy series, like LOTR and C.S. Lewis' science fiction books, in this context.

I'm grateful to Dr. Bérubé for what he says about the world of the dead scene in The Amber Spyglass -- I had been having some cognitive dissonance over the last few weeks from failing to acknowledge the lameness of the Lyra's-hair bomb plot device. I had gotten up on a horse about the great beauty of the descent into the world of the dead, but was having trouble riding it. That said I don't think the idea that the harpies want to hear true stories of the world of the living is as bad as Bérubé does; I kind of like it, and I didn't attach a huge amount of importance to its role in the plot as I was reading.

I'm tentatively working on a response to people who complain about the preachiness of His Dark Materials, and which I think would also work as a response to Bérubé's complaint about Tolkien's stilted language -- making the argument against the church seems to be a huge part of Pullman's goal in writing these books. I did not (generally) find that the pedantry detracted from the story; but he is not only telling a story. Saying that the pedantry detracts from the story is like, well, like saying that Tolkien's archæic usages detract from his story -- I think Tolkien is at least as interested in creating a world where these usages will work, as he is in telling a story about a hobbit's quest. But this needs a fair amount of work before it will actually be an argument of any sort.

Some great discussion in the comments thread over there as well -- particularly from Kathleen, Alan Jacobs, Rich Puchalsky. I'm reluctant to enter into it myself because I like the books so much -- the tone of the comment thread seems to be focusing on the faults of the books, if I join the discussion mooning about how great the trilogy is, I am just going to look silly and thoughtless -- and yet I find my response to the criticisms is mostly just along the lines of "yeah that's true, but still it is a wonderful read..."

posted evening of April 8th, 2009: Respond
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Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Writing a world

As I've been reading His Dark Materials over the last few months, I've been trying to figure out how to tie it together with The Chronicles of Narnia. And now that I'm reading The Lord of the Rings, well... I can see some pretty distinct similarities to the other two series here as well. This post is for thinking about what parallels exist between the three series, and how they are different.

I think in each case, the author is working on three projects simultaneously. Primarily there is the story to be told -- in the case of LOTR and HDM the story is of a few central characters engaged in a quest; in Narnia it is much looser and less directed. But this is what's in front: you get to know and sympathize with some characters, take an interest in what's happening to them. The author's second task is the construction of a world (or in the case of HDM, a number of parallel worlds) to serve as the setting for the story. All three authors take this quite seriously, and all do it well -- though I am tempted to say Lewis' world-building is not on as high a level as Pullman's or Tolkien's, getting involved in the fictional universe is a core part of the experience of reading any of these series. One key difference is that Lewis and Tolkien rely on folklore and myth to build their worlds, where Pullman is trying to express the world (primarily) of Christian myth without relying on superstition. Pullman's is a hugely more ambitions project here, and this bit of it is not always successful. (The portion of HDM that in retrospect I found the most affecting, the descent into the world of the dead, was also the portion where the least attention was paid to science and the most use made of mythology.)

Undergirding all this is an ideological project, what I'm thinking of as an ontological narrative. Lewis is interested in retelling the story of Christian theology -- I have not studied the books closely enough to be more specific than that, there is a lot of writing on the subject out there though. Pullman (whose work can be seen as an answer to Lewis) is interested in creating a world without God, reframing the story of Christian theology into a grasping for power by forces of ignorance. (He does a magnificent job of it, though I was mainly taken with the primary story in HDM, the story of Lyra and Will's quest.) I haven't read enough of Tolkien yet to understand what his ontological narrative is; and it may be that in LOTR the main thing is really the world-building project.

posted evening of March 31st, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, March 15th, 2009

The judgement to tell the false from the true

I've been meaning to post this passage from The Amber Spyglass, which I found deeply moving and which I think sums up the entire trilogy in a couple of paragraphs. I don't have much to say about it beyond that, so will just quote. (Note: if you are reading or planning to read the series and do not like spoilers, don't read this entry.) The setting is the world of the dead; Lyra and Will are planning to create an opening which will allow the ghosts of the dead to escape into the world of the living, that they might be annihilated, allowed truly to die.

Long quote below the fold.

read the rest...

posted morning of March 15th, 2009: 5 responses

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Somewhere on down the road

Sylvia and I read Chapter 18 of The Amber Spyglass tonight, in which Lyra and Will enter the world of the dead; and I found myself utterly blown away by Pullman's creativity. There has been a lot to love about this series of books; but I think the transition here from the multiple universes of living reality to the world of the dead might be the single greatest bit of genius so far. It's believable and elegant and not kitsch, it seems like Dante writing science fiction. -- Wait no, that's not quite what I mean; I mean something more like "a great science fiction author writing the Inferno."

