Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 6, 2009

We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not or die of despair – Sarafina Pekkala (The good witch in Nothern Lights)

Over a period of time reading acquires a biologic function akin to hunger. One experiences intense pangs and to calm them one reads and feels satiated. There is an immediate period of inactivity and the cycle starts once again all over. As one progresses through these cycles the quality and shades of hunger changes quite dramatically. The need for intellectually refined fodder keeps growing. One starts becoming choosy and careful and almost certainly insular, directional and opinionated in picking what one wants to consume. The earlier arbitrariness and abandon in the choice of books starts narrowing down. The twilight period of uncertainty and hesitation between two reading bouts with respect to the choice of an author and a book grows – atleast that has been my experience. For every book I pick and read to the end, there are atleast two I leave in between in the hope I will revisit them for completion. This is not bad in itself. It is helping me become a better picker of books. And that is a great faculty in itself. It is in one of these twilight periods of book selection that I managed to lay my hands on “Northern Lights” – The first part of Philip Pullman‘s fantasy trilogy viz. His Dark Materials

My own exposure to the classical fantasy fiction has been limited to sections of C.S.Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien‘s Hobbit, and a couple of books of J.K.Rowling‘s Harry Potter SeriesNorthern Lights has been a tentative venturing out of this comfort zone and a welcome consequence is that I have managed to expand this zone by a wide margin

All good writing needs very robust imagination and fantasy fiction stretches that need for imagination like no other genres of fiction. Writers of this genre create worlds, objects, characters and imagery – which don’t exist- but in ways that engenders comprehension, acceptance, sympathy and association in readers. The need for captivating story telling even while dancing on the borders of the believable – unbelievable is at its most demanding. The more the writers are able to play on the reader’s inherent ability to suspend disbelief, the more their chances of success in producing a lasting output. It is this ability to suspend disbelief on readers part that saves writers from explaining the mechanics of a potion’s workings, the improbability of a bear talking or the ability of a broom stick to levitate. Pullman excels in every department of fantasy fiction

In Northern Lights, Pullman introduces fascinating yet unique and wonderful concepts like Daemons, Dust and Alethiometer. Pullman never explains the complete nature of these. He keeps them sufficiently vague and open to interpretation. As I understood a daemon of a child could be a representative combination of innocence, character, mood, personality. In children a deamon aptly assumes various forms depending on the situation indicating the moldable nature of children. While in adults it settles on a particular form and remains same forever till death. The Dust is the cosmic power that has a hugely transformational impact on daemons and therefore assumes an untold significance for the forces that manipulate the power structures within society e.g. the organised religion, the scientifc bodies, university boards with massive budgetary powers. The Alethiometer is the machine that indicates truth and is believed to be working to the forces of the Dust. As I read through the book I started to conclude that Dust is the collective knowledge in nature that transforms us and also has all the hints to ascertain the ultimate truth (whatever that means and maybe). In some sense the Dust enables us to lose our innocence and repeat the original sin in biblical terms

At its core Northern Lights is a journey of daring adventure of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon to save her abducted friend Roger and others from the hands of the General Oblation Board (Gobblers). The gobblers are led by fascinatingly beautiful Mrs.Coultran who is the biological mother of Lyra.  Mrs Coultran is funded by the powerful Presidium which is the governing body of church. The gobblers are in the quest of magical Dust which they believe has no impact on children and their deamons. The Dust appears to have a huge role in the settlement of the form of the daemon as children mature into adults. The presidium wants to separate children from their deamons thereby isolate them from the impact of Dust and enable them retain their innocence and not relive the original sin. It is for this reason the Gobblers (and by implication the organised religion) want to abduct and experiment on children and their daemons. Through the narrative Pullman makes it clear that in the past organised church performed such acts in bringing up castrati singers needed for church music.   While Pullman portrays that as the position of the organised church and Mrs.Coultran as its representation, he also builds a countervailing force of rationality in the form of Lord Asriel whose quest for Dust is to understand its significance.  Lord Asriel is the biological father of Lyra. The powerful forces of male and female, rational and irrational, faith and heritic, the constructive and destructive, the evil and good, the selfish and the generous are represented by Mrs.Coultran and Lord Asriel. The rest of the characters that one comes across in the book get aligned with these forces. Lord Asriel gets banished to the cold climes of Svalbard where he is imprisoned but continues to do his research on Dust. Besides saving children Lyra also extends her adventure to reunite with her father and hand him over the Alethiometer – which she believes will aid the rational quest of her father. In her journey she is helped by gypsy families whose children are also victims of gobblers, good witches, Iorek Byrnison – the bear prince. Towards the end and to the utter dismay of Lyra,  Lord Asriel gets ready to experiment on Roger and his daemon, the friend for whom Lyra has undertaken her journey in the first place. As I mulled over it, I felt that this may be a representation of the ugly and blind application of rationality and science to understand the truth at the cost of humans. This is very similar to extreme forms of religious dogma applied in the name of understanding the truth which cause untold suffering . At their extremes, applied science and religion seem to have the same harmful outcomes. Is that what Pullman was hinting at? I am not sure if I know that yet. May be the sequels viz. “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” will clarify that for me

Pullman maintains a gradual pace while building his dark and scheming world full of characters with their ulterior motives and devious purposes.The tension and tempo are palpable through the book and make for quite an enjoyable read. Pullman admits to being influenced by an essay titled “On the marionette theatre” by Heinrich von Klast. Out of curiosity I read this essay and was surprised to see an almost verbatim representation of the behaviour of the bear described in this essay finding a place in his book

Overall,  Northern Lights makes for a wonderful read and I am looking forward to completing the trilogy and reassess my opinion on a much larger scheme of understanding

3 Responses to “Northern Lights – Philip Pullman”

  1. Aravindh Raj said

    The movie adaptation of this book is ‘The Golden Compass’, though not excellent, i would think, it is made good. The monkey daemon animation in the movie was completely made by an Indian company.

  2. mangalapalliv said

    Thanks Aravindh.
    I did not know that there is animation related work going on in India with this degree of sophistication! I watched the movie after I read the book and hence did not enjoy it the way I enjoyed the book – although the animation and graphics were breathtaking. Just a small trivia: Northern Lights was published as Golden Compass in the US and therefore the name Golden Compass is not just for movie adaption (although I do not understand the rationale of having two names for the same book.

    BTW do let me know the name of the company. I would like to know more about the company

  3. Aravindh Raj said

    Hi Vish,

    After some Googling, the animation was done by Rhythm & Hues. Its an american company having offices in India. Though the animation was not fully developed in India offices, it won Oscar and Bafta.

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