The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
The Amber Spyglass
A Structural Study on the Emergence of Evil in Philip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
- By Matthew Uselton -
Casey Fredericks in his book, The Future of Eternity, explores a method of studying myth that puts “the accent on the creative literary work, without misconceiving the potential contribution of mythology to contemporary fiction...avoiding the worst failing in most myth-criticism-the reduction of complex literary works to nothing more than illustrations of pre-existing archetypes or myth-and-ritual patterns.”(50) Fredericks method moves away from the common criticism of myth that often takes a literary work and makes judgments about its worth based upon how accurately the myth is re-presented. “The modern work must not be reduced to its mythical basis,” he says, “for in every case the modern work will have a meaning and interest that is both individualistic and contemporary, that will transcend its basis in myths.”(50)
Instead, Fredericks wants to examine the literary work from the point of taking the mythical structures and seeing how they are applied to the narrative, how those structures are altered by the author, and to what extent do they impact the overall function of the narrative. Fredericks’s structuralist point of view helps to avoid making rash judgments about the value of literature based upon undetermined, often opinionated, ideals about the use of myth in modern fiction. His point of view also helps the critic to avoid the search of a source, which as one who is familiar with mythology will tell you is next to impossible to find.
Fredericks, and subsequently myself, wish to explore the use of mythic structures as a type of generative device. This generative device would be similar to Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of folk tales, in so far as it would function as a sort of grammar that can be arranged to create many types of tales. However, unlike Propp, who devised a very closed system that was criticized by Bremond, I would seek to create a very open system that allows for change and mutation.
I would adopt Fredericks’ notion of a continuum on which the author’s use of myth can fall. This continuum would run from the author’s complete reinforcement of the mythic structure to a complete negation of the structure. My primary concern, then, becomes not how successful an author is in utilizing a mythic structure in his narrative, but rather what structure is being used and to what extent does the authors representation reinforce or negate a particular structure.
Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, offers an ideal opportunity for examining Fredericks’ notion of myth. Pullman uses two distinct notions of the origin of evil and amalgamates them into a spectacular singularity that comments upon traditional expectations of familiar mythic structures. Pullman re-presents the familiar story of Eve’s temptation with Eastern philosophical precepts and a result that is unexpected. For Pullman, Eve’s choice did not involve the knowledge of evil, but the knowledge of love.
Casey Fredericks defines myth, not as a grouping of stories that have lasted beyond age/time specific relevance, but as something closer to a structure or lens that influences the world we see and read around us. Myth is composed of sub-structures that can occur and exist completely independent of the narrative framework, existing without reliance upon plot, character, setting, etc, yet still impacting the overall story.
This way of looking at Myth evolves from the initial work of Ferdinand de Saussure, who established that there are systems of language based on differences. One of the primary differences lies in the distinction of langue and parole. David Richter explains de Saussure’s concept of langue and parole this way:
"A language is a system of constitutive rules-that is the rules are the language in the same way that the rules of chess constitute the game of chess. (If we break the rules of chess by, say, taking two moves at a time, there is no penalty as there is when we break traffic laws or other normative rules; we just aren’t playing chess any longer.)" (810)
Though there are no punitive results from breaking the rules of language, however once the rules are breached language stops being language prime and evolves into language II. This system of language (langue) is apparent in individual speakers, who may or may not be aware of the rules of language, but are usually aware whether a sentence is appropriate or deviant to the rules. Parole is the utterances of those sentences, the actual spoken or written articulation of those rules of language. The interesting thing is that these rules of language, langue, are inferred from the evidence of parole, rather than the visa versa.
In the same way, the examination of myth as a structure comes from looking at the uses of myth across literature, in order to infer the rules. Fredericks explores several mythic structures across the genre of science fiction breaking myth into several sub-structures: creation, heroes, primitive man, godhead, and time.
The great distinction between Fredericks’ notion of mythic structures and the archetypal models of Carl Jung and Northrop Frye, two other great influences on the study, lies in the complete lack of an ur-story in Fredericks’ model.