Sylvia impressed me last night when we were reading about Mary Malone among the mulefa, by picking up on the fact that what Mary was building was going to be "the amber spyglass" -- she figured this out before I did.

posted evening of February 20th, 2009: 2 responses
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Monday, February second, 2009

Live action, anime

A really intriguing experience as I was reading The Amber Spyglass with Sylvia this evening -- we were reading about the deliberations of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and my internal picture of it was based on the Magisterium scene from the movie of The Golden Compass; and it was dragging. Then I remembered what I had been thinking about last week, and re-imagined the scene as animated, in the style of Studio Ghibli. And the reading picked right up! The internal imagery got a lot more interesting, the story seemed more real.

Maggie's note in comments that His Dark Materials is based on Paradise Lost has me really intrigued over the past week. I'm dying to find out which of the details of plot are in Milton, and how Pullman has transformed them.

(The Authority's Clouded Mountain fortress totally makes me think of Laputa: The Castle in the Sky.)

posted evening of February second, 2009: Respond
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Wednesday, January 28th, 2009


I commented at The Great Whatsit today that I was not finding the second and third books of the His Dark Materials series quite as overwhelmingly great as I found the first. But as of the reading I did with Sylvia tonight -- chapter 2 of The Amber Spyglass -- I want to take that back, and just say the middle book is a lull between two masterpieces. The beauty of the narrative here is just enough to take my breath away.

I am realizing that these books could be made into a truly fantastic series of movies if only the studios were not so attached to live action and CGI -- I think they are a perfect match for anime (or maybe I mean "for Studio Ghibli", which is about the sum total of my exposure to anime). Reading about Will talking to Balthamos and Baruch, especially the fight against Metatron, was bringing visions of Spirited Away flickering across my mind. Metatron is even a perfect name for an anime bad guy!

I also noticed a couple of coincidences of imagery with Cien Años de Soledad, which I take as a very good sign -- I am absorbing enough of the book even without knowing the language well, for it to be on my mind when I'm not reading it. When the narrator noted that Will's knife could cut between worlds but could not "abolish distance within worlds," I immediately flashed on Melquíades' statement that "la ciencia ha eliminado las distancias"; and when Will's boots were sinking into the soft sand in the hot, humid new world, my mind jumped to "aquel paraíso de humedad y silencio,... donde las botas se hundían en pozos de aceite humeante..."

posted evening of January 28th, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Two new properties of dæmons?

Tonight Sylvia and I started in on the final book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. Just at the outset I noticed Mrs. Coulter's monkey dæmon doing two things that I hadn't seen other characters' dæmons doing before this. One is eating; when the monkey is introduced on the second page, he is picking apart pinecones to get the sweet nuts. Dæmons have never been shown yet eating; I was sort of assuming that as spiritual beings (or as expressions of their humans' spirits) they did not need to. The other is acting as a sort of babelfish -- when Ama tries to speak to Mrs. Coulter in her own (unspecified but not fully understood by Coulter) language, Mrs. Coulter instead has Ama's dæmon speak to the monkey, and there is no linguistic barrier to this kind of communication.

So, huh. These are two pretty big deals, especially the second, and I wonder why neither one has come up in the trilogy to date. The language thing would be one (incomplete) way of answering the question I asked earlier about communication in this world. But if dæmons can do that, why are there language barriers at all? Possibly (a) only the golden monkey can do this -- he has repeatedly been characterized as different from other dæmons -- or (b) only Mrs. Coulter knows that dæmons can do this.

posted evening of January 25th, 2009: Respond

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Exposition -- His Dark Materials as children's lit

I had my first-ever His Dark Materials-based dream last night! Can't remember it other than that it was extremely involved and plotted out in detail. I did not have a dæmon, most of the people I interacted with did, so I'm guessing I was a person from this world who had passed through into Lyra's world. (Note: Is Will's world "this world," the world of the reader? It certainly seems to be -- nothing about it seems unfamiliar, in the limited view of it we have gotten.) Many characters from the books were in the dream but interestingly they were all adult characters, where the main characters of the books are children.

That reminded me of something I had been meaning to write about The Subtle Knife -- I don't remember this being the case as much in The Golden Compass* -- which is that there's just a ton of exposition. I haven't been keeping track exactly, but so far there have been at least three occasions of a character speaking for multiple pages, narrating the story-so-far to another character and, obviously, to the reader. Not sure what to make of this -- some of the narration is filling in needed plot points, some of it is confirming stuff I had already figured out from reading the book-so-far...

I had a thought that maybe this was "because HDM is children's lit" -- that the intended audience won't have made all the connections, so Pullman is bringing them out explicitly. Maybe that's right, I don't know -- I'm finding it a bit of a distraction.

* (Just remembered one instance of this in The Golden Compass -- it was integrated really nicely into the story there, where these feel a bit more patched-on.)

posted morning of January 19th, 2009: Respond
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