Sunday Salon: The Coffin Trail

Sunday_salon Such is the disorientation of having some time off work that I hadn’t realised it was Sunday until I opened up my rss reader and saw Clare’s peaceful 6.15 and more energetic 12.15 posts.

So, this morning I finished reading The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards. I enjoyed this book a lot, not least because it is set in my beloved Lake District, but also because it has a good plot and strong characters. Highly recommended if you like police procedurals — the main detective is a woman, Hannah Scarlett (lovely name, I wish I’d been called that) — with a "local mystery" theme. The Coffin Trail is the first of a series, so I shall definitely be reading more.

And what is a coffin trail (or corpse road) you may ask? From Wikipedia (emphasis mine): "In late medieval times a population increase and a concomitant expansion of church building took place in Great Britain inevitably encroaching on the territories of existing mother churches or minsters. Demands for autonomy from outlying settlements made minster officials feel that their authority was waning, as were their revenues, so they instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches (at the heart of parishes) that alone held burial rights. For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain and usually it had to be carried unless the departed was a wealthy individual. An example would be the funeral way that runs from Rydal to Ambleside in the Lake District where a coffin stone, on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested, still exists. Many of the ‘new’ churches were eventually granted burial rights and corpse roads ceased to be used as such."

Northern Lights diminished

Among the usual collection of Christmas holiday season movies is The Golden Compass, the film of Philip Pullman’s wonderful Northern Lights. I saw the film a few weeks ago with my stepdaughter and two daughters, between us ranging in age from 150 (me) to 24, 16 and 12. We all think we enjoyed it, but we aren’t too sure – something of a curate’s egg.

The younger generation all felt that you had to have read the book in order to understand the plot and hence enjoy the film. I wasn’t so sure — because for me the film was "good enough" (in the sense that the Harry Potter films are "good enough" renditions of the books though lacking a dimension or two), but it had two stand-out dreadful flaws. The first of these was a voice-over right at the start, which solemnly explains the entire plot in words of one syllable — what Lord Asriel is doing in the North, the existence and meaning of dust (including detail from book 2) and all you ever could want to know about daemons. Hence, dramatic tension was ruined.

The second horror was that the film ended three-quarters of the way through the book, destroying the terrible balance of Lyra’s two parental confrontations and hence the awful power of the story. One of the many reasons why Northern Lights is so thrilling is that Pullman is not afraid to go "all the way" with the evil parent motif — not just with one parent but both. The author backs down somewhat, but not very far, in subsequent books (one reason why they are weaker); the fierce independence and strength of Lyra, such a fresh character in all of fiction, is severely undermined by this bizarre plot decision.

I can forgive the omission of Lord Asriel’s dramatic slamming of the head on the table of the senior common room to the shock of the dons, and (apart from in a brief aside) the gliding over of Iorek Byrnison’s true status. These, and other, simplifications weaken impact but don’t detract from the power of the story. There were lots of very good things about the film, as described in two excellent reviews at Stephen Lang and at Material Witness. But I can’t forgive the awful, unnecessary dumbing-down of the initial voiceover, and I was left high and dry by the decision to truncate the story before its end. It is as if Far From the Madding Crowd ended before Bathsheba finally reciprocates Gabriel Oak’s devotion, or as if Othello ended at the death of Desdemona.