For Frye and Jung, there existed a single starting point for all the great archetypes, a moment of utterance, if you will, from which all subsequent use of that archetype evolves. Fredericks moves away from that notion, stating rather that myth operates more like a grammar than a template. The langue of myth shapes the writer’s use, placement, and expectations of the mythic sub-structures that evidence themselves in the parole of the story.
These sub-structures are different from the existing notion of archetypes. Jung’s description of an archetype deals with an image that resonates with an ideal that exists in the collective unconscious. For Jung, direct influence was unnecessary for the creation of similar mythologies; rather these similarities were “differing manifestations of structures deep in the human unconscious.” (Richter, 504) Jung believes that all archetypes resonate and evolve from our collective unconscious and racial memory, as peoples around the world attempt, for example, to fill that ‘mother’ shaped slot that exists in the structured unconscious. Though ‘mother’ may be represented in various ways, for Jung, they all fill a necessary slot in man’s unconscious. Subsequently, all things that could be classified as archetypes are nothing more than an evocation by the writer’s subconscious of ideal things remembered in an unconscious way.
Northrop Frye, on the other hand, believes that archetypes come from the literature of the past and that all archetypal structures emerge as a consequence of the stories of the past being rewritten. “Many of these kernel structures of story arise naturally out of the cyclical patterns of life on a planet that spins circling the sun: The dualistic cycle of day an d night, the sense of beginnings, maturation, ripeness, and death. Each generation rewrites the stories of the past that make sense to them.” (Richter, 641) Frye identified some of the same structures-hero, gods, etc.-that Fredericks identifies as mythic sub-structures, showing how those structures are taken from older stories, broken down, and reused in modern tales.
Both Jung and Frye seem to point to myth functioning as a type of template for writing. An author would, in a sense, take the myth and using it as a template craft his story around the existing model, changing certain aspects, like setting and names, but in the end seeking to recreate a replica of the original. Much of the early criticism dealing with myth was concerned with this very notion. Subsequently many texts were judged based on the degree to which they reproduced the original myth. Fredericks wants to step away from the template model and view myth as a form of grammar that allows the author to shape and alter a structure.
It is important to point out that using the example of de Saussure’s langue/parole model in the examination of literature is different from using langue/parole to examine language. Using the langue/parole model to examine language there exists a concentration on the establishment of the langue models from the parole instances. Because speakers are often unaware of the rules of the langue, beyond the vague sense that some speech pattern is correct or deviant, deviations in the parole evidence may signify a shift in the langue structure, a possible evolution of the language. In the production of spoken moments, parole, there is seldom a conscious accessing of the rules and it is only after the parole is evidenced, that the speaker is able to reflect upon the product and determine the langue structure.
The approach changes when using langue/parole in the examination of literature. Often in literature, the mythic structures are available and evident in the minds of the author, so that the structures can be accessed, manipulated, and pondered by the authors during the creative process. In other words, the langue of mythic structures is not some general feeling about propriety after the parole has been uttered, rather mythic structures become a tool in the hands of the author. Deviation becomes another issue, because a deviation in the structure does not necessarily signify an evolution, often the deviations reflect some purposeful manipulation of the mythic structure by the author. In using Fredericks’ model, rather than establishing a proper/improper relationship between the uses of myth, Fredericks wants to set up a continuum ranging from direct reinforcement to absolute negation of the mythic identity.
With this in mind it is easy to see how various mythic structures have influenced the construction of narratives, providing a fundamental framing mechanism for generating modern texts. These mythic structures are not a machine that one can simply plug things in to create a story, rather these structures function like different colors of paint upon a palate. With proper mixing, an artist can not only create new colors, but also shading, texture, and highlighting that makes the work come to life on the canvas.
Fredericks’ notions of the use of myth run parallel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s notions of the generative metaphor in her book, Always Coming Home. In this book, Le Guin uses a single image, the spiral, as a generative metaphor for the entire work. A generative metaphor is an image or device through which an entire narrative can be understood and interpreted. The generative metaphor can also act as a creative structure, framing the narrative as it is created, originally by the author’s pen and secondarily by the reader’s mind. The spiral, in the case of Always Coming Home, is the central image through which the culture of the Kesh can be understood. The Kesh’s homes, their religion, their lives, all mirror the motion of moving through the spiral, which Le Guin calls the heyiya-if.
