We is going frantic with worry over Maggie. Every time we asks the doctor if we can see her he says not yet, she's still very ill. And when we asks when she's going to get better so we can see her he goes quiet and then he tells us to ask him again tomorrow.
We sticks this for three days and then we has had enough. We goes up to Lord Faa on the bridge of the ship, bold as you please, and tells him we must see Maggie.
'Must?' he replies, and frowns.
'Please, Lord Faa, we is desperate to see her, but the doctor won't let us.'
'That is because she is very ill.'
'We knows that, but couldn't you ask the doctor for us if we could see her? He'll listen to you.'
Lord Faa stands silent and grim for a minute. Then he asks one of the gyptians to fetch the doctor. He tells us to wait outside while he talks to him.
I stands close to the door, but I doesn't hear much, except at the end when their voices starts to rise and I hears the doctor saying that he'll not take responsibility for the consequences if I see Maggie and Lord Faa firmly replying that, if the doctor won't take the responsibility then he, John Faa, will.
They calls me back in.
'Arthur,' says Lord Faa. 'Maggie is indeed very unwell. There was a powerful poison in those cuts and it got into her blood, and she has been feverish and sick for many days, as you know. But she has been crying out for you in her sleep and I think you two have important things to say to one another.
'Be kind to her. Treat her gently. Help her to get better. And tell her whatever your heart needs to say.'
I sees the doctor sadly shaking his head behind Lord Faa's back.
'Thank you, Lord Faa,' I says. And I rushes from the bridge and races down the stairway and skids along the freezing cold deck to the door of Maggie's cabin, Sal flapping along behind me. We knocks on the door and goes in without waiting. She is lying on the bunk wearing a pair of sailor's pyjamas, with her white arms on top of the blankets and Jimmy curled up on top of her. I stands by the door, suddenly not knowing what to say to her.
'Hello Arthur, how's it going?'
'It's fine, Maggie, just fine. The kids are all having fun, learning to be sailors. Stan's made himself the captain! Harold's first mate.' I tells her all about the kids and the ship and the crew and the gyptians,
'That's good.' Her voice is quite faint. She is not very strong; this is clear.
'Maggie?' I says.
'Yes, Arthur?' She coughs into her pillow and I waits for her to stop.
'I just wanted to say that?' I is shaking uncontrollably.
'What did you want to say, Arthur?'
'I just wants to say that – oh Maggie, doesn't you know?'
'Come here, you berk,' Maggie says, but she doesn't sound cross with me. I sits on the end of the bunk. 'It's all right,' she says, 'I isn't infectious. The doctor said.' She coughs again and turns away for a moment. I can feel the heat rising up from her, even though a draught of cold air came into the cabin with us. She is lying there worn out on the white sheets and pillows with her face covered with sweat, and she's drawn and gaunt and pale and blotchy with the fever, and the cuts on her cheek are still red and angry and swollen, and her hair is all damp and straggly, and she is… she is altogether the most beautiful thing we ever sees. She looks up at us and gives me a lovely bright smile.
'Yes, Arthur. Of course I know. I always have.'
I hesitates for an endless moment and then I does the thing I've been longing to do for, oh, ages and ages. I puts out my hand and I touches Jimmy just behind the ears and I strokes the fur of his soft, silky back over and over again. Maggie sighs and shudders in the bunk and Sal hops down to her pillow and she puts out her thin arm and lets her fingertips brush gently against my daemon's feathers and it's like fingers of soft fire running up and down my spine and I can't bear it and I never wants it to stop.
'Please love me, Arthur,' says Maggie, and I takes my things off and gets in the narrow bunk with her, trembling all over, and she touches me and I can't believe how wonderful it makes me feel and I loves her so much. I kisses her and says 'Maggie' and she says 'Arthur' and the way she says my name makes it sound like it's a brand-new word that's just for me and her and it's the same with her name. She presses herself up against me and she's so hot, she's burning up, but I has been chilly out on deck and perhaps I helps to cool her down a little. We kisses again and again, and each kiss is sweeter than the one before.
Then I loves her, and it's my first time, and perhaps she knows it's going to be her last. She shows me what to do, smiling when I'm clumsy, but never making me feel stupid or awkward any more. She leads my hands to the places where she wants to be touched and when she runs her fingertips over me, leaving trails of goose-bumps behind them, it's like heaven.
- 0 -
After a while we falls happily asleep and I dreams of grass and meadows and trees and a stream running between them and all the things we sees from the train and the Santa Maria and when I wakes up in the middle of the night she's still there and I holds her close to me and tells her I loves her and I'm happy just being near to her and all the arguing and fighting and misunderstandings are over now, and we can be together like this for ever. Jimmy and Sal are very gentle with each other and it's a funny thing, for when I picks him up to stroke his fur again he seems to weigh nothing at all.
