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Pullman's matter: Lucretius and Milton in His Dark Materials.

The physical world is our home, this is where we live, we're not creatures from somewhere else or in exile. This is our home and we have to make our homes here and understand that we are physical too, we are material creatures, we are born and we will die.

--Philip Pullman, "Faith and Fantasy"

IT IS A COMMONPLACE THAT PHILIP PULLMAN'S HIS DARK MATERIALS TRILOGY reworks Paradise Lost: the third volume especially rewrites the fall of Adam and Eve as a moment of salvation for the universe. Few critics, however, have remarked how Pullman's epic looks back beyond Milton to one of his sources in Lucretius's de rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. (1) What Lucretius, Milton, and Pullman share, in very different ways, is a common materialism, a denial that one can divorce spirit from matter. Each writer conceives of matter differently, but in all of them it appears a source of profound goodness--indeed in Milton (and mutatis mutandis in Pullman) it becomes God's body. Further, in celebrating matter, each attempts to face death and to dispel its terror. Pullman's relation to the two writers differs profoundly: he did not know Lucretius's poem when he wrote his book, (2) while in its third volume he plays almost constantly with Paradise Lost. Yet as Milton rewrites and corrects Lucretius, Pullman rewrites and corrects Milton, and in doing so, he looks back to the vision that Lucretius put forth.

Pullman's materialism illuminates the long account of Will and Lyra's journey to the realm of the dead, to find and free Lyra's friend Roger. It isn't immediately clear why Pullman should spend so much time on this episode, which is not closely connected with the rest of the book. In the middle of the journey, the Church, which has been attempting to prevent Lyra from becoming a new Eve, tries to kill her with a bomb, but that attempt could happen elsewhere, and the climactic battle between the Church and Lyra's father Lord Asriel is hardly affected by what happens belowground, nor is Lyra's world-changing regenerative "fall." The episode does reemphasize the epic dimension of the trilogy: like Aeneas, Will goes underground to see life from the vantage of death, to meet his father, and to learn what he must do. But I will argue for the centrality of the episode to Pullman's materialist vision. In concerning itself with death, it focuses on the matter that makes up all living beings, and illuminates the central myth of the work.

Like the poems by Lucretius and Milton, His Dark Materials is an ambitious piece of mythmaking, an attempt to give an account through story of the nature of the world. The mythmaking is conscious, coherent and largely original, although in the way of epics it borrows from and revises myths found in earlier works. Much of the criticism of Pullman has not taken seriously the radical strangeness and the seriousness of his materialist project, (3) perhaps because of the notoriety of his atheism. Like the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis, which Pullman has famously condemned, His Dark Materials hijacks the parable form of children's literature to create an account of how and why we are all here. One traditional function of epic (central to Paradise Lost) is theodicy--the defense of divine justice. Like Lucretius's poem, His Dark Materials substitutes for theodicy a defense of life lived fully in the material world.

I. Lucretius and Milton on Matter

Lucretius, the major Latin writer to bring Epicurean philosophy to Rome, wrote the De Rerum Natura in the troubled decade between 65 and 55 BC, during which the Roman republic was deep in the disorders that would eventually transform it into the empire of Augustus Caesar. Given the uncertainty of everyday life, Lucretius's epic attempts to give his Roman hearers a way of dealing with a violent and fearful reality by cultivating the calm detachment that Epicurus calls ataraxia. Lucretius's poem attempts to free the reader from fear--the fear that will distort the living of a good life. Lucretius focuses on the fear of the gods and the fear of death--the superstitions that make men see the heavens as threatening, and the afterlife as a place of potential torment. These terrors destroy the equanimity that Epicurus sees as the essential for a happy existence. To realize both the transience and the goodness of this life, and to face its eventual ending calmly, is necessary to a fully human life. (4)

Lucretius's poem is not a narrative but an explanation, an attempt to clarify for the reader the nature of things--how they came into being and will end, and how particular phenomena that Roman culture associates with divinities (dreams and hallucinations, thunderstorms and earthquakes) are merely the explicable effects of the material cosmos. (5) Many of Lucretius's explanations are ad hoc, and he will often give multiple explanations for an event like a lightning strike, because the poem is not really concerned with science in our modern sense--with an attempt to understand the world either in the hope of controlling it or as an end in itself. (6) Rather, it tries to show that theological explanations are not necessary: one can understand the mysteries of the world with unaided human reason. Rather than controlling external reality, knowledge calms the mind.

Lucretius insists, most fundamentally, that the world consists entirely of matter and void--individual atoms far below the threshold of sight, and void in which they can move (I.149-263; 329-69). All phenomena that we see are congeries of atoms: the different sizes, shapes and placement of atoms determine what we can see and feel and the way in which we think: souls, for instance, consist of highly rarified atoms (III.161-287). The universe is infinite, and out of the literally countless possibilities of atoms joining, one chance set of combinations has resulted in our own world. This world is governed by the laws that Lucretius calls "Nature," and he insists repeatedly on their rationality and regularity: the system has no room for god-driven events. Instead it offers the certainty that life is itself good, and the equal certainty that everything now existing--whether the individual life, the civilization, the gods or the world itself--will pass away, to merge in some new configuration of atoms. We need not fear death, says Epicurus, because when we die we will feel no pain or grief. This comfort may seem cold to many of us, but it is in line with the Epicurean attempt to cultivate in the reader a mature equanimity that appreciates the world's goodness while acknowledging its transience.

