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Deep (rushed) thought

Last year, a friend, hearing that Jamie was nearing the end of the kids’ version of À la recherche du temps perdu, a/k/a the Harry Potter series, gave him a copy of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  It’s been Jamie’s before-bed reading for the past six or seven months; as with the Potter books, I read a couple of pages to him each night.  Right now, he’s with Lyra in Bolvangar, and they’ve just discovered the severed daemons with the help of the grey goose of Serafina Pekkala.  (One side benefit of this exercise is that I now understand just how badly the movie was botched—clearly, it was written by agents of the Magisterium.)

Anyway, I got kinda interested in the thing and decided to read ahead, and then I figured I should read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy.  I’m halfway through the final book, The Amber Spyglass, and I’m getting the distinct sense that, to put it schematically, C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet - Perelandra - That Hideous Strength : Milton :: Pullman’s The Golden Compass - The Subtle Knife - The Amber Spyglass: Blake.  Feel free to discuss.  But if anyone includes spoilers in comments, I will ban him or her from all the Internets in the all the universes. 

Oh, and Jamie had a fabulous time in Louisiana.  The high point:  holding a hundred-pound alligator and having a black rat snake wrapped around his neck in the course of an eco-tour in the Alligator Bayou.  Now I’m off to Toledo, then home (at last!) for almost the entire month of April.

Posted by on 03/25 at 10:57 AM
  1. Lucky you! You have (a) time to read fun trash and (b) a teenager who will let you read to him. Can he talk some sense into the adolescents the rest of us live with??

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  03/25  at  12:51 PM
  2. Incidentally, maybe I should state for the record that it doesn’t matter to me whether I read to my child or the converse. I’d be fine lying in bed dozing off while my 16-year-old read her latest horror… uh, never mind.

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  03/25  at  12:53 PM
  3. I am indeed lucky, Sherman:  the last ten books I’ve read have been Regionalism and the Reading Class by Wendy Griswold; Why We Read Fiction by Lisa Zunshine; Wars of Position by Timothy Brennan; What’s Left? by Nick Cohen; Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke; The Game by Ken Dryden; Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin; and these three.  It’s so, so good to be on sabbatical, and to read stuff eclectically without worrying about How To Plan The Next Book just yet.  (Remember when professors had sabbaticals in order to refresh themselves and recharge their brains?  Now sabbaticals are research leaves.  But I’m refreshing and recharging, because I’m a lucky SOB.)

    But the Pullman and Lewis series aren’t really “trash.” Just sayin’.  They’re young-adult narratives of SF and religion, offering traditional and/or radical takes on Christianity, and Pullman’s Blakean antecedents are pretty clear.  Whether he’s taking C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy as his Milton, I don’t know, but I thought it was worth hazarding a guess on the Teh Internets.

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  01:02 PM
  4. I was discussing the relationship of Pullman to Lewis with my brother (a particularly interesting discussion since I’m an atheist and he’s evangelical), and while I hadn’t thought about the Black to Milton part of the comparison, now that you mention it I’d be shocked if Pullman didn’t see his trilogy in just such a relationship to Lewis’.

    In particular, it is hard for me not to see Dark Materials as a sort of of anti-theology, or at last a counter-theology.

    Interestingly from an atheist author, it seems to me Pullman’s work closely parallels early Gnostic Christianity, especially as it regards the Creator’s relationship to his creation. I’m not sure how, or if, that observation fits into the Milton/Blake paradigm, but I thought I’d throw it out there for keener minds to criticize.

    Posted by Evil Bender  on  03/25  at  01:18 PM
  5. Hah! In the end everyone gets run over by a really, really BIG truck.

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  01:19 PM
  6. Alligator Bayou looks way cool.

    Your post reminds me that I haven’t gotten a chance to read to my kids in a long time.  They are 8.  I intend the next time I get home (I’ve been teaching far, far away for a semester) to find a good book they all can agree on and get back into the habit.  We actually started reading Harry Potter to them a couple years ago, but one of them kept running out of the room when there was any dramatic tension at all. (He also finds the films unbearable to watch because of the music.) Maybe it’ll go better this time.

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  02:07 PM
  7. Way to tango with a rat snake, Jamie! I sure wouldn’t be caught that close to one--entirely too scary for me.

    Having neither read any Pullman nor that Lewis, I can’t add anything of real merit to the discussion. But based on the picture-book readings to my 22-month old and the rampant borrowing patterns within that genre, I’ll throw in a blind bet for the Milton foundations.

    Currently brewing, the scifi version of McCloskey’s MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS . . .

