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The Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

The Expulsion From Eden, by Thomas Cole. 1828

Philip Pullman’s usage of the myth of Adam and Eve had me revisiting the metaphors, symbols, and scenarios in that ancient garden. While there are many different interpretations of the myth, and a wide range of disagreements between Jewish and Christian exegesis, I thought Pullman was really onto something fundamentally important.

Contrary to much of the received wisdom about that story, Adam and Eve did the right thing. They sought knowledge. In effect, consciousness. Had they stayed in the garden, they would have remained unfree, ignorant, and stunted. The god of the story wanted them that way, apparently. Much of Pullman’s trilogy builds from that metaphor — keeping humans in the dark about the world. The Magisterium is, in effect, the earthly representative of that view. Keep humans in the dark as much as possible. Keep them blissfully ignorant, and all will be well.

Keep them like sheep.

We humans may well be the only species capable of sensing our own mortality. In a sense, the Adam and Eve of myth are not fully human until they both eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They become human after the fog is lifted. They know death. They know they will die. In a way, the story is about human evolution itself, which is all the more ironic in light of current and past battles between creationists and those who believe in the science of evolution. I read the story as a metaphor for human evolution, for an awakening into the reality of the human condition with its complexity, struggle and pain. Implicit in the story of the fall is a critique of religious dogma, a warning against the blind acceptance of authority, the consequences of ignorance. Though it is not readily apparent . . .

The serpent was Socrates before Socrates existed. He was actually the far better choice for mentor for the first humans. Rather than tempting them into sin, he was tempting them into consciousness. An unexamined life is not worth living!

The severity of the punishment is also an indication of the rightness, even the righteousness of the decision to eat the apple, or the grape, or the pomegranate. Not only does the god of Genesis kick them out of the garden, he also makes claims after the fact that were facts to begin with: death and immense pain during childbirth. He also warned them that they would die immediately upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Luckily for Yahweh, there was no way for Adam and Eve to know that those claims were false, that Yahweh was bluffing. They had never experienced death, and Eve was not yet with child, and they knew of no one else in similar straits. In effect, the god of Genesis punished them with reality, and couldn’t follow through on his original threat.

Of course, some might argue that death and sin and evil and the like were brought into the world as a result of their disobedience. This has some similarities with the Greek Myth of Pandora. If Adam and Eve had not disobeyed their god, they never would have died. They would have lived forever. My answer to that is, of course, that such a thing is impossible. Before, during and after the events depicted in Genesis, it was always impossible to live forever. It was always impossible for a woman to give birth without pain. Which means, again, the god of Genesis merely threatened the first two human beings with reality. And, if eating from the Tree of Life granted them immortality, and they were banned from doing so by Yahweh, death was on the menu for them whether they stayed in the garden or escaped.

As I see it, the story can only be useful or instructive if it is seen as a story, not as literally true. If we try to see it as literally true, the events depicted are so obviously impossible, that they defeat the purpose or any chance at instruction. So, we’re left with interpretations of myth, allegory, metaphor and the like. In the simplest terms, is it a story warning us against disobedience, or against blind acceptance of authority? For this rebel without a cause, the latter is the way to go.


Ancient of Days

Ancient of Days

Ancient of Days, by William Blake. 1794

After John Milton and his Paradise Lost, the second guiding spirit for much of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is William Blake. Its radical, subversive nature, its speaking truth to power, its combination of ancient wisdom and modern rebellion, are prefigured in the life and work of the great poet, painter and mystic. When we meet the Ancient of Days in the last novel of the series, Blake’s vision comes before us, though Pullman adds a few twists and surprises. We learn prior to his appearance that the Old Man, or the Authority, may not be the Creator. Gnosticism comes into play in the view that the god of organized religion is not the creator god, but a usurper, a demiurge, which follows yet another ancient pattern of divinities overthrowing divinities and rewriting history. Rather, their devotees rewrite history by expunging the previous layer of all-fathers. And so it goes.

Along with Milton and Blake, Pullman continues to draw from myth and legend as the series moves forward. Lyra and her friend Will Parry descend into the land of the dead to rescue Lyra’s friend, Roger, as Heracles rescued Theseus from Hades. Harpies appear and play a key role in the land of the dead, though Lyra manages to upset the apple cart for them as well. Long before that journey, Pullman adds two more magic tools in the form of an all-powerful knife that can cut through universes, and an amber spyglass that gives the owner, Mary Malone, the ability to see Dust and know part of its fate. As in many of the best stories, magic has a dual edge and brings both boon and curse. The subtle knife brings the gift of escape, of flight, of access to a billion universes, but also lets evil pass through and creates it in the process.