Milton's response to Lucretius is profound and ambivalent. (7) He could not, of course, accept the Roman poet's practical atheism (while Lucretius does allow the existence of gods, he insists that they are beings uninterested in mortals and hence in no need of either prayer or propitiation) or his denial of the afterlife. But Milton was also a monist, a thinker who imagined a material substratum to all things. (8) Chaos itself, from which the universe is created, seems to be the body--on one account, the womb--of God: instead of creating the world ex nihilo, he speaks of retiring himself from chaos in order to act upon it (PL VII.170). (9) From this fundamental principle it follows that that all things implicitly partake of God, simply by virtue of having bodies. Yet there is a hierarchy of matter as it moves upward, becoming more rarified, more purely spiritual. In Book V, the Archangel Raphael suggests to Adam that, all things proceed from God and return to Him, given "various degrees/Of substance" (PL V.473-74; my italics). Raphael insists that God's creatures are
   more refin'd, more spirituous, and pure,
   As nearer to him plac't, or nearer tending
   Each in thir several active Spheres assignd,
   Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
   Proportioned to each kind. (PL V.473-79)


In other words, matter becomes more spiritual by becoming more rarified, and Raphael suggests that if Adam continues to do God's bidding his body will eventually "turn all to spirit" (PL V.497). By contrast, the angels who revolt from God in Book VI find that their material substance becomes less refined, thicker and less flexible, "gross by sinning" (PL VI.661).

Angels differ from human beings in having bodies composed of more rarified matter. (10) When in Book VIII Adam asks the archangel Raphael whether angels make love, Raphael blushes rosy red and replies:
   Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
   (And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
   In eminence, and obstacle find none
   Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars;
   Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace,
   Total they mix, union of pure with pure
   Desiring, nor restrained conveyance need
   As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul. (VIII.632-39)


The passage emphasizes the purity of love-making (the word and its cognates repeat four times): in their pure, physical loving Adam and Eve resemble the angels. But in angels, the thinness of their matter makes it possible for angelic lovers to achieve a complete intermingling with the beloved that is impossible for human beings.

Since matter is grounded in divinity, flesh partakes of God's goodness, and this makes for a repeated motif in Milton's poetry--a moment in which the corrupted will of a fallen angel is resisted by an instinctive bodily impulse toward the good. On seeing Eve, Satan momentarily halts in his attempt to seduce her:
   That space, the evil one abstracted stood
   From his own evil, and for the time remain'd
   Stupidly good, of enmity disarm'd,
   Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge. (IX.463-66)


Satan's response to Eve's God-given beauty is a kind of stunned paralysis, the Latinate sense of stupidly: his bodily impulse to wonder and even to love momentarily overcomes his will to evil, leaving him abstracted, separated from his own intent to harm.

II. The Matter of Pullman's Angels

Lucretius's matter is neither good nor bad. Atoms make up the building blocks of everything in the universe and hence of all that is good in it and all that is catastrophic. On balance the poem gives a sense of the world's goodness--the pleasures of life outweigh its horrors--but its constituent atoms themselves remain mere existential facts, without moral or emotional coloring. Milton's matter, on the other hand, is essentially good, an aspect of God Himself: it is the perverted will that turns it to bad uses. In presenting matter as good, Pullman follows Milton. While he denies Milton's theology, he retains his sense of the goodness of matter--to the point that matter itself tends to occupy the position that God occupies in Paradise Lost. And if matter is the source of all the world's goodness, its ethical opposite is the void. The opposition of matter and void appears, of course, in Lucretius, but where in the Roman poet matter and void stand as the neutral principles from which the world emerges, in Pullman matter and void become the contraries of good and evil. (In this context Pullman is, unlike Milton, a kind of Manichean, positing strife between opposite principles in the world.)

Matter is most fully embodied in the Dust about which the battles of the epic rage, because in Dust matter becomes conscious. The angel Balthamos says, "Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust and the Authority was the first of all" (AS 28). The passage looks back to Satan's account of his own coming to consciousness in Book V of Paradise Lost. There he insists that the angels have created themselves--"self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power" (PL V.800-01). The faithful angel Abdiel scorns the claim as a sophism, but in Pullman this is precisely what happens. Pullman follows Lucretius in insisting that the world's creation happens without a God: in Lucretius's case it is made possible by the swerve in atomic motion that enables subsequent connections and groupings of atoms--a swerve that Lucretius argues makes free will possible (II.251-93)--but in Pullman it occurs though love and curiosity. Consciousness becomes a precipitate of the inherent goodness of matter--matter raised to a new power. When Mary Malone first speaks with the Dust through her computer, it tells her: "from what we are, matter; from what we do, spirit. Matter and spirit are one" (SK 221). (11) In other words, the difference between matter and spirit is simply the angle from which we see them.

If the epitome of matter is Dust, the epitome of the void is what Pullman calls the abyss. In Lucretius, atoms need the void to move freely, and in Milton "the abyss" is chaos, a potentially fruitful if unorganized soup of warring materials, "the Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave" (PL II.910). In Pullman, however, it becomes an embodiment of everything that would destroy the freedom and curiosity associated with consciousness. The specters, emissaries of the abyss, feed on the capacity for attention and curiosity in individuals, just as the abyss itself swallows Dust wholesale. (12) Without consciousness the universe will lose the capacity for freedom necessary for human existence. The witch Serafina says that without Dust "the universes will become nothing more than interlocking machines, blind and empty of thought, feeling, life" (GC 272), the cosmic equivalent of a zombie. (The repressive forces of the Church create zombies when its followers destroy adult daemons.)