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  03:38 PM
  8. interesting, tho i’ve often thought the dark materials books were a counter-weight to the wardrobe series, i never put milton or blake into the equation, tho i can see the fit perfectly, now that you mention it.

    my wife and i love the wardrobe movies, but i couldn’t (polar) bear to sit thru the golden compass.  who knew rationial aetheism was so damn boring?  and who knew nicole kidman could be uninteresting to look at?

    movies such as those are why i highly recommend netflix.  i don’t feel bad (eg, waste of money) about deciding to not watch a whole film film.

    it takes a lot for me to walk out of a movie theater but now it’s incredibly easy for me to say “what the hell is this crap and why am i wasting my time with it?” and stop the dvd player.

    i stopped “superbad” after 5 minutes.  wot the hell was everybody else thinking?

    Posted by skippy  on  03/25  at  03:59 PM
  9. Alligator Bayou was, in fact, way cool.  Definitely check it out, everyone, the next time you’re within a fifty-mile radius.

    And I can’t believe I forgot to list Dreams from My Father among my Recently Read Books.  Inquiring minds want to know:  what am I trying to hide about Obama’s birth certificate / Indonesian madrassa / two years at Columbia?

    Posted by Michael  on  03/25  at  04:03 PM
  10. I thought it was well known that Pullman made it specifically clear he was basing the trilogy on Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I loved the first book, found the second one too scary and disturbing, and the third one seemed to go off the rails completely. I never did quite figure out what was supposed to have happened at the end (is that a spoiler?), and that is NOT why I read young adult fiction like “Remembrance of Harry Potter Past.”

    Posted by sfmike  on  03/25  at  05:13 PM
  11. I think you will quite enjoy the way the final third of the book is written entirely in iambic pentameter and ends with Pericles analyzing the kerning in Lyra’s birth certificate.

    (I would enjoy reading your thoughts when you are done.)

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  05:15 PM
  12. I will ban him or her from all the Internets in the all the universes.

    Before i risk spoiling for discussion, when in time does this ban take place, assuming that time exists in only one universe at one point when it is observed, and along which compass bearing????

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  05:59 PM
  13. You’re making me very happy I’m teaching a major authors course on Tolkien, Donaldson, and Pullman in the fall.  Viva fantasy trash!

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  03/25  at  06:17 PM
  14. I’m not sure how much one can discuss this without spoilers (and you’ll soon find out why), but Pullman has repeatedly said in interviews that a primary purpose in writing the Dark Materials trilogy was to respond to Lewis’ Narnia books (and the title of Pullman’s trilogy, of course, is a citation from Milton). He has used the word “loathe” to describe his attitude toward Lewis, and so clearly he’s attempting a counter-narrative. I don’t remember him much mentioning the Perelandra books in interviews, but if he loathed the Narnia novels, he can only have… what’s the proper term here?… abhorred the Perelandra trilogy. He’s also mentioned the Blake vs. Milton thing, too, if I recall (he certainly has mentioned Blake as an inspiration for the trilogy). There are lots of online interviews, but here’s one:


    I loved the first two books, but not the third—I’ll be interested if you have any further thoughts on it when you’re done. But the gist is that while your analogy may not be exactly what Pullman was thinking, it’s pretty damn close.  Oh, and here’s another blogger who came to pretty much exactly the same conclusion about Dark Materials being set against Perelandra (I guess it’s called “The Cosmic Trilogy” now)—but there are spoilers aplenty, so only click when you’re done:


    Posted by  on  03/25  at  06:52 PM
  15. Wow, good one! Didn’t Lewis write “The Great Divorce” as a kind of rebuttal to “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”? Now if Pullman would just write “Tartarus Found” and we’ll be full circle.

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  08:25 PM
  16. Michael, I have to say you are the first person I’ve heard describe himself as “lucky” to have read What’s Left?

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  09:38 PM
  17. Actually, Christian, the point was that I’m lucky to have the time and leisure to read a lot of unrelated things.  And Cohen’s book is, for obvious reasons, something I need to be intimately familiar with.  I had been putting it off, again for obvious reasons.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/25  at  10:31 PM
  18. Michael, what is a serious academic like yourself doing slumming with those of us who (gulp) actually study that ghettoized genre?  I suppose you already have tenure.  Speaking of spoilers, before I read the His Dark Materials trilogy, I had already received those fun mass emails from former friends about how Big Hollywood was making a movie based on the “Anti-Narnia.” Not to mention how we were all supposed to boycott it for its irreligious message.  That said, Pullman was anything but clear in his message with the ending, or in his intertextuality, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of intentional fallacy, but… His choice of dark matter (here I go again) is perhaps unfortunate, since it is repeatedly inflated by academics and more popular writers today into something spiritual.  Given that he’s a rather outspoken atheist, his choice of topics seems a bit counter-intuitive.  Yet another reason that, while I appreciate Pullman’s writing, with regard to texts that refer to dark matter I much prefer Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent.  Maybe check out that piece of “trash” next.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  03/25  at  10:39 PM
  19. As for Pullman and Milton:  sfmike, I’m a complete Pullman newbie, so I have no idea what’s well known about the series.  I just got the very strong sense, in The Subtle Knife, that Pullman was basing the trilogy on Paradise Lost as if Milton were of the devil’s party without knowing it, as Blake famously remarked in “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.” And I also got the sense that this was pretty obvious (that is, you wouldn’t need a Ph.D. in literature to spot it).  The only thing I could add to this obvious observation was my sense that in the “Cosmic Trilogy,” Lewis was attempting to justify the ways of God to young adults, and that Pullman must surely, as Robert Rushing suggests, have despised the attempt.