The important thing about the generative metaphor is that the book can be read and understood without ever accessing the process of the generative metaphor. The reader is perfectly capable of enjoying and interpreting the book without ever thinking about the implications of a generative metaphor. Also, just at the generative metaphor can be accessed by the author as a shaping tool during the creation of the story, so can the mythic structure be accessed as a tool to help generate stories. In a similar manner, Fredericks posits that mythic structures help guide and shape certain stories, but the reader need not be familiar with all the scholarship and literature about the myth in order to enjoy and understand the narrative. This move places myth in a position independent of the reader’s knowledge as well as the actual narrative. Mythic structures need not necessarily be influenced by narrative structures such as plot, setting, character, etc.
Just as blue paint is blue paint, returning to the painting analogy, regardless of the day, person, time, or brush, so the mythic structures remain an amorphous constant functioning in spite of the narrative. Knowing this, we can trace the use of these structures in various narratives, watching how the author creates the fine shading and distinction in his text. This fine shading can also give us an idea of what the author is trying to say with his work, particularly when the text’s use of mythic structures is placed into conversation with other texts that have used the same structures.
For this paper, I would like to examine Philip Pullman’s young adult trilogy, His Dark Materials, comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman’s work is appropriate for this type of theoretical examination. Despite its classification as Young Adult Literature, His Dark Materials, is a complex ideological structure that allows for multi-level interpretation, and lends itself particularly well to structural analysis.
One of the major structural aspects of myth deals with the introduction of evil into the world. The introduction of evil can be broken down into two distinct areas of thought, the Western concept and the Eastern concept. These concepts developed independent of each other and have distinct characteristics. The Western concept of evil evolved in Europe over the course of thousands of years, principally constructed with the ideals of the Judeo-Christian model in mind. The Eastern concept of evil arose in the Asiatic basin, namely Japan and China, and is comprised primarily of the tenets of the Tao. I say that they developed independent of each other in so far as the two cultures had very little interaction early on, and subsequently had very little influence upon each other.
The Western concept of the introduction of evil revolves around the notion that man existed in a perfect state and that through some action of mankind, evil was released into the world. In an article entitled “What is the Gospel?” we find an elaboration on the Judeo-Christian version of the myth.
"Christian theology traces this state of alienation from God back to Adam and Eve. The Bible portrays Adam and Eve as the first human beings. They were created by God. All human beings are descended from them. They were originally in perfect fellowship with God and with each other, living in the Garden of Eden. However at some point they broke a command by God not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. This seems to have been symbolic of a desire to be independent of God.
As a result of this sin, Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, and brought into the world as we know it now. The sin affected their very nature. They became subject to death and suffering. These effects were passed on to their children, and hence to us.
The effect that is relevant to this article is "original sin". Original sin
says that all human beings are incapable of following God's will, until God
has regenerated us. This inability is a result of the degeneration of human
nature that resulted from first sin."
Similarly in the Greek mythos, Pandora releases evil into the world when she opens a chest that she had been instructed by Zeus not to open. In both Eve and Pandora’s case, they disobeyed the authority’s command not to touch/open some forbidden object. It is important to note that some of the western religions, namely Gnosticism, Zorasterianism, and Mithraism, believe that the world requires a balance between forces to be maintained. That sense of balance is one of the major tenets of Eastern religions.
The Eastern concept of the introduction of evil also relies upon the notions of balance. For the Eastern mythos, evil exists as a balancing force to good. the guiding principals of this balance can be found in the Taoist religion. In his article "Taoist Principals," based upon a book The Tao of Inner Peace by Diane Dreher, Bill Mason describes the balance this way:
"Taoism is based on Tao, or "The Way", as ancient Chinese sages observed, of nature. So Taoism is a nature based philosophy...and one seeks to find their "oneness" with nature. This is the first principal of Taoism.
The second principal of Taoism is that of Dynamic Balance. There are always two basic distinctions in nature, symbolized by the yin and the yang (sun and moon, heaven and earth, dark and light, chaos and order, etc.), but Toaism sees balance as the basic characteristic underlying these distinctions.
