Bizarre Soulmates: The Magic of 'His Dark Materials'
Bizarre Soulmates: The Magic of 'His Dark Materials'
Julie Powell was born and raised in Austin, Texas, where she first fell in love with cooking — and her husband, Eric. She is the author of a cooking memoir, Julie & Julia, which was released last year. Her writing has appeared in Bon Appétit, The New York Times, House Beautiful, and Archaeology Magazine, among others. She lives in Long Island City, Queens.
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
I have a friend who defines puberty as the period between the moment you figure out just what it is you want and the moment when your body, your parents, or the law will actually permit you to do it. How were we to fill up all that time until we got there? My friend turned to David Bowie and the Clash; I read fantasy novels.
Most fantasy books for young adults are shabby, formulaic affairs, but that didn't matter. Reaching that last page and swimming back up into reality, where the light was too bright but the colors somehow not bright enough, was a heady, frankly erotic feeling. If I'd smoked when I was 12, I'd have lit a cigarette.
I rarely read that way anymore, just as my friend rarely reaches seismic ecstasy with just some earphones and the first Pretenders album. But every now and then, I crave a hit of that adolescent intensity. When I do, I go to Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. It doesn't matter that I didn't read these books until I was out of college. They suck me under and spit me out, feeling as drained and fulfilled as a hormone-crazed bookworm half my age.
Pullman has created a baffling, sometimes frightening world of warrior polar bears and cowboys in dirigibles, creatures with elephant trunks and wheels for feet. But his greatest invention is the daemon. In His Dark Materials, daemons are essentially your soul embodied, an animal familiar that everyone possesses and cannot live without. Women have male daemons, men have female ones; they are your friends, your protectors, your co-conspirators -- truly, your soulmates. In childhood, the daemon changes forms easily; moth to cat to lizard, whatever serves the mischief of the moment. It's not so different than growing your hair long and joining a rock band at fifteen; Lyra, the young protagonist of His Dark Materials, stretches her wings and sharpens her claws alongside her daemon, Pan, in order to start figuring out who she is. Gradually, though, the daemon susses out what his true form is going to be, once his human reaches adulthood. Lyra meets a sailor who took up his vocation, despite a tendency toward seasickness, because his daemon took the form of a dolphin. The man must follow where his soul leads, even if he takes not quite the joy he once did in her spinning leaps through the water into the light.
This is why His Dark Materials is magic. What pulls me in and leaves me gasping is not the fantasy, but the reality -- of the dizzying submersions of adolescence, and the heartbreak of setting them aside. Let my friend have his punk rock odes to rebellion; Pullman's daemons are what remind me what I was like, when everything in the world was still waiting to be done.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.
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Excerpt: 'The Golden Compass'
Chapter One: The Decanter of Tokay
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.
Lyra stopped beside the Master's chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the hall.
"You're not taking this seriously," whispered her dæmon. "Behave yourself."
Her dæmon's name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.
"They're making too much noise to hear from the kitchen," Lyra whispered back. "And the Steward doesn't come in till the first bell. Stop fussing."
But she put her palm over the ringing crystal anyway, and Pantalaimon fluttered ahead and through the slightly open door of the Retiring Room at the other end of the dais. After a moment he appeared again.
"There's no one there," he whispered. "But we must be quick."
Crouching behind the high table, Lyra darted along and through the door into the Retiring Room, where she stood up and looked around. The only light in here came from the fireplace, where a bright blaze of logs settled slightly as she looked, sending a fountain of sparks up into the chimney. She had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females. Even the maid-servants didn't clean in here. That was the Butler's job alone.
Pantalaimon settled on her shoulder.
"Happy now? Can we go?" he whispered.
"Don't be silly! I want to look around!"
It was a large room, with an oval table of polished rosewood on which stood various decanters and glasses, and a silver smoking stand with a rack of pipes. On a sideboard nearby there was a little chafing dish and a basket of poppy heads.
"They do themselves well, don't they, Pan?" she said under her breath.
She sat in one of the green leather armchairs. It was so deep she found herself nearly lying down, but she sat up again and tucked her legs under her to look at the portraits on the walls. More old Scholars, probably; robed, bearded, and gloomy, they stared out of their frames in solemn disapproval.
"What d'you think they talk about?" Lyra said, or began to say, because before she'd finished the question she heard voices outside the door.
