The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 1 (2003)

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Philip Pullman's Garden of Eden

Maggie Parish


Corruption and envy and lust for power. Cruelty and coldness. A vicious, probing curiosity. Pure, poisonous, toxic malice. You have never from your earliest years shown a shred of compassion or sympathy or kindness without calculating how it would return to your advantage. You have tortured and killed without regret or hesitation; you have betrayed and intrigued and gloried in your treachery. You are a cesspit of moral filth.

The lines above are Metatron's analysis of Mrs. Coulter in The Amber Spyglass. (See page 398 of the 2000 Knopf hardcover edition). Metatron, it is worth mentioning, finds her irresistible. He (an angel) follows her into the trap that leads to his destruction, almost overwhelmed with a desire that distracts him from centuries of knowledge.

In a later conversation with Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter herself confirms Metatron's assessment: "I wanted him to find no good in me, and he didn't. There is none." A self- sacrifice follows that readers might or might not believe redeems a lifetime of destructive activities. One example from The Amber Spyglass: when Mrs. Coulter, having discovered that her daughter, Lyra, is to be the new Eve, takes refuge with her in a cave in order to protect her from The Magisterium, she drugs her daughter into submission and slaps her fiercely when she awakens enough to try to resist. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter's daemon, a golden monkey, keeps careful watch and diverts himself by slowly tearing the wings off bats.

Mrs. Coulter is not only the mother of Lyra, the heroine of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, she is also a powerful professional woman who holds a very strange position indeed.. At first, we see Mrs. Coulter as Lyra, herself, does - pretty, beautifully dressed, and sweet-smelling, a skillful and charming hostess. But we soon learn, as Lyra does, that Mrs. Coulter is actually the head of the Oblation Board ("the Gobblers"). As such she is responsible for supervising the experimental severing of children's daemons, i.e. souls, from their bodies, a process which leaves the children vulnerable and bereft. This supposedly beneficent "intercision, which is actually a kind of mutilation, is performed in the mysterious North, the direction in which Lyra travels in search of her lost friend, and also a place where worlds elide when the Aurora Borealis lights the sky. Intercision is not a fate, it might be noted, that Mrs. Coulter wishes for her own daughter; rather what she hopes for Lyra is that she will become an able assistant (accomplice?) in her mother's important work. But Lyra has only to show the slightest bit of a will of her own to threaten Mrs. Coulter's love of power; then Lyra is, of course, very effectively threatened in return before she makes an escape from her increasingly-frightening parent into the London darkness of new dangers and adventures.

Where, I wonder, have we ever met a mother of this self-declared degree of wickedness in children's or young adult literature -indeed, in literature? (Folk tales might be mentioned, of course, but there it is almost always the stepmother who wishes harm.) And where have we met a woman who is more overwhelmingly attractive to almost every male she encounters - even to an angel? She flatters a good deal, yes, but that is, alas, not so very uncommon. Whatever are we to make of Mrs. Coulter?

By those who have been closely examining Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, connections aplenty have been made with both Milton and Blake, whose poetry Pullman quotes at the beginnings of chapters. (Indeed, one fruitful way to research the books is to enter "Blake and Pullman" or "Milton and Pullman" into "google" or another search engine or to go to a Milton listserv.) But to find a literary figure, a parent, comparable in malevolence with Mrs. Coulter, I would argue that we might best look to Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter, another moral tale with a new Adam and Eve at its center. A lust for power drives Rappaccini, you will recall, as evidenced by his creation of a Garden of Eden in which all of the flowers are so poisonous as to repel any invaders. The innocent Beatrice, his daughter, is likewise a beautiful toxic flower, one who has been slowly and carefully made dangerous to others through her years of obediently and faithfully tending her "sisters." When handsome Giovanni ventures into the garden, Rappaccini sees an opportunity. Rappaccini sees that Giovanni, too, can be made toxic; he can be an Adam to Beatrice's Eve, both of them hermetically sealed from any kind of encroachment by the outside world. And, of course, denied its pleasures.

