tag : bright yellow-green apples: no-nonsense fantasy

"I see little point in persisting in a discussion with one so obstinate as you" Martin White

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

no-nonsense fantasy

figure 12.8. how many different dæmons grow in an english country garden...

So I finished the whole Dark Materials set, in pretty good time. There's reams been said about the stories, so I'll try and keep this short. I also don't want to ruin the plot for those of you who haven't got in yet - so we'll keep this general.

One of the central threads to his books - about searching for the liberation to live a whole life, a life free of oppressive and destructive forces - is artfully told. The peoples and creatures, drawn into the many struggles and dreams, are often sympathetic and wonderfully compromised characters - that you could imagine living with at any time. The worst of them find redemption of some sort, and the best are deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable. As a mythological tale for our times, it generously lives up to the need for a realistic vision that's relevant to the reader's contemporary concerns - yet outside of being tied to just one time. Because he's managed to flit easily between various interrelated worlds, the layers of meaning and metaphor, fantastical and everyday, can integrate gracefully. Like a spatially playful painting, there's no clunkyness in plot devices to try and drag one with the other.

But contained within this integration of fantastical vision and everyday observation there is also one of the big letdowns of these books. The Church, in it's various guises, is presented like some monstrous conflation of all that The Humanist Society might trot out against religion - it's basically a callous, violent, and enslaving, institution. A monster, perhaps the only unredeemed character in the stories. In interviews Pullman's claimed that this is merely an artistic thing, and the story happened to come out that way. But when so much care has been put into telling a rich and clever interweaving of different worlds, this strikes me as a little disingenuous. He's clearly a very gifted storyteller, but even someone of his calibre might have their weaknesses - and in this case a slight reflex to crudely make a polemical point.

Despite the 'free Pagans good/enslaved Christians bad' kinda dichotomy, and numerous little moments that grate (but which I won't say for fear of revealing stuff to those who haven't yet read the books) they were pretty much enrapturing. He's an envangelist for telling stories, and that should be celebrated over all else. There's enough mystery and unresolved tension as I raced towards the end - sanctimonious as it so nearly becomes - to keep me mulling, and satisfied by how involved I could be in the tale. It has none of the pompous arseyness of most fantasy writing, on the whole being stripped of superfluous nonsense like detailed histories and wearisome songs. It's been compared to Tolkien, but I'd say it's more like Terry Pratchet - minus the jokes - in being quite tough and direct. All in all, a no-nonsense bit of fantasy fun with a touch of wonder about the world.


Blogger ken said...

Please tell me, dear Laurence, that you aren't one of those blinkered Christians who believes that the church (in whatever technical sense as floats your boat) Can Do No Wrong...

Pullman happens to have an institution that supports the bad people; many within the organised religion he protrays are sincerely trying to remain faithful to their beliefs without any attempt to abuse people. I think that, in this trilogy, there are a few bad apples ruining the crumble.

Take care.
love K3n.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Much as it pains me to say it (:-p), I agree with Ken. I think he's pointing to an institutional problem, for instance the issues of heresy, rather than a collection of outright monstrous people. I think it is possible for an institution to be irredeemable more than the people within it.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Actually, I'm inclined to agree with Laurence. Pullman admitted in his interview with Rowan Williams that he *did* create a biased picture of the church, especially the priests and others with power. I'm not convinced that we hear enough about the good apples in said crumble. I am, of course, more than willing to accept that there are bad apples in the crumble of the real world. Most of us, however, are neither of these, but simply a bit of both. That's why the church is sometimes wonderful and sometimes appallingly awful - it's a human institution. The church is not the same thing as the Kingdom of God by any stretch of the imagination.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous RobertB said...

[Confound it, I was sure I'd posted this; but I must have only previewed it. Here goes again...]

I have a slightly different take. At one level Pullman is painting a stereotyped wicked institutional church (basically the traditional anglo-protestant chapbook horror papism - it is interesting he has not painted his grandfathers church, the only one of which he probably has any real knowledge); but the church is not the only thing he dislikes (at the very least it is doing duty here for organised religion in general), and perhaps the logic of his story does run away with him a little after all...

What does the parallel-history `church' (or more precisely `magisterium') of Lyra's world (a church without Christ, without liturgy, without doxology) do? (The `chapel' at Jordan College isn't used for prayer!) What role does it fill? Strip away the ecclesiastical terminology, and which c20th institutions does it most closely resemble?

If certain `Humanists' read it thoughtfully, might they not find themselves confronted by certain of their own de-humanising idols in the dress of their despised ecclesiastical foe?

(I admit this makes better sense of Northern Lights than it does of the Amber Spyglass - in my view a weaker book where Pullman lets Ideas get the better of Story, resulting in a piecemeal plot; but even with complexifying factors like Mary Malone's introduction of the `real world' church, this applies to the latter book too.)

Incidentally, is it just me or did Martin diametrically disagree with ken? Ken thinks Pullman's church is an ok, if imperfect institution, marred by a few (very?) bad people. Martin sees an irredeemable institution made up of less than monstrous people.

10:49 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Ken -

Of course not, by any means. I'm quite happy to see a good critque of the Church, insofar as it's part of a healthy reflection.

I'd have liked as much balance as he gave to eveything - just as Lord Asriel was anything but a conventional noble heroe, but something more danerous and compelling.