The Tao is the One. From the One come yin and yang; From these two comes creative energy (chi); From energy, ten thousand things, the forms of all creation. All life embodies yin and embraces yang. Through their union one achieves harmony."
In other words, the moment good was created, evil appeared in the world in order to maintain the balance. The Eastern concept of evil relies on this sense of balance, and believes that the potential for both good and evil exists simultaneously, in equal measures in all humans.
Both of these concepts of evil have very specific indicators that would alert a reader to their presence in a text. These indicators range from character types to states of mind, and can be present in large or small amounts in the text. In taking up the Western concept of evil, there are five significant indicators: a man and woman in a state of innocence, a pure, paradise-like setting, a tempter, a forbidden object or action, a transgression.
The man and woman in a state of innocence, like Adam and Eve, are often represented as a match pair. Examples of this pair range from Milton’s representation of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, to C.S. Lewis’s Digroy and Polly from The Magician’s Nephew, and Ransom and the Green Lady from Perelandra. In each case there is a set, a man and a woman, who exist in some state of partial innocence. Adam and Eve are newly created and are experiencing the world for the first time. Their innocence is founded in their newness and inexperience in the world. Digroy and Polly are a bit different insofar as their innocence lies in their childhood. Lewis uses the innocent state of childhood as a parallel to the innocent state of Adam and Eve. Perelandra is a bit different, as Ransom, the representational Adam, is from Earth and is familiar with both the ways of the world and the notions of evil. However, he does not know the workings of the strange world Perelandra, thus putting him in a temporal state of innocence. His partner, The Green Lady, parallels Eve in her innocent state towards the knowledge of good and evil, but out paces Ransom in her knowledge of the land.
Each of the previous examples also finds themselves in a world that is, to a certain extent newly created. Milton’s Eden is a fresh land, as are all three settings, and follows the description of creation set forth in the book of Genesis. Lewis’s Narnia is a bit different as not only are the animals and the land created, but the land is so alive that non-living things, like the lamppost and the gold and silver which grows into gold and silver trees, suddenly become alive as they are planted in the ground. Perelandria, is an aquatic paradise with land masses floating on a vast ocean. The land is fertile, though by the time Ransom arrives the majority of the creating has passed.
The role of the tempter is very important in the Western concept of the introduction of evil, as there is the need for an intermediary catalyst to provoke the innocent pair into some sort of transgression. In the case of Paradise Lost, Milton has Satan inhabit the body of a serpent to tempt Eve, staying somewhat true to the Genesis myth. The serpent approaches Eve as she is gazing at her reflection in a pond and through flattery and deception convinces Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Lewis takes a different approach in The Magician’s Nephew. The temptation occurs on a dying planet that Digroy and Polly have traveled to from the Wood between the Worlds. On this planet the children enter a stone building and find a room full of statues. Sitting in the middle of the room on a pedestal is a bell and striker. A plaque on the pedestal clearly warns of the implications, namely “a great evil” that will be released upon striking the bell. However, Polly cannot resist striking the bell, despite the written warning that great evil will be unleashed. Polly’s temptation comes from her natural human curiosity, an internal tempter rather than an external manifestation, like the snake.
Perelandra is a little different in that Lewis allows a character, Weston, a man of science and reason, to show up on the new planet and act as a foil to Ransom. Weston represents an alternate, non-religious take on the world and seeks to convince The Green Lady that reason is the better path to enlightenment. Weston is the voice of temptation manifested in the form of another human and relies heavily on the logic of science.
Often there is the forbidden object/action, the subsequent transgression often resulting in a sort of punishment or expulsion. The apple for Adam and Eve represents the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As Adam and Eve eat of the fruit they become aware of their nakedness and are ashamed to come out of the bushes when God calls them. Adam and Eve are subsequently banished from the Garden of Eden.
