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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pullman postscript and more

I was away from the Internets for a while there, but now I’m back!  We decided to go to Connecticut for a three-day weekend, because we just can’t get enough of five-and-a-half hour car trips in holiday traffic.  But thanks to everyone who contributed to a most edifying discussion of Pullman et al.!  I just want to post a couple of quick postscripts to some comments.  One, in response to late arrival Barbara Feinberg @ 84:

How could there be 80-some comments here without a mention of the astounding invention Pullman brings:  that of daemons.

D’oh!  We were so invested in our little theory about narrative scale that we forgot to say how very kewl those daemons are.  There’s no question that they’re a large part of Jamie’s emotional investment in The Golden Compass—and Jamie’s not alone.  Also, they’re the only things worth the price of admission in the movie.

Splitter Mrs. Tilton @ 69:

(No schism, no Reformation!) To argue that (a) the salient characteristic of the Reformation is that it was schismatic, or indeed that (b) it was the Reformation that introduced schism to Christianity, is, ah, pretty Romanocentric.

Well, yes!  This may be a both/and kind of blog, but it has always been and always will be Romanocentric, for Rome is indeed the very Center.  No, I really do see your point—the Reformation happened, but there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between churches reformed and unreformed.  Let’s split that non-difference by saying if John Calvin had become Pope, then your “Reformation” wouldn’t, you know, break with the idea of having a Pope.  That’s not just a schism thing; it’s a question of how to realize God’s church on earth, etc., so I’m going to amend my claim from “the Reformation didn’t happen in Lyra’s world” to “the Reformation as we know it didn’t happen.”

And apologist for imperialism roac @ 42:

[quoting me] “it’s not a question of whether Tolkien had any use for Britain’s imperial project.  It’s that LOTR allows us to imagine England as this tiny little Shire far away from, and blissfully-but-dangerously ignorant of, the great war that is about to erupt on the continent.” [/me]

Well, OK, I guess. . . but I don’t see the point of the observation.  The Shire is not England, it’s an idealized childhood memory of a tiny rural slice of England in 1897.  Whom are you accusing Tolkien of trying to fool?  He certainly wasn’t fooled himself.  He saw the War coming as clearly as everybody else, and the remembered sense of numbingdread permeates the first part of RotK.

It is not sufficiently appreciated that the juxtaposition of the bourgeois late-Victorian Shire and the great big mythic Late Bronze Age started off, in The Hobbit, as a joke.  Which Tolkien, in setting out to write a sequel, was stuck with.

Uh, well, actually I wasn’t accusing Tolkien of trying to fool anyone.  I was pointing to a narrative strategy—one which, in historical context, has a curious effect.  Good point about the joke Tolkien stuck himself with, though.  One of the problems LOTR had to solve, on that front, was how to move from the world of trolls and dwarves and treasure-hoarding dragons to the world of Frightful World War.  Also involving some dwarves, but the trolls and dragons, eh, not so much.

And one more thing about narrative, while I’ve got you here.  There’s a critical moment in The Golden Compass, just after Mrs. Coulter has discovered Lyra at Bolvangar (and saved her from intercision) and has asked Lyra how she managed to get to an experimental station in the frozen North far from any human habitation.  She can’t tell the truth, of course, without jeopardizing her friends and revealing to Mrs. Coulter that she’s onto the dastardly schemes of the General Oblation Board.  Here’s how Pullman describes Lyra’s sticky situation:

And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her.  She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

The passage is implicitly about the book itself, of course, because Lyra has to be careful “not to say anything obviously impossible” and to “invent plausible details” in a book populated by flying witches and talking armored bears, and the artist here is pretty clearly your humble narrator himself.  Lyra here takes her place among literature’s accomplished liar-artists, who drive their narratives partly by making up even more narratives, hatching plots, thinking up schemes, and generally being devious little devils.  Odysseus was good at this sort of thing, though of course his narrative was populated by completely unrealistic creatures.  But what really interests me these days is what happens to narrative when the central character doesn’t understand something important about narrative—like Benjy Compson not understanding time, or Christopher John Francis Boone not understanding motive, or Don Quixote not understanding the difference between fiction and fact.  Such characters not only explore the parameters of narrative; they seem to warp their narratives onto themselves, as when Christopher’s father finds the book he’s writing (that is, the one we’re reading) or when everyone in Book II of Don Quixote agrees, in effect, to inhabit Quixote’s fictional world in Book I, having already read that book and being well apprised of the poor man’s singular affliction.

Just a thought.  It’ll eventually wind up in my next book, but I thought I’d just toss it out half-formed like this.  I may even open the book with that passage from The Golden Compass, in fact.  Let me know if this sounds like a good idea, and let me know now, because I’m going to try to start writing this thing in five or six weeks.

And yes, yes, I know there are important things going on in the world and I’m not writing anything about them these days.  Don’t worry!  I’ll get back to them—they’ll still be there.  Why, over on Crooked Timber I have a brand new post about the most important thing of them all: NHL playoffs! 

Posted by Michael on 04/14 at 03:01 PM
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