Wednesday, 12 December 2007
We haven't yet seen "The Golden Compass," though it's on our list of Things To Do Soon. For some reason we've been too busy, odd when you think about it, given that I don't actually have a job or many responsibilities. Perhaps it's the lack of sunlight that has us holed up in our house after about 4:30 or so, by which time it's dark and unwelcoming outside. Since we're closer to the Arctic Circle here than in Washington, the sun gives us illumination only grudgingly. We're far from the frozen north that figures so prominently in Philip Pullman's book but it's unsettling nonetheless.
I'm a hundred or so pages into a re-read of "Northern Lights," the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy, jotting down Oxford references in the margins. I think this might be the perfect way to connect with a book set in a place you've come to know: Read it before you move there; move there; then read it again.
"Northern Lights" ("The Golden Compass" in the U.S.) starts out in an alternate Oxford, a sort of quasi-Victorian city where zeppelins run daily to London, streets are lit by "anbaric" lights and street urchins scrap in roiling packs. The heroine, Lyra, is raised by the dons of Jordan College, "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford."
Pullman went to Exeter College. I get a little frisson of excitement when I pick up parallels between his Oxford and my Oxford. If you've seen the Harry Potter movies you've already seen the sumptuous dining halls and how college Fellows and distinguished guests sit at "high table"--literally a table that's raised above the rest. I've never seen any poppies smoked after dinner, as in "Northern Lights," but Pullman revels in the luxuriousness of the Oxford college experience, the fine crystal, the bottomless glasses of wine, even the awkwardness of conversation when you must calibrate the attention you pay to the guests seated on either side of you.
Lyra and her friends play on Port Meadow. (Our dog's eaten cow poop there!) She visits the Covered Market. (I can't afford to buy meat or cheese there!) The Oxford Canal and the Jericho neighborhood are important settings. In our world, Pullman has been among those protesting a planned development on the canal. His side was victorious last night, as the city council rejected the plan. (Pullman the wordsmith has a great quote in today's Oxford Mail: The monstrous design of the project, he said, is "like finding a bird's nest and throwing a brick into it." If you've ever wondered what Pullman is like, the Oxford Mail has a video interview with him about the movie.)
I'm prepared to be disappointed by the film (Hanna Rosin has a telling story in the Atlantic about how Hollywood excised much of the stuff that makes the book so interesting) but I'll see it nonetheless, peeling my eyes for glimpses of Oxford. Even the "real" Oxford, unimproved by a novelist's imagination and devoid of a moviemaker's special effects, is a magical place.