Polly and Digroy are surprised as the bell rings clearly and suddenly a statue comes to life. They have released an ancient sorceress queen who follows them into the Wood between the Worlds and eventually into Narnia. The Queen literally rides into Narnia on Polly’s heels, grabbing Polly’s foot as she jumped into one of the pools. The Queen runs off into the wilds of Narnia, and will take all of Narnia hostage in a later story. In this case, evil is awakened and eventually brought into Narnia by Polly.
Perelandra is altogether different, in that Ransom actually fights the tempter Weston who is possessed by the Devil. Weston tries to tempt the Green Lady over a series of days and it is only when Ransom physically removes the tempter that the world is set aright. Lewis actually presents a situation where the first mother and father do not fall prey to temptation.
In a similar manner to the Western concept of evil, the Eastern concept of evil also has some identifying characteristics, though they are often more subtle and due to their infrequence in Western literature, a bit more elusive. The overriding notion in Eastern philosophy about evil is the sense of balance, and the need to regain that balance. Often, Eastern structures can be spotted in recognizing a struggle to regain a sense of balance.
Two examples of this struggle in modern times can be found in the Recluse novels of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and. The Recluse novels revolve around a society of magic users, those that use the magic of order and those that use the magic of chaos. The magic of order is used to create things, keep things together, and aid in the prolonging of life. Conversely, the magic of chaos is used for destruction, dissemination, and its users suffer from an accelerated life as the chaos magic breaks their bodies apart. Though they exist in opposition to one another, the nature of the magic requires that there exist a balance. Within that balance, there is no true sense of right and wrong or good and evil, only the sense that the opposite forces must be in harmony. So as the power of chaos is increased, so the power of order is increased in equal measure to maintain the balance. The overriding principal of structure for this world is the mandate that balance be maintained.
The distinction between these two concepts of evil is important in understanding Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. Pullman has constructed a world that is structurally based on the Western concepts of evil, and yet presents his characters in such a way that they exhibit the traits of the Eastern concept. This juxtaposition of the two leading views about evil provides an interesting and profound commentary on the nature of man and perceptions of the surrounding world.
It is important to understand that Fredericks’ method of examining structure allows for this seemingly incompatible blend of concepts because of structure’s ability to function as a grammar, rather than a codified set of laws that dictate form and content. In fact, Pullman’s text provides an excellent example of this structural grammar as the Western perceptions of evil and the Eastern notions of balance exist in an almost seamless tapestry.
In order to understand how His Dark Materials functions in this dual capacity, it is important to examine the physical world that Pullman creates. Across the trilogy, we have several distinct worlds: Lyra’s England, Will’s England, Cittagazze, and the land of the Mulefa. The most important of these, however, is Lyra’s England as many of the characters come from this land, and are therefore indoctrinated into the cultural concepts and philosophies.
Lyra’s England is similar to the England of our world with only a few important differences. First and foremost, the people have a physical manifestation of their spirit known as a daemon. This daemon takes on an animal aspect that relates specifically to the character of the person. Second, and most important as it relates to the topic, is the fact that in this England’s cultural evolution, there has been no separation of church and state. The church is in firm control of the government and runs the every day affairs of the people.
The importance of the church’s control of the government lies in the fact that all religious texts become the basis for laws and conceptualization of governmental practices. Lyra’s England cannot be ignorant of the Western concepts of good and evil, as their lives have been structured around such beliefs. Also, with the government and church functioning as a single entity there is no rational or moral check and balance, therefore the combined church and state can operate unhindered.
Lyra’s England exists in what their government would consider a fallen state, evil is already present in the world, the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion is indoctrinated into the fabric of the culture, and man is considered an imperfect being. So when it is learned that Lyra is to be faced with the same choice as Eve, there is a strong reaction by the ruling members of the church. Some believe that Lyra must be stopped at all costs, as she will be costing mankind another opportunity to connect with the Creator. Others believe that she will lead them to the next Eden, bringing about reconciliation between the Creator and man. While a third party feels that there is nothing that can be done to stop Lyra, as her destiny is immutable.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the fact that in the face of all the knowledge by the surrounding characters of Lyra’s pending situation, she remains blissfully ignorant, as does Will, Lyra’s partner. Her ignorance fulfills the requirement that Eve be unaware of her choice and the pending consequences of her choice. Lyra believes that she is on a quest to find her friend Roger, while the rest of the world swirls around her, focusing on her impending choice.
