On promises


So this came up in the discussion on Pullman's approach to faerian themes, in the reference back to Tolkien's great essay On Fairy Stories. (I didn't feel I ought to revive that thread, but the irony of just not posting something more about it after I said I would, would have been too much.)

First, generally, what is behind the fascination with promises in faerie?

I wonder if it has something to do with the yearning for promises to be kept. Looking at the context in Tolkien's essay, that seems really important. His mention of promise-keeping comes at what might be the key moment in the whole long, dense and yet rambling address: between the consolation of escape, into the Great Escape from Death, and to the thesis "Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending" and the revelation: Eucatastophe. Much could be said about this, but the chief thing Pullman seems to argue is that promises like these are not promises we can keep, but can only tell stories about, and yet that we should act as if those stories make a difference.

Then, to get back to Ben's original proposal, a few more specifics on faerie and promises in La Belle Sauvage--


So it seems like the book has two main divisions, and then within the second, a further bifurcation or incursion of Faery, which has always been there in the background but suddenly comes out into the open. You have everything up to the flood, and then as the flood progresses you have a series of episodes which progressively move towards graver danger for Lyra, with the pursuit by Bonneville being swapped for Lyra actually being captured by the guards of the Holy Obedience. In a sort of highly compressed version of the Bolvangar episode in The Golden Compass, Malcolm sneaks in and rescues her, and they float along. Then comes the next bifurcation: with the chapters The Enchanted Island and Resin, we move into fairyland. In Ancientry we return, but perhaps we're still partly there in The Mausoleum and subsequently, and have been all along. And it is a kind of self-conscious fairyland, where the rules Malcolm knows about fairy stories have real effects. He rescues Lyra from Diania, the Fairy Queen, by approaching the problem as if fairy tales were real: "Malcolm tried to remember the fairy tales he knew. Could you bargain with fairies? Did they keep their promises? There was something about names..." (371). He's successful with his plan because Alice had the sense to use their fake names from the start. Whatever drinking fairy milk may mean, it certainly conjures some heavily freighted imagery: of infants and mothers--that mother Lyra has been deprived of, and that which the atheist or agnostic deprives himself of; of Malcolm's actual mom and dad, whom he finally lets himself think of, when he lets himself cry in front of Alice (383); and perhaps of the closing lines of Coleridge's Kublai Khan:

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In the next chapter, Resin, they quickly realize something strange is going on with the underground landscape: "All that walking, and we hardly got anywhere. Maybe it's magic. It doesn't make any bloody sense anyway" (391). They speak about it as though it has intentions and personality: "It doesn't seem to mind us making a fire." The self-consciousness about fairy stories here seems closely connected to Malcolm's dawning awareness of his attraction to Alice, and of the difference between grown-ups and children, manifested also in their daemons, those themes of innocence and experience which gave Pullman's Dark Materials their energy, and I daresay give their readers something like "eternal delight" (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

In Ancientry, rounding out the fairyland section of the story, Alice commands the giant to open the gate by appealing to their task of saving the "Princess Lyra," and Malcolm remembers the old name "Albion" of Blakean (and Tolkienian) resonance:

We've also just glimpsed, on either side of the underground river, something like the "green and pleasant land" and "dark satanic mills."

Supposedly the next book will be called The Secret Commonwealth, and presumably we'll learn more about how this fairyland-reality business works.

I'm hoping to make all this into some essays/podcasts soon. Comments and critiques would be much appreciated!
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