If Lyra is the predestined Eve in the new Republic of Heaven being fought for in The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, then it is Will (introduced in the second book) who is her Adam. And Will is the very opposite of Hawthorne's self-absorbed, blame- casting Giovanni, who curses Beatrice for the fate that he, himself, actively pursued. Lyra, having been raised by everyone and no one at Oxford College, evidences the coping skills of a savvy street urchin and successfully elicits the protective love of a goodly number of surrogate parent figures, including a witch, a nun-turned- scientist, an armored, talking Polar Bear, and a balloon-flying Texan. Will, the same age, must over and over again resolutely play a role that he hates and ultimately is able to reject - that of warrior. Will and Lyra are able to cope so well partly because both are brave, and partly because Lyra has a weapon, too: words. Lyra can psych people out, know what they want or expect to hear, and persuade them to cooperate with her. Will does this far less. He never asks for or elicits the love and caring from others that seems throughout the trilogy to come almost automatically to Lyra. He never shrinks from responsibility or danger. And Will gives orders, which it's a bit of a surprise to find that Lyra is obeying. Repeatedly, it is Lyra who takes time to thank people (or other beings). It's quite possible that Will is too busy trying to keep himself and Lyra alive.

Here's one question, then. To the degree that Will, who makes no appearance in the first book, takes over the action in books two and three, does that detract from your enjoyment of the books? Or do you see a satisfying synergy when the two characters combine their abilities and energies? Are there gender issues here to consider? Do you find yourself growing impatient at the romance between Will and Lyra as Book Three progresses? (I did not, but I have read that others have.) Other questions about the characters come to mind. Was Mrs. Coulter's redemption at the end of the book believable to you? How did the fact that Lord Asriel so willingly sacrifices Lyra's friend, Roger, affect your perspective on him? Do you see Lord Asriel as any kind of hero?

Other questions: if you were going to compare, contrast or somehow connect the His Dark Materials trilogy with other works of literature, what works might those be? (If readership is the issue, then Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy is one possible connection I might make - since LeGuin's are books (excluding the middle one, I think) which can be read as "story" by children and also analyzed at great length by adults - as they have been - over and over again at academic conferences. How might you connect the universe that Pullman's Will experiences with that of Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising quintette? Do you perceive the issue of "will" in Pullman's books in a post-Christian, existentialist context? (See the OED for an overwhelming array of overlapping meanings for the word "will"!) Do you at any point see the institution of a relentless and oppressive authority as portrayed too heavily to be credible?

To whom have you introduced Philip Pullman's distinctive books? Have you included them in a university class on fantasy, as one of my former colleagues very successfully has done, starting out with Pullman and Tolkien, bringing in the Milton and Blake contexts, and assigning C.S. Lewis as well? Have you found that young adults, so many of them already lovers of fantasy and science fiction, read Pullman's books eagerly? Have you chosen to give these books as gifts? Have you listened to the books as well as read them? (My own experience is that listening brings a whole new very satisfying dimension to the "reading" experience; the CDs are exquisite in their presentation.) How many times have you read the books, savoring the language? How do you visualize the promised film (or films) of the His Dark Materials trilogy? Why is there so much cold, rather than heat, in these and other fantasies?

Who is reading the His Dark Materials trilogy - and how and why? Who will read the books a decade hence? Will they become an established part of university curriculum? What parts of the books do you most admire or dislike? (I was very ready to leave the Land of the Dead, and, in truth, I was not so very fond of the Big Battle at the end, though others admire it greatly.)

We will publish responses to these questions - or to the questions about the His Dark Materials trilogy that you, yourself, invent - in the next issue of The Looking Glass. In future publications, we envision an interactive forum in which responses to this column will appear. Please share your ideas with other readers by emailing me at randallparish@ec.rr.com.

 

Maggie Parish


Volume 7, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, January, 2003

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"Philip Pullman's Garden of Eden" © Margaret Parish, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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