Though Pullman has established a distinctly Western framework for the story, his populace is very much a model of Eastern thought. Examining the evidences of both good and evil, we find that there exists a balance in all the characters. In the most general terms, the daemons function as a sort of counterpart to their human companions. They are a manifestation of the spirit, but they are also a balancing component in the lives of their humans. Pullman notes in an interview with Kathleen Odean entitled “The Story Master”:
"If I had a spirit companion, if you'd like to call it [that], I would like to think that it was the opposite sex because there's a completeness about the relationship between [the] two sexes in that way. That's not to say that it can't happen otherwise. Because, I think, at one point, Lyra mentions that occasionally people are born who have daemons of the same sex as themselves. And this is regarded not as being some sort of freakish thing, which they have to be shunned for, but as being a rather unusual gift."
The second indicator of Eastern concepts is the complete lack of an absolutely evil character. The two principle antagonists, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, certainly do exhibit traits that could be considered evil. Mrs. Coulter kidnaps children and performs horrible experiments upon them, yet she is also shown taking care of Lyra as a mother would her child. Similarly, Lord Asriel is in the process of leading a war against the very hosts of heaven. His rebellion, in Western terms, could be viewed in the same light as the rebellion of Satan, challenging the authority of heaven. Yet, in the end, Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are the ones who sacrifice their own lives to throw Metatron into the abyss. Despite all the evil they seem to possess, Asriel and Coulter still possess that balancing force of good that allows them to care for others and in the end sacrifice themselves for the betterment of mankind.
Apart from this duality, there are other indicators - the use of I-Ching divination, the representation of hell as a place other than some fiery inferno of torture, the concept of the spirit returning to the earth in the form of dust, etc. - that point to the presence of Eastern thought in the structures of the story. But, the most glaring example of the presence of this amalgam of thought is contained in the character of Mary Malone, a former nun who has been sent to the land of the Mulefa to await the arrival of Will and Lyra to act the part of the serpent.
Mary, in many ways, represents this amalgam of Eastern and Western thought in this trilogy. Mary is a former nun who is now guided by the Eastern practice of I-Ching, a form of divination through the reading of runes. Mary once operated within the precepts of the church law, a living embodiment of the rules and precepts of the church. However, she realized that she was living a one sided life, a life without balance, and left the church to seek balance within her own life. So here we have one who used to be the physical manifestation of Western thought and belief, seeking an Eastern concept of balance and using the Eastern method of I-Ching divination to achieve that balance.
She explains it all to Will and Lyra in the land of the Mulefa. Lyra asks Mary if she remembers when she stopped being a nun. Mary relates how she was giving a paper in Lisbon and went out with friends to celebrate. She talks about going out and her beginning to “discover another side of [herself]...one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on [her] skin and the beat of music in the background.” (The Amber Spyglass, 442). Mary goes on to talk about how she realized that there was another part of her self that was missing; there was no love to balance her duty.
The talk then turns to the notions of good and evil.
“When I first saw you, in your Oxford,” Lyra said, “You said one of the reasons you became a scientist was that you wouldn’t have to think about good and evil.”
“When you stopped believing in God,” [Will] went on, “did you stop believing in good and evil?”
“No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside of us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.” (The Amber Spyglass, 446-447)
Pullman sums up the nature of the Eastern philosophy with this passage. Will and Lyra find themselves agreeing with Mary’s proclamation, understanding that good and evil are internal forces that manifest themselves through the actions of others. What is complicated about this scenario is the fact that Pullman has situated this story in a society that believes firmly in the Western concept of good and evil, and therefore operate out of that knowledge.
Interestingly enough, by presenting the story in such a structural framework, the readers are forced into operating within the same Western concepts as the characters. This forced operation arises because of a familiarity generated by the recurrent presence of this structure in Western Literature. Therefore, despite Mary’s proclamation that good and evil exist internally and not externally, the impending moment of Lyra’s choice hangs palpable in the minds of the readers.