- 0 -
But when we wakes in the morning Maggie is lying cold in my arms and Jimmy has vanished, and Sal and I is bereft. We lies still for what seems like hours, with our arms wrapped around her, trying to warm her up a little. It does no good, and Sal has to tell me that, as Jimmy is no longer in the cabin with us, Maggie must have died while we were sleeping. We slowly climbs out of the bunk, puts our things back on, and goes up to the bridge and we tells the officer on duty that Maggie is gone and then we sits down by the compass-housing and we cries until we is all empty of tears. Somebody brings us a mug of hot sweet kaffee and I gulps it down somehow. There is much anxious going to and fro from Maggie's cabin and the doctor looks closely at me and takes my temperature and looks serious, but I must be stronger than poor Maggie 'cos I doesn't get ill, though if I did get a fever and died of it right now I wouldn't mind it in the least.
- 0 -
The next day they is going to bury her at sea. We sits up with her the night before the burial, me holding her dear worn hand and talking to her about the old days in Paradise Yard and laughing about all the times we rubbed each other up the wrong way and the silly things we said to each other. Sal and me comforts each other and I remembers that she has lost someone too, so we talks about how beautiful and loving Jimmy was and eventually we falls asleep.
In the morning they comes and wakes us and wraps my poor Maggie up in a canvas sheet and I kisses her on the lips for the last time as they seals it up and then I has to leave her cabin and stand, with Sal clutching my shoulder, by the railing on the main deck where the crew and the gyptians and the kids and little Stan has all come to say goodbye. I holds on very tight to the rail and looks out over the waves, though I can't see anything through my tears, while the captain reads a prayer and we all sings a hymn, only I'm all choked up, so I can't join in even though I knows the words and the tune from when I was in the Union; and they tips up the board her thin wasted body is resting on, and she slides, oh so gently, into the water and the sea takes her away from me for ever and ever. Suddenly, Sal and me can't bear the pain in my empty heart any more and we breaks down sobbing and is tenderly led away to the saloon, where we sits and stares blindly out of the window at the waves rushing by.
- 0 -
As the ship carries us further south day by day and Sal and me wanders aimlessly round the deck or gazes at the sky or sits quietly in the saloon, the other people on board doesn't know how to talk to us, excepting little Stan of course. They is a bit shy and awkward, I can see, but all I really wants to do is talk about Maggie and how I loved her and they doesn't want to ask me to do this, because they're afraid I'll say or do something silly or embarrassing, we suppose. Stan keeps asking when he can see Maggie again. It's as if he hadn't seen her slip away into the sea. I tries not to get cross with him; after all she was his sister as well as being my love.
In the end, the wisest man on board takes me to one side and asks me to tell him all about it, which I does at some length. I tells him about the Union and Lambeth and Limehouse and the Ratcliffe Highway and how we lived and how we had to cheat and steal and sell ourselves to get by. I tells him about the cabbies and Adèle and how we got to Bolvangar and how I saw the river of golden light in the boys' dormitory and my vision of Mrs Coulter's death. And especially, I tells him about Maggie.
'You see, Farder Coram,' I says, 'I knows what they'll all say about her. They'll say she was a common slut; a liar and a prostitute. She spread diseases, they'll say, and her sort don't deserve to live a full life like proper people do. They'll say she was rubbish from the gutter, who ought to have been flushed back down to the sewers she came from. They'll never know how bright and clever she was, how hard she had to work all her life, or how much she loved her mum, and her brothers and sisters, and me. There's only us knows how brave she was when she stood all by herself in the passage at Bolvangar and faced Mrs Coulter. And now she's gone, how am I ever going to find another one like her to look after me? 'Cos she was right, you know. We needs looking after, Sal and me.' I starts to cry again.
Farder Coram does an wonderful thing. He puts his arms around me, and hugs me tight and kisses me. 'Arthur,' he says, 'It's hard for you, I know. But this comes to all of us, in the end. When you fall in love with someone, and they with you, you both make a bargain with Fate. Sooner or later the two of you will have to part. You hope it's going to be later, after many, many happy years. Sometimes, like it was with you and Maggie, it's sooner, much sooner than it ought to be. Fate can be stern; and she's not always fair.
'Me, I'm very old and perhaps I've not got very much longer left to live; but you're still young, and there's a Change coming; I can feel it in the air. The dreadful things that happened at Bolvangar weren't the end of the story; far from it, they were just the beginning. There are great forces in motion, great deeds waiting to be done and many terrible sacrifices yet to be made. And, in the end, perhaps we'll be no better off than we were before. But we're human, you and me, and humans don't give up 'til the day they die. We've only brushed up against the fringes of the great things that have happened and that will happen, and perhaps that's all that the likes of you and me can hope to do. We cannot all achieve great things, but we can make sure that the little things we can do really count. What Maggie and you did was important; make no mistake about it. You must see to it that everyone knows that, and you must keep on trying as long as you live to make life better for everyone, and make her proud of you.'
