March 09, 2004

Chabon on Pullman

Posted by Ed

Readers of this blog probably know that I'm a big fan of Philip Pullman, a children's fantasy novelist whose best-known series is a modern-day retelling of Milton, set in a multiverse where people are joined by personal companions called daemons and where scholars debate the nature of a mysterious particle known as Dust. I was therefore delighted to see that the current New York Review of Books features an essay on Pullman's writing by the novelist Michael Chabon. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm declined when I actually read the essay, which strikes me as a ponderous and pompous waste of space.

To be fair, Chabon's review is sometimes a decent introduction to the His Dark Materials novels for those who don't know them. Here, for example, is his discussion of daemons:

The goddess of writers was smiling upon Philip Pullman on the day he came up with the idea for daemons. These are, in Lyra's world, the inseparable life companions of every human being. Daemons take the shapes of animals, but they have reason and the power of speech. Lyra's is named Pantalaimon—she calls him Pan—and at first we take him to be her animal familiar, but we soon learn that he is in fact the equivalent of what is known in our world as the soul. The bond between human and daemon is fundamental, essential, empathic, and at times telepathic. When a daemon's human being dies, its own life ends; the daemon winks out of existence, snuffed like a candle flame. Pan, like all children's daemons, has not yet "settled"—that is, he can take on, at will, the shape of any animal he wishes, a power he will retain until Lyra reaches puberty. When Pan is frightened or anxious to conceal himself, he is a moth, or a mouse; when he wishes to intimidate or to repel attack he becomes a snarling wildcat; when Lyra is feeling lonely or cold he becomes a soft, warm ermine and drapes himself tenderly around her neck.

As the story unfolds, new wrinkles and refinements in the relationship between human and daemon keep occurring to Pullman, and he reports them to us at once with the palpable storyteller's excitement that animates (and at times undermines) the entire series: while people generally have daemons of the opposite gender to their own, some rare oddballs have a same-sex daemon; people tend to get the daemons they deserve (schemers have snake daemons, servants have dog daemons); there is a painful limit to the distance by which a human and a daemon can stand to be separated, except in the case of the witches of the North—those Lapland witches mentioned by Milton in Book II of Paradise Lost?—who undergo a fearsome initiation rite that enables them and their daemons to travel separately. And so on. My eight-year-old daughter expressed what I imagine is a near-universal response of readers, young and old, to His Dark Materials (and probably the ultimate secret of the series' success): "I wonder what kind of daemon I would have!"

Chabon's style sometimes irritated me in the passage above, but his writing does get the point across. (He could have mentioned the daemon's status as a sort of embodiment of the conscience, though...) Moreover, I hadn't known about Milton's reference to Lapland witches, which was--I expect--an influence on Pullman.

Nevertheless, I often found the review rather pompous and unpleasant. Chabon, it seems, is a master of name-dropping determined to show off his erudition. He isn't content to describe the streets of one world as "desolate," but feels driven to describe them as "di Chirico." He fits in unnecessary references to lots of science fiction writers, from Jack Vance to Michael Moorcock, and isn't shy about giving judgments about who "the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy" is. Not content to wow us with his erudition, he even feels the need to compare characters in Pullman's world to Harriet the Spy, Blue Duck (from Lonesome Dove), and Lee Marvin. This would be annoying under the best of circumstances, but Chabon doesn't even get his facts right all the time:

While Pullman alludes to Nabokov (one of the characters in The Subtle Knife voyages to Nova Zembla), his paired Oxfords stand in a very different relation from that of Ada's Terra and Antiterra, which reflect and comment only upon each other, locked in a transdimensional self-regard which in turn mirrors that of the vain Van Veen.

I doubt that Pullman was really alluding to Nabokov. In our world, Nova Zembla is a less common (and somewhat archaic) name for Novaia Zemlya, a Russian archipelago; Pullman uses this name for his alternate-universe version of Novaia Zemlya, in a world where Russia is still known as Muscovy. This makes most of the paragraph above rather pointless, except as an illustration of Chabon's knowledge of Nabokov. And if Chabon really wanted to talk about Ada, why not at least do something interesting, like compare the incestuous relationship of that novel's two main characters to the relationship that develops between Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials?

In short, if you want a good review that will introduce you to Pullman's world, skip Chabon's egotistical musings and read this Michael Dirda column instead. Dirda does a better job of conveying to readers both the strengths and the weaknesses in Pullman's work; he makes as many literary and pop culture allusions as Chabon does, but he doesn't seem as proud of himself for his knowledge. Or, better yet, don't bother with either review--and go straight to Pullman's writing itself!

Update: In unrelated Pullman news, Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) has praised the two-part play based on His Dark Materials in a Guardian article.

Posted by Ed at March 9, 2004 10:45 PM

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Posted by: Personal Injury Lawyers at January 23, 2005 09:54 AM

I believe daemon is taken from a Greek word, which literally translated means fate. I don't think that the daemons in Pullman's trilogy represent conscience at all - in fact, Lyra's daemon Pan is often a moral coward - but seeing them as our fates works perfectly - the witches are able to free themselves from their fates to an extent - and in the end so are Lyra and Will, which gives them the ability to exercise free will and make moral choices.

Posted by: Rebekka at March 21, 2005 05:03 PM
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