This opposition of matter and void necessarily revises Milton's hierarchy of matter and spirit. For Milton, as we have seen, material thinness is an advantage: the refinement of matter corresponds to a strengthening of spirit. For Pullman, on the contrary, the thinness of angelic bodies is a disadvantage because it lessens one's participation in the material cosmos. With the exception of the angel Metatron, who was Enoch, the prophet who never died but rose to heaven in the flesh, angels have bodies thinner and hence weaker than those of corporeal creatures, less able to participate in material reality. Lord Asriel says to his second-in-command, shaking his arm violently, "They haven't got this ... They haven't got flesh" and goes on: "Few as we are ... and short-lived as we are, and weak-sighted as we are--in comparison with them, we're still stronger. They envy us, Ogunwe! That's what fuels their hatred, I'm sure of it. They long to have our precious bodies, so solid and powerful, so well-adapted to the good earth" (AS 337). In seducing Metatron, Mrs. Coulter "trusted to her flesh, and to the strange truth she had learned about angels, perhaps especially those angels who had once been human. Lacking flesh they coveted it, and longed for contact with it" (AS 357).

While Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter may be biased witnesses, much other evidence suggests that, while Pullman's angels live longer than human beings, they are weaker, and envy human beings their more substantial matter. When Will, Lyra, and Mary discuss the tripartite makeup of the human being, Will interjects: "But the best part is body ... That's what Baruch and Balthamos told me. Angels wish they had bodies. They told me angels can't understand why we don't enjoy the world more. It would be a sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and senses" (AS 392). This use of "ecstasy" typifies Pullman's characteristic inversion of traditional religious categories. Ecstasy is etymologically a standing-outside the body, leaving it to approach God. But in Pullman's universe, true ecstasy is immanence, being fully part of the sensuous physical world. (13) The witch Serafina feels compassion for the angels. "How much they must miss," she thinks, "never to feel the earth beneath their feet, or the wind in their hair, or the tingle of starlight on their bare skin! And she snapped a little twig off the pine branch she flew with, and sniffed the sharp resin smell with greedy pleasure, before flying slowly down to join the sleepers on the grass" (SK 245). The witches, with their joy in the sensuous present, only emphasize a characteristic of the epic as a whole, a valorization of the life in the body--and hence of matter itself.

III. The Matter of Death

Pullman's treatment of death looks back to Milton and, behind him, to Lucretius. Milton's epic tries to understand the act that brought "Death into the World, and all our woe" (PL I.3) but the terms in which he works look ultimately toward the spirit's afterlife with God. By contrast Lucretius insists on the absence of an afterlife: when we die, we die, and our atoms are redistributed to become the basis of new bodies. Pullman's epic develops its own version of a Lucretian account of death when Will and Lyra journey to the underworld.

The crucial fact about Pullman's underworld is that its ghosts are material, just as the angels are. When Will cuts an exit from the underworld into the world of the living, the first of the dead to escape is Lyra's friend Roger.
   He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and
   laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the
   starlight, the air ... and then he was gone, leaving behind such a
   vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the
   bubbles in a glass of champagne. (AS 325)


As Roger vanishes he becomes something else, turning into night, starlight, air. In a much-quoted passage, Lyra has already told the assembled ghosts how this will happen.
   When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will
   loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you've seen
   people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons
   aren't just nothing now: they're part of everything. All the atoms
   that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the
   trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never
   vanish. They're just part of everything. (AS 286)


Ghosts are not simply spirit, shades. Like living beings and like everything else in the universe, they are composed of particles. When the body dies, almost all its particles rejoin the rest of the universe--all but those making up the ghosts, which remain in the underworld, as close to emptiness as conscious beings can get. When they come close to Lyra and Will, Pullman emphasizes the feebleness of their whispering voices and the vacuousness of their bodies.
   They had as much substance as fog, poor things, and Lyra's hands
   passed through and through them, as did Will's. They crammed
   forward, light and lifeless, to warm themselves at the flowing
   blood and the strong-beating hearts of the two travelers, and both
   Will and Lyra felt a succession of cold, delicate brushing
   sensations, as the ghosts passed through their bodies, swarming
   themselves on the way. (AS 265)


The passage recalls the famous moments from the Odyssey and the Aeneid in which a mortal being attempts vainly to embrace a shade. Here, however, Pullman emphasizes the "cold, delicate brushing sensations" of the contact. However thin, the ghosts remains material and desperate for the flowing blood of the living human beings. (14) And after repeated contact, Lyra and Will find themselves growing colder: their material bodies have a limited amount of warmth and life and take the place of Odysseus's sacrificed animals. Their life-energy is being siphoned off in infinitesimal sips.

The thinness of the matter comes with a gradual attenuation and eventual erasure of everything that the ghosts have experienced. As the children move with the dead toward the underworld, they notice the landscape changing and Lady Salmakia says: "We think the landscape is fading because these people are forgetting it. The further they go away from their homes, the darker it will get." As one leaves the vital world, the world of action, behind, specificity fades. "The edges of things were losing their definition as well, and becoming blurred ... The color was slowly seeping out of the world" (AS 222). When the travellers arrive at the suburbs of the underworld, where the living wait to die, it is composed of grimy leftovers, "like a rubbish dump. The air was heavy and full of smoke, and of other smells besides: acrid chemicals, decaying vegetable matter, sewage" (AS 225). In death the body, like everything else, becomes waste.