And that is how I comes to write down what you is reading now, 'cos I wants everybody to know how good and brave and fierce Maggie was and how dear a heart she had.
'Arthur,' says Farder Coram, after a pause. 'Have you thought about what you are going to do after we land?'
'First we has to take little Stan home to Lambeth, to his mum's. Then we has to tell her all about Maggie.' I has to stop talking for a while. 'Then, I don't know. Talk to Adèle, I expect. I'm not going back to Limehouse again. We could try to find a job on a farm. I don't know – I don't know. We hasn't thought about it much.'
Farder Coram nods. 'Lord Faa and I have been talking about your future. It's true, isn't it, that you never knew who your parents were?' We nods. 'Well, Lord Faa and I can clearly see – any gyptian could – that there's gyptian blood in you. Like me, you have the gyptian insight. The oracular force.
'It first manifested itself when you saw the golden sparks – the Dust-stream – in the boys' dormitory. It was the shock of your discovery of the truth about Bolvangar that liberated that power in you. It was Dust that gave you your revelation of Mrs Coulter's death-fall; Dust that gave you the strength to fight her in the passageway and turn her hatred back upon herself. It's a rare power and only a very few of us are blessed – or cursed – with it. It lies latent in us and wakens only in exceptional circumstances, or when we learn to focus it ourselves. You have been given a great gift, Arthur. It is there for anyone to see. You must learn to use it well.
'How it was that a gyptian, or half-gyptian, baby came to be left outside the Tottenham workhouse gates we may never know. That's someone else's story. But there're two things you can be sure of. Firstly, that every gyptian in every boat in the land will hear at the next Roping about you and Sal and Maggie and Jimmy, and what you did at Bolvangar, and will honour you for it. And secondly, you're a part of the great gyptian family now. Wherever you go, wherever there are gyptians, you will be welcomed as a son or a brother or a cousin. When you are ready, Arthur, Sal, come and join us.'
We is not able to say anything. We has a family at last. We needs never be all alone ever again. And at last we understands what Adèle meant about me and the raggle-taggle gyptians, and where my vision of Mrs Coulter's fall into the endless darkness of the Void came from. The Dust – the life of the Universe – and us are one now.
- 0 -
We is sitting in the stern of the ship, leaning out over the side and looking back at the bubbling wake flowing away towards the north, where the Northern Lights flicker and gleam and Maggie and all the kids what lost their daemons lies at rest. And as Farder Coram is speaking we suddenly sees a rising flare in the north and a great glowing radiance swelling brighter and brighter in the deep blue sky where the Aurora shines, and a brilliant answering beam flashing up to it from the white earth below. The light of it is thrown sparkling into our eyes by the sea. 'What is it, Farder Coram?' we says, overawed. 'Has the sun fallen down to the earth? Is it angels? Or is it the end of the world?'
'It is the end,' he replies, seeing far more than we can yet, and quivering with fear and joy. 'Arthur; a dreadful thing has happened on the ice-fields of Svalbard, and there will be a fearful price to pay for it, but it is, finally, the end. The end of the beginning.'
I looks north, and suddenly it is as if I had the eyes of eagles and can see for miles and miles and all perfectly sharp and clear.
'A bridge,' I cries out. 'It's a bridge between the worlds. A bridge of light! Farder Coram, there's a Change coming. I can see it too!' It's like it was before, with Mrs Coulter. What Farder Coram calls the Dust is speaking through me. I sees the truth, and I knows it's true, but I doesn't know yet what it means.
We weeps then, me for my poor lost Maggie and my terrible ignorance, and Farder Coram weeps too for my loss, and for his terrible knowledge. We holds each other close and he kisses me again and Sal springs from my shoulder and flies high; high above our heads, crying out, 'South! South! South!' and I whispers 'We're going home, Maggie'; and at last, at long, long last, we can face the future unafraid and be at peace.
Afterword – Philip Pullman, CS Lewis and the Aristocrats
Philip Pullman has gone on record many times to express his strong dislike of CS Lewis' Narnian Chronicles. It's certainly easy to read His Dark Materials as an anti-Narnian tract, vociferous in its objections to Lewis' use of children's fiction as a means of slipping a Christian message past the "Watchful Dragons" of a predominately secular society.
