Wild Untutored Phoenixes… Phoenices… er…

At the start of Philip Pullman’s great His Dark Materials, Lyra is a wild child, a seeming orphan, playing in the grounds and on the roofs of an Oxford college, who needs to be chased away from the fruit trees. A sensitive reader might remember Eve from the Garden of Eden, at least in her unfallen state, and the connection is made explicit for us by The Amber Spyglass (2000):”The girl, then, is in the position of Eve, the wife of Adam, the mother of us all and the cause of all sin” (71). Having obtained the alethiometer, a sort of divining instrument, she is able to comprehend and use it, without any training.

As I wrote in “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy”, Pullman allows Lyra to retreat from a character able to communicate with everyone and who has agency, to a much more subservient character. In fact, as soon as she meets Will Parry, she is very much more girly and cooks him breakfast, albeit badly, and then spends much of the final volume in a coma. At some point, she falls, in a sequence I think we have to read as sexual (but involves marzipan) and loses that innocence. By the end of the novel, she is destined to have a formal education of the kind she had scorned at the outset of Northern Lights and may at best hope for a bluestocking existence. She has to be taught to use the alethiometer.

Of course, this innocence/experience thing is drawing on William Blake (his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which feature a sleeping Lyca) and Heinrich von Kleist’s parable of “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810). Let me quote myself:

This story describes a brief encounter between the narrator and a dancer, Herr C., in the town of M. in 1801. The two see a performance of string puppets and Herr C. claims the marionettes have a grace that dancers could learn from. The puppets, being artificial, “would never be affected” because they are not self-conscious. Self-consciousness for humans is “inevitable because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge. And Paradise is bolted, with the cherub behind us; we must journey around the world and determine if perhaps at the end somewhere there is an opening to be discovered again.” The narrator responds with a story of a graceful young man who pulled a thorn out of his foot; seeing himself in a mirror, the young man recognised his likeness to a similarly-posed statue. Afterwards he became self-conscious and narcissistic. Herr C. then tells a further story, about how he fenced with a Russian family and then fought a tethered bear. Try as he might, Herr C. was unable to defeat the bear. The human’s self-conscious actions were unable to defeat the animal’s unconscious actions. Herr C. concludes that humanity’s grace can be eventually regained: “grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite, in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all — or has infinite consciousness — that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God.” Grace can be regained by eating for a second time from the Tree of Knowledge.

Great things can be done unconsciously – or, rather, without consciousness – by those in a state of grace.

When I wrote both chapters, I’d clearly forgotten France Gray’s concept of the “Wild Untutored Phoenix”.* Gray discusses the various ways in which we deny that women are funny or have a sense of humour – they are too prudish or gossip too much or… It’s a variant on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Gray suggests “When women are visible making people laugh, deny the existence of a conscious creative process” (8). It’s just an accident, it’s just chance.

But it was of the Wild Untutored Phoenix I thought when thinking about Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Obviously we all have our theories about who one of her parents is, but what is clear is that she can use the force without the, admittedly limited, training that Luke had, a training which when returned to is cut short. Do we read this as a real talent and skill, or do we end up with some essentialised wild girl, running around, having to be chased away from the fruit trees? At what point will discipline chop off her agency.

Pleasing although Finn is as a character, could he be the Will to her Lyra? Will she modify her needs in favour of his and will she – like Han, who was not a Jedi – be put into a sleep? Will she keep her agency? We have the example of Leia to look back to – canny and strong in the first (fourth) movie, slave in the third (sixth) (although she has a few weapons left to her). Can a woman be allowed to stay strong and her talents not get undermined?

We’ll see.

 

Note

 

* As far as I can see, this is a reference to an article on D. H. Lawrence by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny. This is an odd – Lawrence would say queer, no doubt – linkage that I need to think through more.

Bibliography

  • Butler, Andrew M. “Bearly Conscious? Deconstructing Pullman’s Postmodern Marionettes”, Philip Pullman. Edited by Catherine Butler and Tommy Halsdorf, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 96-112.
  • Butler, Andrew M. “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.” Children’s Fantasy Fiction: Debates for the Twenty First Century. Edited by Nickianne Moody and Clare Horrocks. Liverpool: ARPF/Liverpool JMU, 2005: 285-298.
  • Gray, Frances. Women and Laughter. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Until You Find the Key to Your Life

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

There was a documentary on BBC Radio 4 over Christmas about Alice — a couple of books to which I sometimes have an allergic reaction — that said something along the lines of the Alice books became popular in the 1960s in America because the US had had no fantasy aside from the Oz books.

Ho hum.

But presumably Alice is a taproot text — a young girl who falls into a fantastical world and undergoes an almost random series of encounters before returning home. Baum gives the story more architecture: there is the journey to the City of Emeralds; the journey to the Wicked Witch of the West and the return to the Emerald City. She is given more defined companions, each with a quest of their own: the Scarecrow; the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. A recurring trope in the book is their restatement of their needs, a fairy tale recurring rhetorical structure.

The gimmick is surely clear from the perennial Newtonmas screenings of the film version — the titular Wizard is a humbug and you must search for the hero inside yourself. (Incidentally this is a variation on the anti-technology sf movie dependent on technology to narrate its tale — the fantasy narrative distrustful of fantasy and illusions.) The Wizard isn’t who he claims to be and that is a Bad Thing, but the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion must pretend to be who they want to be and that is a Good Thing.

The book doesn’t have the is-it-a-dream-or-not? frame of the film, in which various farmhands are anticipatory doubles of her companions. The farm sequence is pretty brief, barely a chapter, as Baum clearly knows to get her to the fantasy land as soon as he can. On the other hand, there’s little sense of why she wants to go home (although in the film it makes no sense at all). The flying monkeys are less scary than they become in the movie, as indeed is the Wicked Witch. If more incidents are thrown at Dorothy and the gang in the book than the film, they are dealt with chapter by chapter. Can one whisper the film is an improvement on the novel? Or maybe got to me first.

I think a comment needs to be made on gender, and the power vacuums created and filled by the narrative. Oz is divided into four segments, North and South ruled by good witches, West and East are ruled by bad witches. Four domains, four female rulers. The central zone is the Emerald City, built by the humbug wizard (but see The Marvelous Land of Oz) In the course of the novel two of the women are killed and one is replaced by a male character (it is not clear who rules Munchkinland, but presumably Dorothy has squatter’s rights). The male Wizard is replaced by the male Scarecrow, marking a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. The novel was written in the era of the New Woman and an era of suffragism.

Perhaps this will become significant in the sequel.