Pullman plays heavily upon the preconceived notions of the reader and the certain expectations brought to the text. Pullman reinforces the Western notions about the introduction of evil by presenting the aforementioned views to his readers. The potential for the situation of Lyra’s temptation and the actuality of that temptation are two very different things.
Lyra and Will, after listening to Mary’s story the night before, travel off into the woods for a picnic.
Will and Lyra followed the stream into the wood, walking carefully, saying little, until they were in the very center.
There was a little clearing in the middle of the grove, which was floored with soft grass and moss-covered rocks. The branches laced across overhead, almost shutting out the sky and letting through little moving spangles and sequins of sunlight, so that everything was dappled with gold and silver.
...Lyra took one of those little red fruits. With a fast-beating heart, she turned to him and said, “Will...”
And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth. (The Amber Spyglass, 465)
Pullman has presented a moment from the Eden myth, the verdant surroundings, the use of the red fruit, the offering of that fruit to Will by Lyra. Each of these details resonates with the original myth, recalling in the mind of the reader the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.
This scenario has another parallel as well, the offering of marzipan to Mary Malone on the night she left the church. That story, the one of Mary rediscovering love, is the one that the children are remembering, not the story of Adam and Eve.
She could see from his eyes that he knew at once what she meant, and that he was too joyful to speak. Her fingers were still at his lips, and he felt them tremble, and he put his own hand up to hold hers there, and then neither of them could look; they were confused; they were brimming with happiness.
Like two moths clumsily bumping together, with no more weight than that, their lips touched. Then before they knew how it happened, they were clinging together, blindly pressing their faces toward each other.(The Amber Spyglass, 465-466)
This is the long awaited moment of Lyra repeating Eve’s choice, the tempter has played her part, the fruit has been exchanged, and now is time for the transgression. However, Pullman does not have the children discovering shame or their nakedness or even that there is good and evil in the world, rather Will and Lyra discover love.
“...I love you, Will, I love you-“
The word love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit. (The Amber Spyglass, 466)
The discovery of love by Will and Lyra seems somewhat anti-climactic, particularly when viewed in light of those who would kill Lyra to prevent her from repeating the transgression of Eve. Yet Lyra is guilty of nothing more than discovering her first love and experiencing that love. Pullman has taken the negative expectations of other characters and turned the actuality of the act into something that is not only viewed as natural, but also good. Lyra is not participating in some vile rebirth of evil into the world. She is falling in love.
This hooks back into Fredericks’ notion of the use of mythic structures by an author on a continuum of reinforcement and negation. Pullman has decided to take the Western concept of the introduction of evil, structure his story around these concepts, and then explode the expectations generated by this structure by not presenting the emergence of evil, but rather the discovery of love. Pullman is stating rather clearly that Adam plus Eve plus temptation does not equal sin/evil, rather it equals self-knowledge and with that self-knowledge comes the ability to love.
Pullman presents familiar structural components, the man and woman pair of Lyra and Will, Mary Malone as the tempter, the paradise that is the land of the Mulefa, each an indicator that he is operating in the framework of the Western concept of the introduction of evil. Pullman has added to this framework the operating sense of balance from Eastern philosophy, thereby creating a unique, yet familiar structural system for his text. Pullman’s manipulation of these structures in this fashion represents how mythic structure, functioning as a grammar rather than a template, can be used to create original modern fiction out of familiar concepts of the past.
Myth provides a rich and vibrant generative mechanism for creating new fiction. Casey Fredericks has provided a mode of examining literature and myth that will benefit both critic and author alike. As authors access the traditions of myth and begin to understand their functional uses outside of the traditional narrative, then we will begin to see more fiction like Pullman’s His Dark Materials appear. The key to understanding the function of the mythic structure lies in our ability to stay above the paradigmatic constraints presented by the template model, and focusing on the potential provided by a grammatical system of langue and parole.
Works CitedBack to Interpretations of His Dark Materials
Brooke-Rose, Christine. The Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure,
Especially of the Fantastic. New York. Cambridge University Press. 1981.
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A Structural Study on the Emergence of Evil in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
by Matthew Uselton
Posted with the author's permission.
Last modified on June 14th, 2002.