Sunday, December 21, 2008

The idea of pilgrimage

All the witches were asleep on the grass, and so were Will and Lyra. But surrounding the two children were a dozen or more angels, gazing down at them.

And then Serafina understood something for which the witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence. That was how these creatures looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarefied light, standing around the girl with the dirty face and the tartan skirt and the boy with the wounded hand who was frowning in his sleep.

There was a stir at Lyra's neck. Pantalaimon, a snow-white ermine, opened his black eyes sleepily and gazed around unafraid. Later, Lyra would remember it as a dream. Pantalaimon seemed to accept the attention as Lyra's due, and presently he curled up again and closed his eyes.

Finally one of the creatures spread his wings wide. The others, as close as they were, did so too, and their wings interpenetrated with no resistance, sweeping through one another like light through light, until there was a circle of radiance around the sleepers on the grass.

Then the watchers took to the air, one after another, rising like flames into the sky and increasing in size as they did so, until they were immense; but already they were far away, moving like shooting stars toward the north.

Serafina and Ruta Skadi sprang to their pine branches and followed them upward, but they were left far behind.

"Were they like the creatures you saw, Ruta Skadi?" said Serafina as they slowed down in the middle airs, watching the bright flames diminish toward the horizon.

"Bigger, I think, but the same kind. They have no flesh, did you see that? All they are is light. Their senses must be so different from ours. . . . Serafina Pekkala, I'm leaving you now, to call all the witches of our north together. When we meet again, it will be wartime. Go well, my dear. . ."

They embraced in midair, and Ruta Skadi turned and sped southward.

Serafina watched her go, and then turned to see the last of the gleaming angels disappear far away. She felt nothing but compassion for those great watchers. How much they must miss, 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.


— from The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.

This is the sequel to The Golden Compass, which I read last spring. I am enjoying it more than I did the first book, but as the story evolves I am recognizing the subtle beauty contained in that first book. In some ways, my head was too full for it at the time of first reading — I'd chosen to read it as a light and entertaining escape, when it is much more.

So here I am, nearing the close of the second; my jaw drops, tears well up, a shiver down my spine, a nod of affirmation. So many little snippets I thought I should share, full of wisdom, poignancy, truth. And then the above excerpt stops my heart in its tracks.

These are not God's angels, though this is a story of God, kind of. These are Rilkean angels, as realized by Wim Wenders. They are guides, muses, empaths. They know everything, but nothing.

You've been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face...just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something! Here, that's cold! That feels good! Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it's fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that's good, that feels good! There's so many good things! But you're not here — I'm here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me. 'Cause I'm a friend. CompaƱero!


This is what it is to be human, to be of the earth.

I wonder about Catherin, who used her ticket stub for a bookmark while reading this library book. Catherin took the bus from North Bay, with a change in Ottawa, to read about a subtle knife in Montreal. I hope she's well.
Post a Comment