There's a part in the story where a priest is considering a native tribe, that move on wheels fashioned from seedpods. The first thing we hear of his reaction is that he wants to stop them doing it, as it's ungodly, and convert them all. This instinctive brutality, even if a metaphor, is so crudely cast as to be almost a parody. A few characters make it out, those caught into Lyla's story, have light and shade. Everyone else of consequence else is a bit crazy, and maniarchal.

1:05 AM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Martin -

It's certainly possible, but on this utterly unanimous scale I was left a little bemused. Like Roger, theres more than a little 'plot device' about it - though he was just wispy and pathetic. As a portrait of the Church as a fully rounded thing Small Gods, by said Terry Pratchet, is way better at this game. He paints a picture of a mosaic of interrelating people, aims, hopes, and ambitions. Everyone's a lot more fallible, humane, and struggling to make sense of the world.

1:25 AM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Robert -

That's a rather naughty reading, hehe. I doubt many would dare look past the easy labels to see it. Yes it did strike me that the institution presented was pretty dry and sterile, in that they didn't seem to do much other than make pronouncements on what others did, and chase the goodies around. Perhaps it was only the shoring off of so much that the Church does that allowed him to present it in such unhuman terms.

Inbetween the philosophying, I actually thought the third was the best book. The story of the first is much tighter, but I enjoyed the way different worlds fed into each other, and the images & reflections that came out of it.

10:18 AM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Andy –

It’s just a fallible agent – which is maybe something protagonists on both ‘sides’ of this kinda debate may sometimes forget. Interesting terms, I was struck immediately by Pullman’s use of the term ‘republic of heaven’, perhaps even inspired. It did strike a rather off note for sounding so much like a pious Tony Benn statement. But in terms of providing a rather helpful image for people who might believe in some divine element to life with a more empowering faith, it’s a good one to play with.

10:23 AM  
Blogger ken said...

Robert, I think that you often forget that the church (in any of its forms, from Body of Christ to Church Universal to any local congregation) may be made up of saints but still has people within it who do terrrible things to other human beings while acting in some official capacity as the church. I also think that Martin's sentiment isn't so far from mine; he says that the bad people use the institution's power to oppress people while I said that the bad people are simply different to the people who get on with doing good acts. Both sorts of people coexist within the institution.

Andy, don't fall into the trap that Robert lives in, that the church is incapable of being a bed thing (we can set up a thread elsewhere for the discussion of this); the standard model says that the good apples are to be rewarded later. It must be noted that humanity seems to love a scandal, so the labelling of Holy People as evil is a thrill.

Take care.
love K3n.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Andy said...


Sometimes I get the impression that you don't actually read what you are replying to! I agreed with your statement that the church is flawed, and all I asked for was a more balanced vision of it.

In today's world, the 'trap' isn't believing that the church Can Do No Wrong, but rather that it Can Do No Right. This is the secularist myth often peddled by the media.


3:05 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

I doubt very much anyone here could - or would - credibley claim that the Church is some perfect institution and community. As Andy puts it, there's a certain element in public debate which seem to roll out an assumed view that religion is intrinsically wrong and perverted. And unfortunately, whatever the intention, that's found its way into Pullman's narratives.

I'd like to think it were possible to recognise good, as well as evil.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

"I doubt very much anyone here could - or would - credibley claim that the Church is some perfect institution and community."

That's a distraction from what Ken and I were trying to put forward though (which, incidentally, I did see as quite similar). I don't think there is any argument that the church is, in itself, inherently perfect or imperfect. The point that Pullman drives home very well is that the machine of the church (in his books) is so rigid that the institution can carry out evils with the co-operation of the good within it (or those 'sincerely trying to remain faithful to their beliefs without any attempt to abuse people', as Ken puts it). That applies to the church in reality, and to a great number of other institutions.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

"I'd like to think it were possible to recognise good, as well as evil."


9:20 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Well they used to say that the CofE was the tory party at prayer ;P

The key word you've used there is "can". It's the kind of qualifier so missing in the rich prose of the books, where there's a kinda Polly Toynbee-esc assumption that the institution concerned is a negative structure. Everyone fights it. This would be fine if it really were a metaphor for all that systems can do at thier worst - but the way it's written we're led to cast everything at the feet of the Church in our world. Everything is questioned with imagination, it seems, apart from this cliched Humanist-Society assumption.

I hope this doesn't just become a thing about the Church, that masks how much fun and depth there was in the books - ultimate other, more posative, things were more noticable.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I read these books rather a while ago (northern lights i think i read when i was 12), so forgive me if im a little vague...
I remember finding the bit about the church fairly dull and boring, and skim reading it to get onto the bits with lyra and swords and armoured bears and cutting through worlds... I think i agree that that is the most flawed aspect of the book, because its boring- they are written for teenagers, but they have been a fantastic hit with adults. I also didn;t like lyra very much, but i can't remember why..

2:59 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

I can remember seeing the earlier books when I was younger - but not knowing, I passed by when at the target age (early secondary School) and interest (reading Tolkien books).

She was a bit of a fourced character in some ways, an amalgamation of all that's good in the author's view. Hense everyone moves around her central vortex, in a slightly dissatisfying way. The best character might have to be the bear king - he was so amoral and bluntly mysterious that he won me over easily.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Sarah told me she thought Lyra was too male.

(If that gives you a clue as to your own reasoning, girly!)

7:08 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Too male? I wouldn't mind hearing some more as to why you thought that, Sarah. Maybe I just got distracted by other, way more interesting (and much more deserving of time for thier intrinsic merits), characters and just didn't notice.

4:40 PM  

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