The camp outside the river Styx is a holding pen outside a larger holding pen. If this strange antechamber has its origins in the passages of the Aeneid depicting the threshold of the underworld, it differs radically from it. There we find an assemblage of allegorical figures, but the inhabitants of Pullman's antechamber seem in most ways quite familiar. The dominant impression of the place its second-handness: the houses are temporary, jerry-built structures, whose "plywood walls were decorated with pictures cut from film-star magazines, and with a pattern made with fingerprints of soot ... On a dressing table there was a shrine of plastic flowers, seashells, colored scent bottles and other gaudy bits and pieces" (AS 231). Except for an absence of vitality, nothing much distinguishes the inhabitants of these holding pens from those of ordinary living beings of the kind that might populate the Victorian slums of Pullman's earlier books. They are kindly, generous and resigned. "We're like you," one man says, "we come here before we was dead by some chance or accident. We got to wait until our death tells us it's time" (AS 232). They recall those by "chance or accident" lying half-conscious in a hospital bed, awaiting death.

The figures identified as the inhabitants' Deaths, who wait to escort their charges across the river Styx, differ strikingly from the traditional fearsome figure. They are friendly, quiet, polite and helpful, rather like the inhabitants themselves. The Deaths spare you suffering. One character remarks that "in the middle of your pain and travail, your death comes to you kindly and says, 'Easy now, easy child, you come along o' me'" (AS 233). When Tialys asks if the inhabitants know when their deaths will come for them their informant simply responds: "No, But you know they're close by, and that's a comfort" (AS 233). This stresses the naturalness of death--it is not only inevitable, but a kind of security. Again Pullman recalls Lucretius: death forms part of the unceasing movement of the universe as configurations of atoms decay and reform, and it offers an escape from the pains of age (Lucretius III.830-939). Lyra's Death, who appears when she almost provokes the Chevelier Tialys to murder her, proves unfailingly helpful and, after some worry about protocol, guides her to Charon's ferry.

The town of those waiting to die develops the meaning of the narrative because it provides a standard according to which death is natural: with time, all things change naturally into rubbish. This suburb thus contrasts strikingly with the underworld proper, which the narrative insists is not natural. The angel Balthamos describes it as a prison camp that the Authority established long ago (AS 29): calling it a prison camp as opposed to a prison stresses that it is not a place, like Dante's inferno, built into the structure of reality. Rather, it is temporary, adventitious. Its inhabitants remain in a state of arrest, unable to rejoin the larger cosmos that waits beyond its caverns.

One pervasive irony of Pullman's underworld is that, while it has been created by a parody of the Christian God, it is overwhelmingly classical in detail. (15) The children cross the river Styx on Charon's boat and when they enter hell the ghosts recall, more than anything else, classical shades. The overseers are harpies, creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of women, who defiled the food of Odysseus and Aeneas. They are hideous monsters, polluting what they touch, but classical writers do not associate them with the underworld. Pullman makes them guardians because of their power to defile. The tortures that they inflict are not physical (the physical violence that No Name does to Lyra is a mistake) but emotional. Lyra's friend Roger says,
   you know what they do? They wait till you're resting--you can't
   never sleep properly, you just sort of doze--and they come up quiet
   beside you and they whisper all the bad things you ever did when
   you was alive, so you can't forget 'em. They know all the worst
   things about you. They know how to make you feel horrible, just
   thinking of all he stupid things and the bad things you ever did.
   And all the greedy and unkind thoughts you ever had, they know 'em
   all, and they shame you up and they make you sick with yourself ...
   But you can't get away from 'em. (AS 275-76)


The thinness of matter in the underworld ensures that there are no more possible deeds: ghosts remain suspended between their former lives and full dissolution that would make them part of new life. And as the ghosts continue in death, they erode, losing more and more of what they were, limiting even the possibility of torment. "It's the new ones they like talking to most" (AS 266), says one ghost, because over the millennia the dead forget what they have done. One ghost is ashamed to have forgotten her name (AS 280) and significantly the harpy to whom the children speak calls herself "No Name."

Traditionally harpies defile food but these harpies defile emotional food--one's sense of personal worth and the value of one's experience. Pullman insists on the metaphor of eating. "The Authority," says No Name, "gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it, and our very hearts are sickened. But still, it was all we had to feed on" (AS 203). The harpies do the work of an over-scrupulous conscience, a punitive superego, and there is no evidence that their voices respond appropriately to actual evil. Instead, they force the dead to relive their worst memories without the hope of doing anything to counterbalance them. Their lives remain, so to speak, frozen at the moment of death as they are cut off from the universe in which their atoms might once again participate.

