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Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 10, which is an introduction to some of the Blakean motifs included in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The three books, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were published between 1995 and 2000 to critical acclaim, The Amber Spyglass having won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year prize while The Golden Compass was made into a film in 2007.
2. Pullman has long had an interest in Blake, having become President of the Blake Society in 2004, and he has written extensively about the Romantic poet and engraver. Regarding His Dark Materials, Pullman makes explicit its link to Blake in the acknowledgements to The Amber Spyglass, where he writes that although he has “stolen ideas from nearly every book I have ever read”, three debts are to be acknowledged above all others: Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and “the works of William Blake”. Blake’s poetry is also frequently cited in the headings to the chapters of The Amber Spyglass. Before discussing some of the ways in which Blake appears in those works, it is worth noting that while von Kleist and Milton provide a central text that influences Pullman, with Blake it is the complete corpus. Nor should this be restricted to the poetry, as he encountered Blake’s paintings shortly after leaving Oxford University, which were to affect him greatly.
3. The influence of Milton is immediately self-evident to any reader of His Dark Materials who has a working knowledge of Paradise Lost, the trilogy reworking the rebellion of Satan and the Fall from a sceptical perspective. Trying to pin down Blake’s role, however, is a more subtle affair. The most obvious starting point is Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which provides his infamous re-reading of Milton:
4. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is calld Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are calld Sin & Death
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is calld Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties
It indeed appeard to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss…
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (E34-5)
5. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2002, Pullman remarked that “Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it”, and his assault on religious dogma throughout the novels – which has drawn considerable criticism in the United States in particular – is clearly a diabolical re-reading of the role of churches in human oppression that echoes the infernal spirit of Blake’s classic text. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, the transcendental system that sustains the church of mystery is imploded when the rebel angel, Baruch, is revealed to have once been a man and the Authority, known as Yahweh, El and the Almighty, is shown as a frail old man who was himself created and cannot survive eternally – yet whose death bring him peace. At the end of the trilogy, the Kingdom of Heaven is reconstituted as a Republic (drawing also on the ideas of the seventeenth century Digger, Gerard Winstanley), giving emphasis to another of Pullman’s guiding principles that has its origins in Blake, the notion that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans”.
6. The diabolical reading of Paradise Lost is the clearest and most sustained example of Blake’s influence, but I would like to concentrate now on two others: Lyra Belacqua and Dust, both also being significant in Pullman’s forthcoming novel, The Book of Dust. Lyra’s first name is adapted from Lyca, who appears in the Songs of Experience poems, “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”:
7. Frowning frowning night,
O’er this desart bright,
Let thy moon arise,
While I close my eyes.
Sleeping Lyca lay;
While the beasts of prey,
Come from caverns deep,
View’d the maid asleep
8. The first four of these lines from “The Little Girl Lost” are cited at the beginning of Chapter 13 of The Amber Spyglass, and Pullman took this poem and its companion as the source for the opening chapter in that novel, in which Mrs Coulter keeps Lyra in a cave in the Himalayas. What Pullman seems to take from Lyca is the sense of bravery, even rebelliousness, and innocence within a world of experience, so that in Blake’s poem Lyca is unharmed by the beasts of prey, while in Pullman’s novels Lyra is able to move safely among the dangers that she encounters, inspiring those she meets to help her in her struggles.
9. As well as the character of Lyra, the mysterious Dust that permeates the trilogy owes much to Blake. In the novels, Dust is an elementary particle, a dark matter that is conscious and attracted to individuals. The Church, believing it to be a manifestation of original sin, attempts foolishly to destroy its connection to humans, not realising that it is the very material that bestows consciousness itself. The sources of Dust are manifold – the Book of Genesis, Buddhism and quantum physics, but Blake also has an important role to play in the development of this motif. At a lecture to the Blake Society in 2005, Pullman presented a series of seven axioms describing the Republic of Heaven, each of which ended with a citation from Blake. Susan Matthews quotes the first of these in a 2007 essay on Blake and Pullman:
10. The physical world, this matter of which are made, is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: “and shew you all alive This world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”
11. As Matthews remarks, this quotation from the Preludium to Europe, which is also the heading for chapter 34 of The Amber Spyglass, “stresses the constantly joyful quality of the material world” and emphasises the bodily nature of Blake, who considered the separation of body and soul as the grounding error of the Church which had allowed it to create so effectively the mind-forg’d manacles of mystery.