“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.