Pullman’s Dark Materials: prejudice, narrative and the BBC

compassIt’s interesting to read that the BBC plan the filming of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s not going to be the easiest thing to film, not least after the relative flop of The Golden Compass at the cinema, despite some excellent performances.

But in the face of his elegant writing, and often fascinating narrative, I’m one of those who doesn’t quite join the adulatory crowd. I love his development of Lyra and Will in the first two books. I’m fascinated by the way in which he delineates and constructs a world in which GRT peoples are the heroes’ mainstay and assistance. But I think that his anti-religious agenda trumps his plotting by the time the third book in the series arrives. Complex characters give way to simplistic polarities, and under-age sex in the face of adult religious control is presented as the panacea to all the world’s ills.

Dust simply doesn’t make sense, whether within or without the world of the narrative. Rather like the Matrix film trilogy, only far better, HIs Dark Materials disappears up its own arse. Pullman writes con brio, and delineates character with panache. It’s just that somewhere along the line, his ideology takes over from narrative logic. And I can’t help but feel that far too many of his plaudits derive from those who share his prejudice, rather than those who appreciate his literary contribution.

Harry Potter and the game of symbols

The final main chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader is by John Granger, who is rightly proud of the fact that TIME Magazine once described him as the Dean of Harry Potter Studies. He was one of the few people arguing from a relatively early stage that the Potter books were Christian in their themes. As someone who’s been making that argument since 1999, I salute him for that stand, although in terms of the books as Christian fantasy he goes further than I would, and sees themes and structures I beg leave to doubt are there.

Unfortunately, this essay is a very particular example of what I see as over-elaborated reading strategies. Here’s an example:

There’s the Gryffindor or “Golden Griffin” from Dante’s Purgatorio, the golden lion of the house symbol as Lion of Judah (and hat tip to Aslan, no doubt), the Phoenix or “Resurrection Bird” of lore, the Unicorn from tapestry and legendary tradition, the White Stag of St Godric and other holy men, the Hippogriff from Orlando, and the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy … (p.206)

Now while this proves that Rowling and Granger are both widely read, it seems more probable to me that Rowling is simply drawing on the (largely) Western (largely) Christian cultural storehouse of imagery rather than creating “several traditional stand-ins for Christ” as Granger has it. Quite simply, I feel he offers an over-interpretation, an ingenious eisegesis of his own.

Whether Granger is drawing on alchemy or Mary Douglas’ theory of ring-composition (taking the dubious ability of readers to detect chiasmus everywhere to new and complex heights) he is fascinating but (in this reader’s view) entirely over-fanciful. It is perhaps not surprising that the generous response by Josephine Gabelman suggests that

we ought not to be overly scrutinising the extent to which the books correspond to Christian symbolism, but, instead considering the very real way by which they engage in something akin to religious thinking (p.228)

She spells out that by this she means “wondrous thinking”, or the “transgression of the possible”. In a sense, of course, this is part of the point of (much or all?) fiction, and perhaps especially children’s and fantasy fiction. It is to provide an exercise yard for the imagination, to enrich the possibilities we have for seeing differently. It is this that Rowling does so well. And I think it is this that lies at the heart of the series’ success.

The Dursley Difficulty (Doing Muggles a mischief)

The ninth chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader, by Rebecca Langworthy (who appears to be a PhD student at Aberdeen) looks at the place of the Dursleys in the series. This paper argues that they represent a real narrative difficulty. For all Rowling’s arguments elsewhere for acceptance of the different other, the Dursleys represent a particular case where Muggles are held up for ridicule and comic relief, and are made the subjects of author-sanctioned and approved magical violence from Hagrid’s giving Dudley a pig’s tail through to Dumbledore making their drinks behave aggressively in the penultimate book.

Arguably, she overstates her case. The portrayal, even of the Dursleys, is more complex than just comic relief by the end of the series. Aunt Petunia’s backstory, for example, as revealed in Snape’s memories, is overlooked. The extent to which the good wizarding world is asked to offer Muggles protection (a protection especially given to the Dursleys) is not properly discussed. Nonetheless she does make something of a case that the presentation of the biggest family of Muggles Hagrid has ever clapped eyes on is primarily a subject for the reader’s mockery.

This has a great deal to do with stock characters drawn entertainingly, I suspect, and almost nothing to do with Kobolds. Langworthy argues that there are strong parallels between Harry and the “Germanic folkloric tradition and literary representations of magical creatures that intrude into the home” (p.184) known as Kobolds.

If there are any such connections, they are indirect. It is indeed possible that this tradition in part informs the portrayal of Dobby. And there are certain similarities drawn between Dobby’s and Harry’s enforced servitude in the house which creates a bond of sympathy between them. But to move beyond that to suggest direct connections between Harry and the folklore of Kobolds seems to me fanciful at best.

The response by Travis Prinzi (a long time fan and writer on Potter, whose website is currently redirecting to annoying adverts, which is why I’m not linking to it) offers a brief reflection on Rowling’s satirical portrayal of the Prime Minister in Half-Blood Prince, and points out rightly that in Rowling’s narrative world there are issues of wizard oppression by Muggles that necessitates their cult of secrecy. He sees this as a significant caveat to the way Langworthy problematizes the wizarding attitude to Muggles in general and the Dursleys in particular.

I rather agree with him, and can’t help but feel that Langworthy’s paper is an example of pushing a particular and important detail of the narrative into so sharp a focus that the broader sweep, the frame, the context, is displaced. It seems to be as true for literary as for biblical studies that a text without a context is a pretext.