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Stories and characters that matter to me

Of armoured bears and other Vikings in disguise

I – Philip Pullman’s polar bears

“Well, I have compromised myself in many ways,” said the bear-king (…) “I am troubled, having to do unbearlike deeds and speculate and doubt like a human” (From The amber spyglass, P. Pullman.)

(For those who are not familiar with Pullman’s trilogy I have added a note at the bottom)

I find the  novels that make up His dark materials, the fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, rather uneven. I read the first, Northern lights, in amazement: it is beautifully written, the plot works well in spite of including very different elements, the ideas struck me as daring and deep at the same time. The second, The subtle knife, was a complete disappointment so I left The amber spyglass on a shelf for some years. I am reading it now. It is somewhere in between the previous two as for quality, but I am pleased to have gone back to the multiple worlds and multifarious crowd that inhabit them. The greatest pleasure was to meet Iorek Byrnison again: the king of the armoured polar bears that live in Svalbard, leading a simple life based on courage, honour and strength. They know no fear. They are hunters, warriors and exceptional metal workers. They are, in other words, Vikings in disguise. Bears were, together with wolves, totemic animals in germanic culture. The wildest warriors searched for the bear inside them when they fought.

Why bears, though, and not Vikings or some fictional warrior tribe?

To begin with, this is not epic fantasy. Its readers may  not be  especially interested in  Viking culture: Pullman is known for his  dislike of Christianity and his love for Milton, not of the Edda or Beowulf.  Besides,  Northern lights is set in a world that looks more or less like the 19th Century: of course, not being realistic fiction you could have Svalbard host a community living like in the Dark Ages, but making them bears avoids having to complicate the religious side of the novels by having to deal with paganism. Also, polar bears are one of the most striking (I don’t really like the word “iconic”) victims of climate change in the real world, so in the novels this community that has happily stuck to its traditions for century is suddenly on the verge of annihilation for the same reason. This aspect is initially  introduced when Lyra, the protagonist, first meets Iorek, who has been enslaved with cunning and kept underfoot with alcohol. The armoured bears are  a metaphor for small communities around the world that are more vulnerable to ecological disasters; from the narrative point of view, this vulnerability justifies the bears’ willingness  to leave their world and follow Lyra, the human protagonist, in her quest.  Finally, one of the central themes in  His dark materials is the relationship between human and animal.The three books explore, or rather expose,   the  anthropocentric approach of monotheistic cultures by having non-human characters capable of speech as well as complex thought, and by giving  the characters a visible, corporeal  soul, called daemon, which  is an animal. The creation of armoured bears that resemble Vikings  is a perfect example of how well different levels coexist in this narrative.

To conclude I have to invert the question: why  Vikings and not Dakotas or any other archaic culture? I can only suppose it is because the Vikings were the last,  of their larger family of germanic peoples,   to become incorporated in Christian Europe.  They lasted long enough to be remembered, to remain in our imagination of   as tough,  enterprising  and  living by simple ideals (courage, honour, fame, the desire to know) before they, too, became settled, monotheistic, authority-accepting people  given to doubt and speculation.

II – The Iron Men in “A song of ice and fire”

In George RR Martin’s world, too, we find a version of the Vikings: they’re the inhabitants of the Iron Islands up North. One could say they are the Vikings seen by other people, those they would raid and plunder. The name “Iron men” refers to their weapon: to get something with iron (as opposed to gold) means to take it with force. The motto or the ruling family is “We do not sow”, and ther name, Greyjoy, is a kenning for a weapon made of iron or steel. They are not especially different from the inhabitants of the North, but the differences that we see are not unlike those between the Vikings on one side, and the Anglo-Saxons or the Franks on the other. They still choose their kings by holding  a moot, a general  assembly (moot is actually the Old English word, the Vikings would have called it a thing), they value poetry as a way to remember the heroic feats of their warriors, their women are brave and independent and may aspire to leadership. In one aspect Martin chose to invert things, and that is religion. (Personally  I find the way the novelist deals with cults really intriguing and complex). While in historical fact, the Vikings were still politheistic  and the rest of Europe had become monotheistic, in “A song of ice and fire”  most of Westeros is politheistic, so the Iron men have one god: they worship the Drowned God who lives in his watery halls under the sea like  the germanic god Aegir, who claimed the drowned and lived under the sea with his wife Ran.

A note about “His dark materials”

The  title “His dark materials” is a quotation from Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910/919

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage.

The  trilogy, published between 1995 and 2000, comprises three books: Northern lights, which in America is known as The golden compass, The subtle knife and The amber spyglass. Although “Northern Lights” is entirely set in one world, the trilogy is based on the idea that many parallel world exist where history, and in some cases evolution, has worked out differently. In the world where the story begins, where people have daemons (corporeal animal souls),  and there are witches and armoured bears. Here, Christianity  has won the century-long war on science, and scientists, called experimental theologicians, often end up in trouble as  heretics. One of them discovers a way to cross to other worlds by going through the Northern Lights in the Arctic. The protagonist, an illegitimate child called Lyra, travels to several worlds while she discovers what the purpose of her life really is.

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