"Behind the chair - quick!" whispered Pantalaimon, and in a flash Lyra was out of the armchair and crouching behind it. It wasn't the best one for hiding behind: she'd chosen one in the very center of the room, and unless she kept very quiet...
The door opened, and the light changed in the room; one of the incomers was carrying a lamp, which he put down on the sideboard. Lyra could see his legs, in their dark green trousers and shiny black shoes. It was a servant.
Then a deep voice said, "Has Lord Asriel arrived yet?"
It was the Master. As Lyra held her breath, she saw the servant's dæmon (a dog, like all servants' dæmons) trot in and sit quietly at his feet, and then the Master's feet became visible too, in the shabby black shoes he always wore.
"No, Master," said the Butler. "No word from the aerodock, either."
"I expect he'll be hungry when he arrives. Show him straight into Hall, will you?"
"Very good, Master."
"And you've decanted some of the special Tokay for him?"
"Yes, Master. The 1898, as you ordered. His Lordship is very partial to that, I remember."
"Good. Now leave me, please."
"Do you need the lamp, Master?"
"Yes, leave that too. Look in during dinner to trim it, will you?"
The Butler bowed slightly and turned to leave, his dæmon trotting obediently after him. From her not-much-of-a-hiding place Lyra watched as the Master went to a large oak wardrobe in the corner of the room, took his gown from a hanger, and pulled it laboriously on. The Master had been a powerful man, but he was well over seventy now, and his movements were stiff and slow. The Master's dæmon had the form of a raven, and as soon as his robe was on, she jumped down from the wardrobe and settled in her accustomed place on his right shoulder.
Lyra could feel Pantalaimon bristling with anxiety, though he made no sound. For herself, she was pleasantly excited. The visitor mentioned by the Master, Lord Asriel, was her uncle, a man whom she admired and feared greatly. He was said to be involved in high politics, in secret exploration, in distant warfare, and she never knew when he was going to appear. He was fierce: if he caught her in here she'd be severely punished, but she could put up with that.
What she saw next, however, changed things completely.
The Master took from his pocket a folded paper and laid it on the table beside the wine. He took the stopper out of the mouth of a decanter containing a rich golden wine, unfolded the paper, and poured a thin stream of white powder into the decanter before crumpling the paper and throwing it into the fire. Then he took a pencil from his pocket, stirred the wine until the powder had dissolved, and replaced the stopper.
His dæmon gave a soft brief squawk. The Master replied in an undertone, and looked around with his hooded, clouded eyes before leaving through the door he'd come in by.
Lyra whispered, "Did you see that, Pan?"
"Of course I did! Now hurry out, before the Steward comes!"
But as he spoke, there came the sound of a bell ringing once from the far end of the hall.
"That's the Steward's bell!" said Lyra. "I thought we had more time than that."
Pantalaimon fluttered swiftly to the hall door, and swiftly back.
"The Steward's there already," he said. "And you can't get out of the other door..."
The other door, the one the Master had entered and left by, opened onto the busy corridor between the library and the Scholars' common room. At this time of day it was thronged with men pulling on their gowns for dinner, or hurrying to leave papers or briefcases in the common room before moving into the hall. Lyra had planned to leave the way she'd come, banking on another few minutes before the Steward's bell rang.
And if she hadn't seen the Master tipping that powder into the wine, she might have risked the Steward's anger, or hoped to avoid being noticed in the busy corridor. But she was confused, and that made her hesitate.
Then she heard heavy footsteps on the dais. The Steward was coming to make sure the Retiring Room was ready for the Scholars' poppy and wine after dinner. Lyra darted to the oak wardrobe, opened it, and hid inside, pulling the door shut just as the Steward entered. She had no fear for Pantalaimon: the room was somber colored, and he could always creep under a chair.
She heard the Steward's heavy wheezing, and through the crack where the door hadn't quite shut she saw him adjust the pipes in the rack by the smoking stand and cast a glance over the decanters and glasses. Then he smoothed the hair over his ears with both palms and said something to his dæmon. He was a servant, so she was a dog; but a superior servant, so a superior dog. In fact, she had the form of a red setter. The dæmon seemed suspicious, and cast around as if she'd sensed an intruder, but didn't make for the wardrobe, to Lyra's intense relief. Lyra was afraid of the Steward, who had twice beaten her.