    I’m having second and third thoughts about book three now that I’m 70 pages from finishing it.  More later, but let’s just say for now that it seems to be falling into the Tolkien Trap of getting more and more grandiose as it goes.  All the more interesting, then, that Lewis chose to make the ending of Perelandra the most explicitly Cosmically Significant moment in the trilogy, and opened That Hideous Strength in the sublunary realm of the world we think we know.  Before getting around to telling women to stop working on their Eng. Lit. dissertations and make babies, that is.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/25  at  10:42 PM
  20. I’ll be in Toledo also - my old home town.  Unlikely (actually, a virtual impossibility since I’ll be ensconced in my mother-in law’s house) that our paths will cross.

    But I do want to hear, in great detail, what you think of the jewel of the Mid-west.

    Posted by jazzbumpa  on  03/25  at  11:11 PM
  21. I have to agree with Michael on the grandiosity thing. Actually, I think this is somewhat balanced - or deflated - in the Lord of the Rings by the final chapter. It all pales, of course, in comparison to Robert-my-next-book-describes-one-day- on-2000-pages- Jordan wink.

    Posted by  on  03/25  at  11:27 PM
  22. You’re making me very happy I’m teaching a major authors course on Tolkien, Donaldson, and Pullman in the fall.

    Donaldson? As in “Stephen R. Donaldson?” Why would you do that to yourself? Life is too short for a tour through that turgid, overwrought crap.

    Of course, if you’re talking about a different Donaldson, disregard this. And if you like SRD, also disregard this. I don’t know how beings function with an appreciation of that prose, but whatever.

    Posted by Jason B  on  03/26  at  12:57 AM
  23. Dear Mr. Berube: I still haven’t read Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” so I wouldn’t have recognized all the obvious clues. I’d simply read somewhere that Milton was the template in a book blurb when the trilogy became odd bestsellers in San Francisco a good ten years ago. I actually tried reading “Paradise Lost” afterwards but I wasn’t academically/poetically equipped, and dropped it just like Goethe’s “Faust,” with regret in both cases, but there’s a time for everything.

    Posted by sfmike  on  03/26  at  03:38 AM
  24. Michael, how is Jamie liking and responding to the books?

    Posted by  on  03/26  at  09:10 AM
  25. So far so good, Betsy, though I should probably devote a full post to that question.  Next week, perhaps, when I can also deal with the series at greater length.

    Thirty pages to go now.  Still captivating, but I have to say that the Lord Asriel - Mrs. Coulter - Metatron (Metatron?) scene was Teh suXX0r.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/26  at  11:34 AM
  26. "Teh suXX0r” was my reaction not simply to Metatron et al but the whole third book, for which a better title might have been The Unsubtle Screed or something.  I actually think you should make some excuse for not reading it to Jamie.  See what he thinks of Patricia McKillip, an amazing fantasy author (try The Book of Atrix Wolfe or Alphabet of Thorn - just don’t show him the covers!).

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  03/26  at  11:50 AM
  27. Milton? Blake? I thought Pullman’s books were an homage to Zen and the Art of Mulefa Maintenance.

    Posted by  on  03/26  at  02:53 PM
  28. Apparently Metatron is John McLaughlin, or maybe Brian Eno

    Posted by  on  03/26  at  02:58 PM
  29. Jason B @ 22:  I didn’t choose the authors/texts b/c I like them but b/c they hang well together intertextually and for comparative and historical purposes.  Not that I hate any of ‘em or anything, but when I can offer my Fantasy Fiction course (when the department can afford to have me teach non-required courses), I’ll pack it with authors and genres I’m more into than these 3....

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  03/26  at  04:27 PM
  30. Forget Milton and Blake. I’m just reminiscing about all those Friday afternoon canoe trips, paddling with my classmates on Spanish Lake when I was at LSU--followed by beers at the Library and dinner at the Chimes and coffee at Highland Coffees....

