Pansebjorne!

“You en’t afraid, are you

“Not yet. When I am, I shall master the fear.”

– Lyra and Iorek, The Golden Compass.

Fantasy stories, especially of the long, serialized variety often throw up characters with whom one cannot help being captivated. Not all of these are protagonists. Among the plethora of amazing – but predominantly male – characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, there was Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan. In the delicate Earthsea books from Ursula Le Guin, there was the enigmatic dragon Kalessin. Now, in reading The Golden Compass – known in Europe as Northern Lights – I have become awestruck by the barely restrained force of nature that is Iorek Byrnison.

[In singing the praises of Iorek Byrnison, I am apt to reveal minor spoilers. However, you may rest assured, dear reader, that after reading this post, you won’t have the faintest idea about what a golden compass is (Obviously, it is not a compass in the common sense), and what it is supposed to do 🙂 ]

I am mildly surprised that I like Iorek so much, even though he is such a violent character, as I am a wimp in the action hero department. Generally, I cannot stomach the “action” sequences in action films, and tolerate them with difficulty in novels. I dislike simulated violence in computer games such as Halo, where the general idea seems to involve butchering all and sundry with great music to boot. Yet, when Iorek Byrnison slices open a poor seal, skins it and uses the blubber to lubricate his armor, I marveled as if it was an act of tenderness. A warrior-bear’s tenderness, but tenderness nevertheless.

There is nothing soothing about Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear of Svalbard; like the dragons of EarthSea, a human being would probably have two choices when faced with this filthy, smelly mountain of power: To talk to him, or to have one’s skull crushed like an egg between his jaws. From watching the trailer of the Golden Compass, one gets the slightly sanitized impression that Iorek Byrnison is a fearsome hulk with a heart of gold, but such is not the picture I gleaned from the novel. Pullman’s Iorek is a Pansebjorne to the core – an armored ice-bear who is fierce but neither good nor evil, silent but never sulky, solitary but never lonely, so bear-like that it is impossible not to love him for what he is. He takes no quarter and gives none. He will either repay a debt or die in the process. There are no half measures for Iorek Byrnison.

I was disappointed that the great ice-bear does not make an appearance in The Subtle Knife, the sequel to The Golden Compass, and is only referred to in conversation. Without a doubt, he will have a part to play before the trilogy concludes in The Amber Spyglass. I found the first book fascinating, the second only marginally less so. Pullman has weaved an eccentric but thoroughly captivating story that takes place in a fictional multiverse and presents several difficult and tantalizing questions, “What does it mean when someone refers to his or her soul?”, “Is belief in God tenable or is it a self-perpetrating illusion?”, “If we lived in a multiverse, would we be left with no choice other than moral relativism, or would it mean anything to have a morality?” I’m eager to read the last book but I feel exhausted this month and am inclined to wait until my workload eases somewhat before picking up this story again. When I am done, I hope to write a post that deals more with the books’ premise than with an isolated rave such as this.

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4 thoughts on “Pansebjorne!”

  1. Isolated as you may call it, I enjoyed reading this, as I’ve only started The Golden Compass (which is how my copy is called – I wouldn’t put up with any Northern Lights nonsense) this weekend.

    I’ve never seen the film and perhaps I may do that later, or not.

    However, I’m looking forward to anything you might have to say about it. I’m only a few chapters in but entirely mesmerized already.

  2. We’re going on a trip next week — a driving trip in the southwest — and I’m so looking forward to listening to the Amber Spyglass while we’re on the road. Thank you for this review. I’ll be most interested to hear what you have to say about the Amber Spyglass.

    I also wanted to say how much I loved your pond essay. You’re such a fine writer.

    I’m sorry about all the fatigue — I’ve been getting up early and going to bed late for the last week, and am exhausted, but I have the feeling that your candle has been burning on both ends for far longer. It’s not easy, having all that work, and I admire you for doing it, and still holding onto your love for other things.

    xo, Lily

  3. Nils, if you loved the beginning, it is likely that you will _adore_ the second half of the book. It is wonderful, down to the last sentence.

    Regarding the film, I love Sir Ian McKellan but feel that his voice is wrong for Iorek. I haven’t seen the film either, just the trailer, so I might still be surprised.

    BL, I am touched by your concern. Actually, this post had been cooking for a long time, and the exhausting phase I refer to was when I got stomach flu from careless choice of food. The flu was gone after 4 days but I feel dismayed when I stand up on the weighing scale. I will restart gymming soon and try to regain the lost stamina and weight 🙂 .

    I hope you have a great road trip and break from work. Does listening to The Amber Spyglass involve listening to tapes or to the boys?

  4. I think I’ll download it from audible.com — or else see if it’s at the library. I really like listening to stories when we’re in the car, especially when they’re read in those amazing British accents that all good books on tape seem to have.

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