So I admit it – I was quite intrigued by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials – the books, not the movie. Frankly, I fail to see how any movie version of these books – especially book three – can even begin to do the book justice, because the anti-clerical, anti-Christian tone is simply too dicey for a Hollywood production: unless they grasp the essentially gnostic tone of the story, and understand that the Authority is a stand-in for the Demiurge, and not necessarily any statement on higher reality.
But apart from religious scruples, I was fascinated by the alethiometer. The alethiometer stands in as the perfect form of divination: divination that is the truth, if only one knows how to read it. Further, we note the fascinating change – Lyra can read it perfectly as a child, but at the change to adolescent - which is such a huge factor in this series – strips her native ability. After the change, she must rely on books and a painfully long learning curve to achieve the result that came naturally such a short time before.
What is the lesson here? I think it may actually be the same lesson as why each individual's daemon assumes one single form upon entering adolescence: the truth that the alethiometer reads is parallel to the truth one sees about oneself.
To children, adults are arbitrary beings doing arbitrary things. Adults are, so to speak, forces of nature. Meanwhile, children are beings in the process of becoming. Adolescence and early adulthood is the time that a child becomes “fixed” into an adult. And it is in the period of early through middle adulthood that the personality is the most fixed. And here in lies the key to the alethiometer.
Lyra's questions to the alethiometer either ask about what has already happened – or what will happen. In this sense, the questions she asks (and the others ask other alethiometers) are exactly analogous to those horary questions I encounter daily. Divination is about what you don't know – and you may not know about it even though it has already occurred – or because it hasn't occurred yet. The past you don't know is exactly like the future that you cannot know.
But there's the machine – and then there's the diviner, or reader. As a child, Lyra is free to associate symbols, and intuit the meaning. And she obviously has a talent for this: that's what makes her so special. With maturation come passions – passions unlike anything she experienced before. Emotions become complex. And in that complexity, she loses this native ability, just as Pantalaimon loses his ability to change shapes. And I believe this happens to the daemons not because they cannot change, but because their humans cannot bear the fluidity of change.
It is into this universe of fixed personalities that adults learn to read the alethiometer using books and fixed methods. It is described as a lifelong process. In teaching many students horary astrology, I am struck by how hard it is for many to creatively break the rules. It's an odd universe, the process of divination – one is constantly confronted by the curious juxtaposition of needing to have a really good rule book – but the also the ability to know when to transcend those rules. It was this conundrum that I attempted to address when I titled my book The Martial Art of Horary Astrology – because, like the good horary astrologer, the good martial artist has to practice the rules until they are absolutely instinctive, because only then will one be able to know when to ignore them. Slavish following of the rules produces a fighter who is completely predictable, or a pedestrian interpretation.
Curiously, this flat-footedness seems to most be a part of early to middle adulthood. One is too caught in trying to look good, and so one over-asserts oneself and one's ego into everything. It is only as one gets older that one truly begins to see the commonalities within the fierce assertion of individuality – and then one's interpretation becomes more fluid.
So if it takes a lifetime to “learn” the alethiometer, is it because it takes a lifetime to break down the mask that one so carefully builds up? What does that say for the mask that fractured that “childish” native talent in the first place? And what does this say for prediction in general? It has been my contention that horary operates in the reality that, while we always have free will, it's simply easier to not exercise it. It's always easier to do what comes "naturally" than to have to consciously think about alternatives. I would suggest that therefore horary - or the alethiometer - works best for young to middle-aged adults. Because that represents the life-phase where the armor is hardest - and I don't mean armored bear here! As to older adults, the question is really whether that person is clinging tenaciously to the armor, or accepting its inevitable dissolution.