As I finished the second novel, The Subtle Knife, I wondered if Pullman had set too many stories into motion to ever reconcile. I wondered if he had moved too far away from the far more unified vision of The Golden Compass. It wasn’t until near the end of the third and last book, The Amber Spyglass, that I felt he had succeeded in bringing together the divergent strings. And there were many to bring together. Which was one of the themes of the series to begin with. Diversity, difference, and strings that bind us all. Things falling apart, moving away from each other, drifting away and exploding outward, but never really losing their center. Never really losing contact.

There are witches, good and bad, battling each other. The stories of two in particular are relevant: Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi. There are angels, good and bad, battling for supremacy, moving toward a cosmic day of reckoning. Balthamos, Baruch and Xaphania are in opposition to the most powerful of the seraphim, Metatron, who acts as regent for the Authority. There is the battle between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel for control of Lyra’s loyalty and destiny, which shifts and often surprises the reader. There are the Spectors, who sap the life out of adults, but can’t hurt children. And the least successful of the animal creations, in my view, the Mulefa, small, elephant-like creatures who teach Mary Malone more than a few life-lessons.

All of these strands point ultimately to a greater cosmic battle. But Pullman isn’t afraid of dealing with less grand emotions, ideas and philosophies along the way.

For me, perhaps the most amazing thing about the series is its refusal to take the easy way out. Pullman doesn’t try to tie things up with pablum, with greeting card logic, or platitudes. I think most readers will see the ending as open enough for broad interpretation, and few will be disappointed. Few will feel they’ve been had. Which is a more common experience than it should be with books that deal with philosophy, magic, mysticism and religion.

I highly recommend this series.


Between Worlds

Between Worlds

I’m almost finished with Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Really enjoying it. But am sensing more separation between these stories and books written for adults. Moreso than with the first novel in the series, The Golden Compass. As I’ve moved on, that separation grows.

Can’t quite pinpoint it yet. But I think it mostly has to do with sex. There is a slight undercurrent throughout the trilogy, but it’s vague and subtle and mostly hidden. Hints occasionally seep up through the surface of the sentences. But there’s not much there there. A book for adults would obviously handle the subject in a different manner.

As I read the final novel, The Amber Spyglass, I can’t help but wonder if this trilogy wouldn’t have been better as an “adult” series. Of course, when I say that, I’m talking about “better for adults.” The ideas involved, the poeticizing of alternate worlds and connections and commonalities, the Dust and the Dark Matter all coming together — the quasi-Zenish implications — might provide a truly spectacular piece of fiction for “mature audiences.”

Does writing for kids and young adults hamper the writer? Does the audience prevent explorations into certain themes and scenarios? Or does it free an author from other constraints? Chances are, you get a bit of both.


*     *     *     *     *


Will talk more about the books when I finish the series. But, in the meantime, will switch gears here and post another one of my poems. Written when I lived in Boone. Written while in the midst of studying various Christian mystics, including Meister Eckhart. And, written after a particularly strange and baffling encounter. A mystery of sorts. A woman there had developed an obsession with me. She knew who I was by sight, but I didn’t know who she was. Only that she was a friend of a friend. We only spoke by phone, and those phone calls became increasingly more bizarre. It was something out of Poe, updated to the late 20th century . . . .


Echoes of Eckhart Fade


The going

Pine trees in the window squares
Dreams of climbing the trunk
The branches into cold mountain skies

The clouding

Crosses the moon in window squares
As I feel the mist drape the town
Effortlessly         simply
Unlike the work involved in mere pollution

I am potentially holy Other
Needing the mist to join earth and sky

I am a frame that eternalizes
Eats and touches and drinks it all in
Only to throw it back to the god beyond
Our impoverished     limited view of Him

No stigmata
Publishes my passion

No seizures send me up the pine trees
In search of some
Universe on the head of green needles

Will you take me into unity
Beyond different Things colors smells and pain?

Can you make the brown rivers and cold mountains
With loud parades and unsteady mobile homes?

The crying

Over all the five senses without the sixth
Competing for victory and divergence

It scatters and the mist ends in white rags
It scatters and the trees walk away from me
It scatters and mountains here in Carolina
Are too different from the Rockies and Andes
Or goddess-topped Himalayan peaks


The voice on the phone split
Into laughter and anger
Love and condemnation



–by Douglas Pinson


Northern Lights

Northern Lights

I finished Philip Pullman’s wonderful The Golden Compass last night, and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy. It’s very well written and surprisingly thought provoking. A page turner, to be sure. Also hoping that the sequels will be filmed, even though mixed messages abound about that. I’ve read on the Net that the next movie is in the bag for 2009, and, that it won’t be filmed at all. The two major reasons given for not filming are the lack of box office success for the first movie and opposition from church groups.