IV. The Matter of Story

In Lucretius true knowledge of the nature of things frees the soul to enjoy its given time in the world. Paradise Lost, by contrast, sets up a choice between conflicting stories about the nature of things--Satan's and God's. The first view we have of hell occurs through Satan's eyes, and despite the narrator's insistence throughout the opening books on a God's-eye view, the dominant vision of those books is his. (16) Pullman, however, puts storytelling with its attendant interpretation of reality at the center of his epic: the story of the fall appears in three different versions, each of which insists with a Lucretian vehemence on different aspects of the same truth--that the fall is a source of genuine wisdom, and the gaining of knowledge "an act of virtue" (Pullman, Introduction 10). (17)

This stress on perception appears in a small, densely written encounter. When Lyra sets off to lead the dead out of the underworld a group of ascetic Christians refuse to follow her. One, "thin and pale with dark, zealous eyes," warns the others:
   This is not a child. This is an agent of the Evil One himself. The
   world we lived in was a vale of corruption and tears. Nothing there
   could satisfy us. But the Almighty has granted us this blessed
   place for all eternity, this paradise which to the fallen soul
   seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is,
   overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns
   of the angels. This is heaven, truly. (AS 287)


The narrative gives us unimpeachable evidence that the underworld does not overflow with milk and honey--that the ghost, desperate to find his reward for a life lived by Christian rules, here insists on a willed blindness to his actual circumstances. (18)

The passage rewrites a brilliant moment in Lewis's The Last Battle, a book Pullman is on record as loathing ("Darkside"). In the novel the hero, Prince Tirian, and his allies are condemned and thrown into a dark stable, to be destroyed by the evil god Tash. But instead of death they experience a revelation: the interior is not a dark hole but a paradisal landscape larger than the stable enclosing it. Nevertheless a group of surly dwarves, who have been thrust in with them, refuse to see the glory that surrounds them. They will not be taken in, and can see nothing more than the darkness that they have anticipated. The eyes of their imaginations remain shut and nothing will open them: this is Lewis's Dantean judgment on their impoverished vision of the universe. Pullman reverses the judgment: it is the Christians who refuse to see the joyless underworld surrounding them.

Storytelling is at the heart of the underworld chapters, because it is through stories that we make sense of the world, and it will be by telling stories that the dead will secure release into the universe. (19) From the beginning of the work Lyra has been a master storyteller, lying continually in order to gain her way, and lying sometimes simply for the sheer joy of it. Lies have served her well. Yet as she approaches the underworld, Pullman's treatment of her lying shifts. When, in the suburb, she makes herself the orphan daughter of a murdered Duke and Will a child suckled by guardian wolves, the narrator comments: "The people ate up this nonsense with placid credulity, and even the deaths crowded close to listen, perching on the bench or lying on the floor close by, gazing at her with their mild and courteous faces as she spun out the tale of her life with Will in the forest" (AS 234). The negative stress of "this nonsense" comes as a shock after two and a half volumes in which Lyra's storytelling appears as a central aspect of her creative energy, as natural to her as the decisiveness with which she undertakes to do what she feels she must. And the emphasis on its being nonsense is intensified in the following scene when she attempts to tell a version of the same story to the harpies. They attack her, crying out "in rage and hatred, 'Liar! Liar! Liar!' And it sounded as if her voice was coming from everywhere, and the word echoes back from the great wall in the fog, muffled and changed so that she seemed to be screaming Lyra's name, so that Lyra and liar were one and the same thing" (AS 261). This comes as a terrible shock to her, since it seems to negate the skill by which she has negotiated the world. She says to Will despairingly: "Will--I can't do it anymore--I can't do it! I can't tell lies! I thought it was so easy--but it didn't work--it's all I can do and it doesn't work!" (AS 263).

Will's response is that she can also read the alethiometer, and it is not a chance attribute. For the alethiometer tells truth: it is the golden compass that enables her to communicate with Dust, and to know what is happening and what she should do. It is a way of saying that she has access to truth, and she saves herself shortly after by telling the listening ghosts and harpies true stories--episodes of her actual life. But her life is also a fiction--Pullman's fiction. In an oft-reprinted review of The Amber Spyglass, Michael Chabon takes Pullman to task for what he sees as an inconsistency:
   Like the accounts that Odysseus gives of himself, Lyra's is a
   near-total fabrication, replete with dukes and dutchesses, lost
   fortunes, hair's-breadths escapes, shipwrecks and children suckled
   by wolves, and it's meant to be absurd, "nonsense"; but in fact is
   made out of precisely the same materials, those dark materials of
   lies and adventure, as His Dark Materials. (13)


Chabon goes on to say that "Lies, as Pullman perfectly well knows, tell the truth; but the truth they tell may not be that, or not only that, which the liar intends" (13). Chabon blames this perceived inconsistency on Pullman's anti-Christian crusade, which makes him forget the "secret story" (Chabon 13) that he has to tell--about children betrayed by adults. It is not clear, however, how the polemic against Christianity necessitates this scene which so clearly interrogates the status of fiction. I think that we should allow the possibility that Pullman was aware of the issues he was raising and that he is discriminating between kinds of fantasy in the materialist context of the novel.

Fictions tell truths: they are a way of understanding the world, albeit through events that never took place. For Blake, another of Pullman's touchstones, "Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth" (Blake 36). And so Lyra has been able to create imagined stories of her own throughout the novel--and to read the alethiometer. But in the underworld, fiction must undergo a peculiarly grueling test. In the upper world Lyra's stories can pretend to a more glamorous life than the one she has, and can manipulate people and events, but in the underworld there is no more possibility of pretending or manipulation: life with its possibilities is over. Hell has no place for fiction: it knows only what has happened. If the underworld is empty, something more substantial than Lyra's accounts of murdered dukes and guardian wolves must fill it up.

