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Posts Tagged ‘Faerie’

Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy Debuts with La Belle Sauvage

First, a checklist:

Daemons and more daemons? Check.
Appealing child protagonist? Check.
Experimental theology? Check.
Raging maniacal perverted genius on a your character’s trail? Check.
Nappies? Uh…nappies?

I’ll explain, but first:

Seventeen years ago, British writer Philip Pullman made a big splash with his fantasy novel The Golden Compass. Set in an alternate version of Oxford, England, it featured an endearing (Shall I say “spunky?” Perhaps I shall…) girl protagonist named Lyra Bevacqua who navigates a quasi-steampunk world with an armored polar bear for a companion, bearing a magical instrument called an alethiometer (the “compass” in the title), with mysterious parents who are either evil or terribly important or both, on a quest to save children from being permanently separated from their animal familiars, which in this world are called daemons. It’s all quite fantastic stuff. Two sequels followed with new adventures and new strange worlds and angels and witches and character arcs gone haywire. Fun reading for young and old alike.

But you know all this already, of course. And if you don’t, I suggest reading The Golden Compass before tackling Pullman’s latest.

Lyra is at the center of La Belle Sauvage as well. Though she’s just a little baby, she has a mysterious pull on all sorts of characters, including an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm Polstead, who finds the infant, temporarily being housed by a cloister of nuns, to be just the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. So we know right away that the target demographic for this book isn’t your standard 8-12 middle grade reader.

While the pace eventually picks up in the second half of the 400+ page novel, much of the first part consists of Malcolm helping the nuns at the cloister, thinking about who Lyra is, planning to fix up his boat (La Belle Sauvage, same as the book’s title), and tending to his job as a helper at his parents’ pub near the river Thames. Malcolm is one of those characters with so few character flaws that he seems even unlikelier than the assortment of daemons that populate the story. Actually, in real life it’s not unusual to come across a child devoted to helping others and doting on a baby, but in the world of fiction he’s a bit of an anomaly.

Pullman takes his sweet time showing how wonderful Malcolm is, and establishing his emotional ties to the river. He slowly adds elements of tension: a stranger with a vicious daemon, a repressive religious organization that takes over his school and turns kids into snitches, a number of messed-up adults who are apparently also interested in Lyra, and a scholar who turns Malcolm into a spy.

At this point, fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

But all these dangerous elements take a back seat to the real challenge facing Malcolm, and indeed all folk in alt-Oxford and alt-London: a massive, supernatural flood of Biblical proportions. Malcolm and a fellow pub employee, 16-year-old Alice, escape with baby Lyra on La Belle Sauvage and fight not just for their lives on the raging flood, but also how to keep the baby happy—I kid you not. Finding fresh nappies*, baby formula, and a fire to heat the formula to the right temperature become just as important as securing food and a safe place to hide from the aforementioned maniacal evil person, who also wants Lyra (natch) and has a vicious hyena with a damaged leg for a daemon. As we eventually find out, he is also in possession of the only alethiometer known to be missing in this alt-world, which Malcolm eventually takes from him. (I assume the importance of this will be revealed in the next book in the series.)

The flood is a mind-boggler, launching Malcolm and Alice on a journey into strangeness that reminds me a bit of the Odyssey: they meet (and barely escape from) a witch with magical breasts with which to feed Lyra; find temporary shelter in a place that appears to be inhabited by people who can be seen but can’t see them; and finally get help from a friendly Thames river giant to escape from the faery world that has them trapped.

In between the nappies and baby feeding and barely staying alive (experiences that all new parents experience, no doubt), they defeat the evil person, but it’s not all buttercups and daisies. At the very end they barely escape with their lives when attacked by a ship from the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the real force of evil, who have been tracking them all this time. This tale doesn’t have much of a denouement at all: their rescuer, Lord Asriel, plucks them out of the flood waters just as La Belle Sauvage crumbles like a soggy box of matchsticks. But Asriel has places to go and things to do—no time for nappies, he—so he basically drops all three kids off at one of Oxford’s colleges and, well, that’s all folks.