The novel is set in parallel universe to our own, with many similarities, but some striking differences. The most striking being that humans have personal daemons — animals that remain with them at all times and are something like an external soul. These daemons have the ability to change into other animals, at least while their humans are children. Once the child becomes an adult, the daemon loses its protean powers and remains fixed. The Golden Compass only hints at possible reasons for this, and connects it to a further mystery, Dust. The idea is rich in symbolism and allegorical potential, but the answers must reside inside novels two or three.

The action takes place in England, primarily at Oxford initially, and then moves northward toward the Arctic. Lyra Belacqua is the heroine of the story, a brave young girl of eleven, possessing a destiny she knows nothing about but may sense in part. Her journey is set in motion by a series of kidnappings, including her best friend Roger. Children being kidnapped. One of the greatest fears for any child or their parents. As we read on, however, the fear of kidnapping itself is overwhelmed by something far more sinister.

Lyra is aided at first by a people called “gyptians,” similar to the Romani, who have lost children too. The kidnappers have earned the nickname “Gobblers” and are a mystery to most throughout the majority of the novel.

As with so many good stories, ancient mythic elements appear often here, such as Lyra’s discovery of her true parentage later in the novel, and the help she receives from otherworldly beings. Witches, in this case. Another folkloric element is key: talking animals who aid the hero. A giant polar bear named Lorek Byrnison is the prime example. Her protector and friend. Lyra also learns how to use the Alethiometer, a compass of sorts with the power to tell the truth and see into the future. This device combines elements from the legends of King Arthur and the myth of Perseus. A sword only one person can lift, and a gift from a deity that helps the hero overcome tremendous, deadly obstacles. There are also allusions to prophecies about a messiah. Lyra. Again, this is similar to Arthur and Cuchulain and various religious figures down through the ages. Though Pullman casts a slight bit of doubt about those prophecies. One witch speaks about them in an ambiguous tone, as if she were certain once, but has lost that certainty.

Issues of honor, loyalty and betrayal play a huge role in the book. Underdogs, the poor, the helpless and the oppressed, rally together to help each other and Lyra defeat more powerful foes. The gyptian and witch cultures appear to be largely oral and traditional, and this aids in the establishment of bonds and deepens loyalty. This, from a literary point of view, is effectively done, non-contrived, and increases natural sympathy and identification in those characters.

Toward the end of the book, Pullman takes some time out to discuss some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of his alternate world, in the form of a dialogue between Lyra and Lord Asriel. Rather than slow the story down, this really just sets things up for the next book in the series, The Subtle Knife.

Will write about that shortly, and return to some elements in the first book as well.


The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

Reading three books at once right now. Multi-tasking in a sense. But concentrating mostly on just one: Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Still reading Doctor Zhivago, and Zamyatin’s We, but am having a great time with Pullman’s book. Enjoyed the movie as well.

Outside of the Potter books, I’ve read no other kids’ books since I was a kid. This current reading is a serious departure for me. But I think I’ve discovered something very interesting in the process. Something about the way books are written in general, and for their respective audiences in particular.

Books for kids are more visual, descriptive, and are driven more by the visual and the descriptive. As in, the plot is moved by those descriptions. There is also greater control over time and space. Meaning, they don’t waste much time trying to create gaps and irony and meta-commentary, nor do they circle back on themselves very often. They don’t talk about the act of writing. They don’t ponder the act itself. They stick with the plot and let the action and descriptions move the book forward, ever forward.

It’s not about vocabulary, either. That’s not really a dividing line. Philip Pullman employs a wide range of words to create his alternative world. Everybit as wide as Hemingway or Fitzgerald. If there is some sort of scoring for “grade level”, I doubt The Golden Compass would fall below A Farewell to Arms or Tender is the Night. At least when it comes to the difficulty of word choice.

I think the difference is in description and the lack of gaps. Clear, concise descriptions, with little wasted space, and very little irony. Meaning and symbolism and allegory tend not to fall between the cracks, lie underneath the sentences, or exist in the silence between them. Books for kids are more WYSIWYG. Wiziwigish. What you see is what you get. This is possibly why they are such naturals for conversion to movies. As I read The Golden Compass, I can see the movie. I want to read the next two books in the trilogy before the movies come out, and reverse the process . . . Pullman’s answer, perhaps, to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

Lewis died in 1963. The Golden Compass (AKA: Northern Lights) came out in 1995. Would have been a tremendous thing to see both writers face off.


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