From the point of view of the dead, all that matters is how one has lived: that is why the vicious commentary of the harpies so torments the ghosts. Lyra's storytelling eventually creates real imaginative food when, in response to the longing of the dead, she describes her actual life and the battle between the children of the town and the children of the clay pits, and here her imagination has something richer to work on. Pullman here distinguishes between his own vital fantasy that deals, in its metaphorical way, with what is emotionally and experientially real, regardless of its fictional mode, and childish fantasy originating in a desire for a life more glamorous than one's own.
   First she described the claybeds, making sure she got in everything
   she could remember, the wide ocher-colored washing pits, the
   dragline, the kilns like great brick beehives. She told them about
   the willow trees along the river's edge with their leaves all
   silvery underneath; and she told how when the sun shone for more
   than a couple of days, the clay began to split up into great
   handsome plates, with deep cracks between, and how it felt to
   squish your fingers into the cracks and slowly lever up a dried
   plate of mud, trying to keep it as big as you could without
   breaking it. Underneath it was still wet, ideal for throwing at
   people.

   As she spoke, playing on all their senses, the ghosts crowded
   closer, feeding on her words, remembering the time when they had
   had flesh and skin and nerves and senses, and willing her never to
   stop. (AS 282)


The new story is full of the sensuous particulars of life in the body. And this specific, imaginative recollection of the world captivates not only the ghosts but the harpies as well. (20) They respond to it, No Name says, "because it was true ... because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because she was feeding us" (AS 284). Here the food metaphor becomes positive: the sustenance of the dead is the particularized remembrance of life. Santiago Colas points out that "a true story of the sort that can elude the World of the Dead is a story ... of a full experience of the world ..." Beyond this "lies the implication one should have experience to report. But that just sends us back to living life fully here and now." (62).

Colas's formulation illuminates Pullman's further treatment of the harpies. For in becoming guides to the ghosts who will reward them with the stories of their lives, they resemble the gorgon-like furies of Aeschylus's Orestia, blood-revengers who become in Athens the Eumenides, guardians of Athenian civic order. Lyra's stories of the world feed a hunger for awareness of life lived in the body, and the satisfaction of this hunger reorients the spirit: the harpy within shifts from persecutor to friend, readying the individual for death. The best preparation for dying, in other words, is a life lived in full awareness, substituting for despair at failure an appreciation of what one has managed to feel and to do.

Pullman, then, performs a Lucretius-like winnowing of the world's previous myths, reshaping them to mirror the truths of a material universe (Gale, Myth). As Milton's materialist epic rewrites Lucretius's, Pullman's rewrites Milton's, each of them making matter central to his story, and each concerned with how to face death. The center of Pullman's epic is the telling of a story about life lived in the body--a nourishing account of full being. As a master storyteller, Pullman surely also gestures toward his own stories, which use fiction to tell truths about life in the body, and which will enable him to outlast death. Insofar as there is a god, its name is matter, and if there is an afterlife, its name is story. (21)

Works Cited

Barfield, Steven, and Katharine Cox, eds. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novel, the Film and the Stage Production. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Blake, William. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman with commentary by Harold Bloom. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965. Print.

Chabon, Michael. "Dust and Daemons." New York Review of Books, 2004. Rpt. in Yeffeth 1-14. Print.

Colas, Santiago. "Telling True Stories, or the Immanent Ethics of Material Spirit (and Spiritual Matter) in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials." Discourse 27.1 (2005): 34-66. Print.

Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Web. 20 July 2012.

Cox, Katharine. "Imagine Dust with a Capital Letter: Interpreting the Social and Cultural Contexts for Philip Pullman's Transformations of Dust." Barfield and Cox 126-42.

Falconer, Rachel. "Recasting John Milton's Paradise Lost: Intertextuality, Storytelling and Music." Barfield and Cox 11-27.

Fallon, Stephen. Milton Among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth Century England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991. Print.

Fitzsimmons, Rebekah. "Dialectical 'Complexifications': The Centrality of Mary Malone, Dust, and the Mulefa in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials." JFA 22.2 (2011): 212-33. Print.

Gale, Monica. Lucretius and Didactic Epic. Bristol: Bristol Classical P, 2001. Print.

--. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Goldberg, Jonathan. The Seeds of Things. New York: Fordham UP, 2009. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.

Hatlen, Burton. "His Dark Materials: A Challenge to Tolkien and Lewis." Lenz and Scott 75-94.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper, 1965. Print.

Lenz, Millicent, and Carole Scott, eds. His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman's Trilogy. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2005. Print.

Leonard, John. "Milton, Lucretius and 'the Void Profound of Unessential Night.'" Living Texts: Interpreting Milton. Ed. Kristen A. Pruitt and Charles W. Durham. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2000. 198-217. Print.

Levenson, Thomas. "On the Nature of Things: Philip Pullman Editon." The Inverse Square Blog. 6 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 July 2012.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Last Battle. New York: Harper, 1984. Print.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Trans. W. H. D. Rouse. 2nd ed., rev. Martin Ferguson Smith. Cambridge: Harvard UP [Loeb Library], 1982. Print.

Milton, John. The Complete Poems and Major Prose of John Milton. Ed. Merritt Hughes. New York: Odyssey, 1957. Print.

Norbrook, David. "Milton, Lucy Hutchinson, and the Lucretian Sublime." 1 Apr. 2010. Tate Papers 13. Web. 20 July 2012.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

Pullman, Philip, The Amber Spyglass. New York: Random, 2000. Print.

--. "The Darkside of Narnia." The Guardian, 1 Oct. 1998. The Cumberland River Lamp Post. Web. 20 July 2012.