If His Dark Materials is meant to be an antidote to the evangelism of the Narnian Chronicles then it's most definitely a homeopathic remedy, for it contains within itself many of the ingredients of the Chronicles. For example, Lyra finds herself to be of genuinely noble birth, and so does Shasta in The Horse And His Boy, which is my favourite Narnian tale. Both Will and Lyra have previously unsuspected talents revealed in them, and in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe Peter Pevensie emerges as a great warrior, able to kill Maugrim the wolf with his new sword at the very first attempt. To be fair to both authors, many of these elements are common to all fantasy fiction and fairy tales.
Let's not even consider that in both sagas the act of hiding among fur coats in a cupboard or wardrobe leads a young girl to adventures in other worlds.
No, what I wanted to talk about was this. In both series, most of the people who matter in the plot are already important persons in some way. For example, Lord Asriel, Lord Faa, the Master of Jordan. Or King Peter, Queen Susan, etc. Or Prince Caspian, or King Tirian or the Chevalier Reepicheep. Or King Ogunwe or the Gallivespians, who all seem to have titles of some kind. Even plain Mrs Coulter becomes the Lady Coulter in Asriel's world.
CS Lewis must have been aware of this problem, for in the fourth book in the series, The Silver Chair, which I consider to be the best of the Narnian tales, the main protagonists are more-or-less ordinary people. Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle have no titles, no noble birth or hidden talents, and spend most of the story making mistakes and quarrelling with one another. It's by far the most psychologically realistic of the Narnian tales with a beautiful overarching air of melancholy, which is echoed in the sublime first half of The Last Battle. And at the end of The Silver Chair, it's Puddleglum, the practical, dull, phlegmatic Puddleglum, who commits the vital act which defeats the evil Green Lady.
There are some ordinary people in His Dark Materials, true, but only two – Will Parry and Lee Scoresby – have any real effect on the progress of the story (Mary Malone's influence is debatable.) In writing the Arthur stories it was my intention to show how, given a good heart and a dash of courage, even the most downtrodden, flawed and insignificant of us can do something that matters; something that makes a difference.
Arthur's transcendence and his death-vision of Mrs Coulter are in the tradition of the hero's revealed hidden power which I mentioned above, but it's Maggie's act of courage in standing up to her formidable enemy armed with little more than her own sense of outrage that is the real point at which she – and by extension, all of us – comes to surpass her humble origins and become, if only for a moment, truly heroic. So may all we Puddleglums hope to find, in our own way, our own small share of greatness.
This, after all, is why we tell each other stories.
Jopari, September 2001
It's very hard to write about ordinary heroes. They have this annoying habit of refusing to remain ordinary. When the Dust chose Arthur as a repository of its power it changed him, so that the next time he appears – as an adult in the story An Ever-Flowing Stream – he has become the boatman, oracle and channel for universal consciousness that he remains throughout the rest of the stories in which he features.
Arthur and Maggie was my first attempt at writing a long story and I hadn't really got the hang of it back then in the summer of 2001. Although the pacing of the story isn't bad in terms of its overall length it's all much too sketchy, I think. It leaps from event to event and location to location very quickly and doesn't take the time to look around and immerse itself in the atmosphere of its surroundings. For example, it would have been nice to have actually lived in Arthur's Limehouse for a while rather than simply pass through it on the way to Bolvangar.
The extent to which Maggie was using Arthur to forward her own ends and his refusal to acknowledge that fact remains latent in this version of the text, which I have very lightly revised. It was a curious blindness of his and it's significant that he never settled down and got married; instead choosing to work the canals and waterways of Brytain, accompanied initially by Maggie's brother Stan and later, when Stan left the water to settle on the land, with Harry Owen.
Attitudes to homosexuality in Lyra's world typically reflect those of ours around fifty years ago. There was a common conception in that world that if your daemon was of the same sex as you, you must be – to say the least – "queer". In reality it was never as clear-cut as that. I'm not suggesting that Arthur was a closet gay who could only come out after the manifestation of his powers, nor necessarily that Harold was homosexual from birth. I believe that it is more likely that sexuality became an irrelevance to Arthur after Maggie's death and his vision of the Bridge To The Stars, and that Harold knew this and was content to live with him in a state of absolute love and complete celibacy.
- 0 -
Because this story had to fit in with the plot of Northern Lights the Bolvangar sequence is far too brief. It would have been more interesting if Arthur and Maggie could have discovered Bolvangar's ghastly secret by themselves, piece by piece, instead of being handed it all in a lump by Harry Owen. There again, if you've read Northern Lights (and if you haven't read it, why on earth are you reading this?) you already know about the silver guillotine and the daemon cages, so Arthur's discovery could never have had the impact on you that Lyra's did. Such are the difficulties of writing canonical fic; and I have never again tried to twine one of my stories around someone else's.
Ceres, June 2006