There you have it. Can’t hardly call it a book for kids, especially when Malcolm at one point discovers he has the hots for the older Alice. Besides, Pullman is a very involved narrator who jumps around a lot and tells the story his own damn way. Kind of like your favorite uncle who’d come over for dinner, and everyone is waiting for him to tell a humdinger of tale, but he doesn’t want to tell it over dinner, and then he has to have his drinky-poo, and then he settles into your father’s favorite easy chair, and props his feet up, and scratches the dog behind the ears, and then asks to have his drinky-poo refreshed, and then has to use the water closet, and then finally he settles back in the chair and the dog circles around three times widdershins on the floor at his feet and he finally gets into the real story.

Or something like that.

* “nappies” is Brit for diapers, not things with which to wipe one’s mouth.

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Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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Mythcon 43Fantasy is a genre that means many different things to many different people. For many, it means a summer action movie, a chance to escape the heat or the weight of the world. For kids it means a fabulous new world of their own to explore, perhaps not consciously realizing at first that a ripping good fantasy tale is that way because it reverberates with our own quotidian lives. Many kids and teens who adore fantasy “outgrow” the genre (or at least think they outgrow it) on their way to becoming serious adults who prefer literary novels or stop reading fiction altogether.

Then there are those of us who loved fantasy as children and never stopped loving it as adults.

For today’s young generation, that love largely took root in Harry Potter; it remains to be seen how many will retain that love into adulthood. Those in my generation cut our adolescent teeth on Tolkien, and to lesser extent, C.S. Lewis. These two authors belonged to a small circle of writers named the Inklings, and to this day their works are celebrated by the Mythopoeic Society. Last week, they held their 43rd annual conference in Berkeley, just a short bike ride from my house. So as a longtime Tolkien fan I decided to attend my first conference.

I had some misgivings at first. Tolkien fans can be notoriously indulgent expressing their personal knowledge, not only of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but of The Silmarillion and other secondary Tolkien works. They, as well as C.S. Lewis fans, often bind themselves spiritually to these works, incorporating them into their own pagan or Christian world views. They have a reputation for being indifferent to social norms, and frequently sport feathers, Celtic crosses, or tangled facial hair, together with capes and other medievalish gear.

I need not have feared. Yes, the conference had some folks dressed like that, but it was nothing like a Harry Potter or Star Trek con, in which many fans come fully dressed as their favorite character. No, this was far more intellectual than that. About half the proceedings were taken up by academic papers addressing various aspects of Tolkien and other fantasy writers. The conference theme was East and West, and I learned a new word: Orientalism, which is how the West has incorporated stories and culture from Asia into fantasy. Alyssa House-Thomas read a fascinating paper on how Lord Dunsany, a turn-of-the-century British writer who was a huge influence on Tolkien, both used and played against the Western projection of the East as an exotic place in which to stage fantastic tales—and in some cases rely on racial stereotypes. Other speakers explored topics such as Eastern vs. Western dragons, or whether Marco Polo’s tales were actually inventions. Finally, one of the Speakers of Honor was Malinda Lo, a Chinese American fantasy writer, who talked about how she incorporated Chinese culture into the original world she created for two of her novels, Ash and Huntress. The main characters for both these novels are also Lesbians.

This was all heartening to me, for it affirmed that one can be a Tolkien fan and still consider worldly issues like racism, cross-cultural influences, and homosexuality. There was much talk of the Other—that which is strange and foreign to us—as expressed in culture clashes of the real world as well as that between the real world and Faerie. I left the conference feeling I’d met people who were intensely creative, in some cases brilliantly intellectual, and very open to hanging out, whether they were published writers, academics, or “just” fantasy fans. No one was an Other, and we all seemed to have an inkling of what true fellowship is about.

LINKS: Here’s a few links to the Society and some of those present at the conference:

Mythopoeic Society: http://www.mythsoc.org/
Jason Fisher, Tolkien Scholar: http://lingwe.blogspot.com/
Sherwood Smith, fantasy writer: http://www.sherwoodsmith.net/
Malinda Lo, YA writer: http://www.malindalo.com/
Susan Palwick, fantasy/sci-fi writer, lay preacher, and blogger: http://improbableoptimisms.blogspot.com/

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