--. "Faith and Fantasy." Radio National Encounter Interview 24 Mar. 2002. Qtd. in Hatlen 78.

--. The Golden Compass. New York: Random, 1995. Print.

--. Introduction. Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 1-10. Print.

--. The Subtle Knife. New York: Random, 1997. Print.

--. "Writing Fantasy Realistically." 2002. Sea of Faith Network. Web. 20 July 2012.

Quint, David. "Fear of Falling: Icarus, Phaethon and Lucretius in Paradise Lost." Renaissance Quarterly 57.3 (2001): 847-81. Print.

Raymond, Joad. Milton's Angels. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Rogers, John. The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry and Politics in the Age of Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. Print.

Rumrich, John. "Milton's God and the Matter of Chaos." PMLA 110 (1996): 103546. Print.

Russell, Mary Harris. "'Eve, Again! Mother Eve!': Pullman's Eve Variations." Lenz and Scott 212-22.

Saurat, Denis. Milton, Man and Thinker. London: Dent, 1946. Print.

Smith, Nigel. Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Sugimura, N. K. "Matter of Glorious Trial": Spiritual and Material Substance in Paradise Lost. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

Yeffeth, Glenn, ed. Navigating the Golden Compass. Dallas: Benbella, 2005. Print.

Notes

(1.) There are some. Thomas Levenson's Inverse Square Blog for April 6, 2008 makes an eloquent connection between Lyra's account of what happens after death and Lucretius's denial of personal immortality. In the course of his balanced and searching Tate paper on Milton's relation to Lucretius, David Norbrook mentions Pullman's rewriting of Milton, while Katharine Cox references Lucretius (128) in a fine essay on the contexts of Pullman's "Dust."

(2.) Personal communication. Pullman did have extensive experience studying and teaching the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost, which he draws on for His Dark Materials.

(3.) The exception to this neglect is Santiago Colas's superb "Telling True Stories," which relates Pullman's materialism to the nature of "truth" in the book and contrasts Pullman's stress on immanence with the Platonic stress on a transcendent reality. The philosophic ancestors he gives Pullman--Spinoza, Hegel, Heidigger, Deleuze--don't include the Epicureans. I'm concerned here to develop an alternate line of descent: Lucretius's Epicurean arguments and Milton's troubled reworking of Lucretius's materialism illuminate, sometimes by likeness, sometimes by contrast, what is characteristic of Pullman's materialist world-building. Colas's fine treatment of the truth in story overlaps at times with the fourth part of this article.

(4.) The best account of Lucretius's therapeutic program is still Nussbaum, chapters 4-7. A good introductory account of Lucretius's book and its arguments can be found in Gale's Lucretius and Didactic Epic. Greenblatt gives a fascinating account of the epic's rediscovery in 1417 and its initial reception.

(5.) Although Lucretius is not writing a single narrative, and although he scorns the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods, his poem is full of stories, and makes extensive use of mythological figures, from his initial invocation of Venus as the muse of the poem onward. For Lucretius, as for Milton and Pullman, pure explanation is not enough. See Gale's Myth and Poetry in Lucretius for an illuminating account of Lucretius's use of mythology in his rationalistic epic.

(6.) For the multiple explanations of lightning, see Lucretius VI.161-380; of earthquakes VI.536-608. Such multiple explanations appear throughout, but they are particularly frequent in accounting for the physical wonders described in Book VI.

(7.) The past fifteen years have seen a rich and continuing discussion of Milton's relation to Lucretius. The most important works so far are Hardie (1999), Leonard

(2000), Quint (2004), Sugimura (2009), Goldberg (2009), and Norbrook (2010). The central disagreement concerns the degree to which Milton espouses heretical "Lucretian" views, and the accounts range from Goldberg's queer reading, according to which Milton goes beyond Lucretius in destabilizing gender, to Quint's argument that Milton signals throughout the Satanic limitations of Lucretius's vision of chaos. My own view is closest to that of Leonard and of Norbrook who see Milton as torn between his belief in divine order and an uneasy sense that such order may be illusory. Norbrook speaks of "a sense of strain in images of a harmoniously designed cosmos, a sense of boundlessness that God may not fully control."

(8.) Milton's monism was first discussed by Saurat; for more recent and sophisticated accounts, see Fallon, esp. 79-110, and Rumrich and Rogers.

(9.) On Chaos as God's womb, see Rumrich 1042-44.

(10.) Milton is not alone in insisting on the materiality of the angels, although his insistence that there is only one matter of differing rarity seems unique. Thomas Hobbes insisted on angelic materiality: like all matter, angelic matter was merely mechanical. The fullest discussion of the relationship is Joad Raymond's: "Milton was, like Hobbes, a materialist; in contrast to Hobbes he rejected mechanism in favor of the view that matter is animate and therefore free. Creation was ex deo and therefore all matter is in origin good; evil is a perversion of matter, and thus a privation of being. Matter and spirit exist on a continuous scale, from the incorporeal to the merely corporeal. This scale permits movement, and beings can ascend and descend it through continuing obedience to God, refining the very corporeality of their being" (286).

(11.) Earlier, Mary's interlocutors, who identify themselves as angels, quote Augustine on the angelic nature: "from what they are, spirit, from what they do, angel" (SK 221). The passage comes from Augustine's commentary on Psalm 103 (Patrologia Latina 37 p.1348) and the translation is that of the Catholic catechism (I.5.i. par. 329). The identification of matter and spirit is not Augustinian.