    Posted by  on  03/26  at  05:14 PM
  31. I didn’t choose the authors/texts b/c I like them…

    Oho! The same reaction I have when people ask me why I teach C.S. Lewis in my Horror or SciFi classes.  Sometimes the best texts to teach are those we love to hate.  It’s surprising then that The DaVinci Code isn’t on more Feminist Literature reading lists wink.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  03/26  at  06:34 PM
  32. Oh, here are some spoilers for Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction: evolution synapses other minds, hooray! I’ll give Zunshine this: she makes interesting points on topics that become deeply boring in the hands of other critics.

    Am I banned from the internet now? Can I be? captcha: police

    Posted by  on  03/26  at  07:56 PM
  33. Derek T at 31:  I’m also taking into account what the students who approached me, asking me to teach a fantasy course before they graduated, told me (to some extent).  Given how amazingly conservative the tastes are among the fans and curious others who have taken my science fiction courses here, I figured I’d better play it pretty safe (although I couldn’t bring myself to do Lewis).  Would love to hear others’ ideas for putting together a major authors course of up to 3 fantasy writer--whos, hows, and whys....

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  03/27  at  03:19 AM
  34. So has anyone else read ANATHEM?? Flipping a world on its proverbial head, and forcing math and science academe to become highly constrained monastic communities--isolated from the public by massive fortifications that kept the public out and the academics in--seems a logical step sideways from the Lewis/Pullman debate.

    Posted by  on  03/27  at  06:29 AM
  35. Two hundred pages from done with Anathem, which means I’ve been reading it a while.  I actually am in hiatus because I am traveling a lot and the book it too big for convenient plane reading.

    I can’t comment on the relation to Lewis/Pullman, but I think Anathem is very engaging and much better written than Stephenson’s earlier stuff like Snow Crash.

    Posted by  on  03/27  at  08:06 AM
  36. I read four volumes of Remembrance of Things Harry Potter to my children before they decided they couldn’t wait to read it themselves, but I did manage to read all three Pullmans to my youngest daughter when she was 11 or 12.  I still like to walk around the house shouting, “Bears! Who is your king?”

    I will register my dissent to others’ reactions to the third book.  I quite liked it, but I can’t say why without spoilers.  Pullman has been quite explicit about his source in Milton and his loathing of C.S. Lewis.  In a New Yorker interview, though, he actually admitted that he respected Lewis for trying to be honest, and reserved his complete contempt for Tolkien.

    Posted by  on  03/27  at  04:32 PM
  37. I loved the first book...and the third one seemed to go off the rails completely.

    That was my experience too, though I thought the second book was OK. I read them after my 12-yo daughter was through with them, and it set up some really interesting and useful discussions between us.
    I well remember the name “Metatron” grating pretty hard; turns out though that the name dates back at least to medieval Talmudic rabbinical types.

    Posted by  on  03/27  at  05:56 PM
  38. I think to some extent that Pullman simply struggled with a universal truth of fantasy and sci-fi, that it is a lot easier (and more fun for the reader) to get into a compelling alternative universe than it is to get out of it when you are overly ambitious (see Farmer, Philip José and Riverworld, two great little stories and then total shite). Leave figuring out how to have it “all make sense” as an exercise for the reader. Why do you think Metatron gave us fan-fic?

    Posted by  on  03/27  at  08:22 PM
  39. I recall a friend telling me that the science fiction/fantasy course was the only one she’d ever taught in which the students complained that there was not enough reading.

    My daughter also was happy to have me read her the HP series until the last two when she wanted to go faster. I read the Pullman series out loud as well, but I’m afraid my pronunciation of Lyra was not the same as the movie’s.

    Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series (5 books) was a big hit with her, and while we started the Narnia books, she decided (of her own accord) that she didn’t like the children very much and didn’t want to continue reading them.

    Posted by Joanna  on  03/29  at  01:08 PM
  40. You know, there was an early manuscript for the movie written by Tom “brilliant” Stoppard. I’m sorry that one didn’t get filmed.

    Posted by Martin G.  on  03/29  at  03:49 PM
  41. Bilbo Baggins or Bulfinch?  Youngsters--at least young knights--might be better off like reading the exploits of Pericles. Pericles collects the Medusa’s head (and whaa about the gorgon’s mamacita Echidna? scarier than any Tim Burton nightmare).  Bilbo merely wanders around the Wagner-lite faeryland.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  03:22 PM
  42. oops. That’s, Perseus..  Not Pericles.  (The Arthurian tales also might work for future star-captains)

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  03:25 PM





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