Tuesday, 16 February 2010
If you thought you were a bad parent, look at these guys
Because there's really nothing else going on. I don't want to talk about half term. I don't want to talk about what the Lattes did with my make-up while I was trying to sneak a half hour's work in. But you have imaginations and experience. You know what happened without me having to tell you.
Have you read Philip Pullman's Northern Lights? I do hope so. You must have, it's been out so long, and I'm so late to it. Anyway I'm just about to tell you what happens in it, so you might want to leave quietly.
I've had a copy throwing about the house for ages, and had put off reading it because I'd heard so much about Pullman's Anti-Church Agenda and I didn't really want to be anti-preached at. But eventually it wore me down, and Eldest saw it on the sofa, and looked so impressed, and asked if that was the book she'd heard about with all the ice and the witches and the armoured bears. I had to agree that sounded pretty exciting.
As for the Anti Church sentiments in Pullman's book, I was almost disappointed to find them tacked on at the end in a bit of exposition: "And it was all the Church's doing, you know." "Really?" Phew. I thought there was going to be actual brainwashing.
It's difficult not to think about this trilogy alongside the Harry Potter books, because there was such a fuss about them both within the same period of years. But Harry Potter had that old fairy story necessity - the gentle, kind but conveniently dead mother. In fairy stories, the bereaved child may have trials to face, but it does so with true and noble blood running through its veins.
For Lyra Belacqua the truth is far more sinister. The invented fairytale parents are ripped away partway through the book to reveal her true origins: unscrupulous, morally challenged, intellectually driven parents who are still alive. The glamorous, evil stepmother she flees turns out to be her mother. Lyra is alone, without the true and noble blood she believed she had, and which we expect as readers.
What her mother is trying to do is separate children from their souls - their daemons, which appear at their side constantly in animal form. Just a simple operation - snap! - and the child is 'set free'. It's a horrific concept for Lyra, and a murderous one in most cases. And it reminded me of a short story I read recently by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti. In Purity, a boy's father conducts experiments, removing from his son the belief that the attic is haunted and placing the by-product in a jar. At the end of the story a door-to-door evangelist is found in their cellar, drained of his belief, in a state unrecognisable as life or death.
(To be honest, I wish I hadn't read that story. That was a bad experiment on my part too. Did I learn nothing from staying up too late to watch television as a child?)
Anyway I did love Northern Lights, a page-turning riot of cold and snow and ice and glamour and science. And grubby-kneed childhood snatched away, and turned into a fight for freedom. And bears, and lost love, and imposing colleges with mysterious Masters who put poison in wine bottles, and hiding in cupboards, and stolen boats, and perilous balloon rides. I have the other two books in the trilogy all ready. -