Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Daemon Lover

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.


suburbancorrespondent said...

Cow poop? Yum. Your dog should try our fudge:

(can't figure out how to hyperlink in the comments - do you know?)

Candadai Tirumalai said...

I always waited for February in Oxford because the evenings start getting longer. Philip Larkin wrote a fine poem about it: "Coming". And his novel "Jill" is set in the Oxford of the 1940s, when he was an undergraduate at St. John's College. Thomas Hardy presented a different picture of the place in "Jude the Obscure". For an evocation of the 1920s there is Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited". He had been at Hertford College but by his own choice only briefly.

Veronica B. said...

I am a huge fan of Pullman's trilogy and was very excited to see the movie. I was disappointed at every turn (except Nicole Kidman who is truly the most beautiful ice princess in the world). I won't gripe about the particulars because I don't want to give it away, and who knows, you might like it. To sum up, it was a beautiful movie to see, but I felt they ruined the story. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it if I knew nothing about the books.

mark from alexandria said...

Not having read the books, I'd be interested to hear "opinions on the opinions" that the movie is anti-christian or anti-religion and that it is dangerous for children (or, presumably, others with impressionable minds). Is there merit to these concerns or are they simply John's dog's dinner?

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

John, have you heard of Lyra's Oxford? Extra stories by Pullman and a map might aid your explorations. My family is also enjoying the experience of living in Oxford while reading the trilogy or remembering it. Magical!

Veronica, happy to hear that the printed word and imagination beats a movie as I write fiction too. I'm still curious to see the film as Pullman wrote some of the new scenes. He sounded very positive about the film when I heard him talk about it in Oxford.

Mark, I blogged about Pullman's views on religion from that evening talk in: Philip Pullman on Writing Myth & Religion (Nov 2007.)

veronica b. said...

Mark, personally I think all the to-do about the anti-religious aspect has been blown out of proportion and we have lost sight of this beautifully-crafted epic. I am not denying Pullman's intentions because, after reading several interviews with him, he does intend to be anti-Christian, but I don't feel he is anti-God. In his stories, he let's us discover that who we thought was "God" is not the Creator. For me, that leaves open the hope that the creator is out in the universe, playing a role, or not.

I did not pick up on any extreme anti-religious or anti-Christian aspect in the movie (although clearly the "clergy" are villains), and I found some in the book, but not so much that as I was reading I was offended by it or taken out of the story in any way.

With regards to the reactions of the American conservative Christian community, I feel that in a home with a strong Christian base this story should not be the threat it is being made out to be. It can become an opportunity for discussion with your "impressionable minds" about why it makes you upset or worried. Children understand much more than we often give them credit for.

Sarah, I too read that Pullman was positive about the film. It just did not amaze me in the same way the book did. Aside from major difference in the story line, so many of the small details got lost in translation from page to screen. I almost always prefer the book over the film -- so keep at your fiction!