Lyra heard a tiny whisper; obviously Pantalaimon had squeezed in beside her.
"We're going to have to stay here now. Why don't you listen to me?"
She didn't reply until the Steward had left. It was his job to supervise the waiting at the high table; she could hear the Scholars coming into the hall, the murmur of voices, the shuffle of feet.
"It's a good thing I didn't," she whispered back. "We wouldn't have seen the Master put poison in the wine otherwise. Pan, that was the Tokay he asked the Butler about! They're going to kill Lord Asriel!"
"You don't know it's poison."
"Oh, of course it is. Don't you remember, he made the Butler leave the room before he did it? If it was innocent, it wouldn't have mattered the Butler seeing. And I know there's something going on--something political. The servants have been talking about it for days. Pan, we could prevent a murder!"
"I've never heard such nonsense," he said shortly. "How do you think you're going to keep still for four hours in this poky wardrobe? Let me go and look in the corridor. I'll tell you when it's clear."
He fluttered from her shoulder, and she saw his little shadow appear in the crack of light.
"It's no good, Pan, I'm staying," she said. "There's another robe or something here. I'll put that on the floor and make myself comfortable. I've just got to see what they do."
She had been crouching. She carefully stood up, feeling around for the clothes hangers in order not to make a noise, and found that the wardrobe was bigger than she'd thought. There were several academic robes and hoods, some with fur around them, most faced with silk.
"I wonder if these are all the Master's?" she whispered. "When he gets honorary degrees from other places, perhaps they give him fancy robes and he keeps them here for dressing-up....Pan, do you really think it's not poison in that wine?"
"No," he said. "I think it is, like you do. And I think it's none of our business. And I think it would be the silliest thing you've ever done in a lifetime of silly things to interfere. It's nothing to do with us."
"Don't be stupid," Lyra said. "I can't sit in here and watch them give him poison!"
"Come somewhere else, then."
"You're a coward, Pan."
"Certainly I am. May I ask what you intend to do? Are you going to leap out and snatch the glass from his trembling
fingers? What did you have in mind?"
"I didn't have anything in mind, and well you know it," she snapped quietly. "But now I've seen what the Master did, I haven't got any choice. You're supposed to know about conscience, aren't you? How can I just go and sit in the library or somewhere and twiddle my thumbs, knowing what's going to happen? I don't intend to do that, I promise you."
"This is what you wanted all the time," he said after a moment. "You wanted to hide in here and watch. Why didn't I realize that before?"
"All right, I do," she said. "Everyone knows they get up to something secret. They have a ritual or something. And I just wanted to know what it was."
"It's none of your business! If they want to enjoy their little secrets you should just feel superior and let them get on with it. Hiding and spying is for silly children."
"Exactly what I knew you'd say. Now stop nagging."
The two of them sat in silence for a while, Lyra uncomfortable on the hard floor of the wardrobe and Pantalaimon self-righteously twitching his temporary antennae on one of the robes. Lyra felt a mixture of thoughts contending in her head, and she would have liked nothing better than to share them with her dæmon, but she was proud too. Perhaps she should try to clear them up without his help.
Her main thought was anxiety, and it wasn't for herself. She'd been in trouble often enough to be used to it. This time she was anxious about Lord Asriel, and about what this all meant. It wasn't often that he visited the college, and the fact that this was a time of high political tension meant that he hadn't come simply to eat and drink and smoke with a few old friends. She knew that both Lord Asriel and the Master were members of the Cabinet Council, the Prime Minister's special advisory body, so it might have been something to do with that; but meetings of the Cabinet Council were held in the palace, not in the Retiring Room of Jordan College.
Then there was the rumor that had been keeping the College servants whispering for days. It was said that the Tartars had invaded Muscovy, and were surging north to St. Petersburg, from where they would be able to dominate the Baltic Sea and eventually overcome the entire west of Europe. And Lord Asriel had been in the far North: when she'd seen him last, he was preparing an expedition to Lapland....
"Pan," she whispered.
"Do you think there'll be a war?"
"Not yet. Lord Asriel wouldn't be dining here if it was going to break out in the next week or so."
"That's what I thought. But later?"
"Shh! Someone's coming."
Excerpt from His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.