(12.) "The Specters of Indifference," as Dr. Grumman calls them (SK 248), feed on daemons. They seem to attack human beings whose daemons are internal and hence invisible, but where the daemon is external and visible the specter envelops it instead of the human body. In The Amber Spyglass, the dead can attack specters because they lack daemons (AS 321). In their emptiness, the specters embody the despair attendant on experience without value: as Leona Feldt dies, prey to a specter, she feels an experiential browning-out: "Her last conscious thought was disgust with life; her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight, but of foulness, betrayal and lassitude. Living was hateful, and death was no better and from end to end of the universe this was the first, last and only truth" (SK 278).

(13.) A similar moment occurs when Mary returns to her body, having nearly had her spirit swept away in the flood of Dust: "she took in a shuddering deep breath. She pressed her hands and legs against the rough planks of the platform, and having a minute ago nearly gone mad with fear, she was now suffused with a deep, slow ecstasy at being one with her body and the earth and everything that was matter" (AS 328-29).

(14.) The passage reworks Homer's Odyssey, in which at the verge of the underworld the dead drink the blood of sheep in order to speak with Odysseus. They need to take in life-fluid to communicate with the living. But there's little sense that the dead are material. In the gesture that starts a long tradition of similar moments in Western literature, Odysseus tries to embrace the shade of his mother, Anticlea: "Three times/I started toward her, and my heart was urgent to hold her,/and three times she fluttered out of my hands like a shadow/or a dream, and the sorrow sharpened at the heart within me ..." (XI.205-08). Anticlea later tells her son that once the fire has destroyed a corpse, "the soul flitters out like a dream and flies away" (XI.222).

(15.) The treatment of the underworld borrows from both the Odyssey and the Aeneid. As in the Aeneid, there are punishments, although here the punishments are not necessarily deserved. But, like Homer, Pullman stresses the emptiness of any existence after life. Achilles says famously, "I would rather follow the plow as a thrall to another/man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on,/than be a king over all the perished dead" (XI.489-91).

(16.) Like many contemporary readers, Pullman sees the opposition between a Satanic and a "Christian" interpretation of the poem as built into the structure of Paradise Lost (see, for instance, Smith 181-84). He famously follows Blake in reading Milton as being of the devil's party without knowing it (Pullman, Introduction 8).

(17.) The primary fall in His Dark Materials is, of course, the lovemaking of Will and Lyra, complete with the consumption of a red fruit. But two other accounts of the fall prepare for it. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lord Asriel reads from his version of the Bible God's warning against eating the fruit of the Garden: "For God doth know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (326). Since people's daemons assume their full shape at puberty, the eating of the apple makes possible a transition from childhood to adulthood. Sexual maturity and the possibility of wisdom are associated. "Knowing good and evil" is not, as in Milton, knowing evil by personal experience and good primarily by its loss, but an awakening from a Blakean innocence to the possibility of "organized innocence" or maturity (cf. Pullman, "Writing Fantasy").

A second version of the fall occurs in the mythology of the mulefa, the intelligent creatures that Mary finds when she explores their world. In their account, the snake is simply a benefactor.

"The story tells that the snake said, 'What do you know? What do you remember? What do you see ahead?' And she said, 'nothing, nothing, nothing.' And the snake said, 'Put your food through the hole in the seedpod where I was playing and you will become wise' ... So she and her mate took the seedpods, and they discovered that they knew who they were, they knew they were mulefa, and not grazers. They gave each other names. They named themselves mulefa. They named the seed tree, and all the creatures and plants." (AS 200)

As Rebekah Fitzsimmons points out, this second rewriting undoes the first: "There is no language of temptation, only that of play, discovery and awakening" (222). Here the playful rewriting (with its implicit sexual equality) stresses that the wisdom that the snake offers is an awareness of self and world and, beyond that, of Dust itself, for the seedpod oil makes Dust visible. Further, it involves the capacity for imagination and memory--"what do you remember? What do you see ahead?" In other words, by following the snake's advice the mulefa gain Adam's capacity for naming--and perhaps the capacity for telling stories. See also Russell 213-14.

(18.) The passage recalls the Memorable Fancy in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Plates 17-20) when the narrator and an Angel debate the nature of hell, and find that their imaginations have imposed on one another (Blake 40-41).

(19.) For a differing but compatible discussion of story in His Dark Materials, see Colas 58-62.

(20.) In 2002, Pullman spoke to Lyra's second narrative in a lecture entitled "Writing Fantasy Realistically": "So instead of telling them one of her Lyra-like fantasies, full of wild nonsense, she tells them about something that really happened, and tries with all her heart to evoke the smells and the sounds and the look, the sensuous texture and presence of the real world for them. She leaves fantasy behind, and becomes a realist." "Realism" may not be the most useful critical term here. Pullman wants to distinguish fantasy concerned with the problematic and psychologically complex from what is escapist, formulaic and oversimplified (one of his major instances of writing fantasy "realistically" is David Lindsey's Voyage to Arcturus). See also Falconer in Barfield and Cox 23-24.

(21.) I would like to thank my friends Douglas Patey, Elizabeth Harries, and Micala Sidore; the anonymous readers of JFA for their comments on this article; and Carol Zaleski for locating the passage from Augustine quoted by Mary's angelic interlocutors (note 10).
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Author:Oram, William A.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Sep 22, 2012
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