Stories Run Like Clockwork

Philip Pullman believes that: 'Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.'1 They stick in our minds and we are all hungry for them; stories feed our imaginations, help us to see the world through different eyes, and make us consider some of the big questions of life. Pullman says:

All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions . . . We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever.2

Pullman's Clockwork or All Wound Up is an illustrated book3 (wonderfully so, thanks to Peter Bailey) for younger readers, set in the wild mountain forests of German Romanticism. It opens with 'Once upon a time . . . ' and ends with people living happily ever after - it's a fairy tale (see The Firework Maker's Daughter on this site for another of Pullman's). Fairy tales, like all good stories, teach us wisdom without the reader being particularly aware of it: 'fairy tales . . . are ways of telling us true things without labouring the point.'

This particular fairy tale is all about the business of telling stories and fate. Pullman's inspiration came from an old clock in London's Science Museum:

I thought it would be fun to try and write a story in which one part turning this way connected to another part and made it turn that way, like the cogwheels of a clock. And when it was all fitted closely together, I could wind it up and set it going . . . Of course, it had to be spooky too, because old clocks are, somehow.

It's the cause and effect inevitability of both clocks and stories which underpins the tale: It's a dark, snowy night. Karl the apprentice clockmaker is in very low spirits in the tavern on the last evening of his apprenticeship. According to tradition, that night he should install in the town clock a new clockwork figure, but he has been so lazy that he has made nothing. He will be the first to fail in hundreds of years. His friend, Fritz is a storyteller. His friend, Fritz the writer is also in the tavern telling a creepy new story, coincidentally called 'Clockwork'. But Fritz hasn't finished the story, and is relying on sudden inspiration to be able to finish it. As he gets to the end of what he has written, he is describing one of his characters, the spooky clockmaker Dr. Kalmenius - and at that moment Dr. Kalmenius himself enters the tavern pulling a sledge with a mysterious object covered with a cloth. Fritz's fiction and reality turns out to be closely intermeshing cogs on one story. Fritz is terrified and runs away, and soon everyone leaves the tavern except Karl. Dr. Kalmenius tells him that he has come to help and unveils the figure on his sledge - a wonderfully intricate knight with a razor-sharp sword. Karl can place it in the clocktower and pass it off as his own, and become a famous clockmaker. But just as Frtiz seems to have set events in motion with his story, once Karl accepts the gift, he too sees to set off an inexorable process which leads to his moral failings destroying him.

The point is that actions have consequences and there's sometimes nothing we can do about it:

Once you've wound up a clock, there's something frightful in the way it keeps on going at its own relentless pace. Its hands move steadily round the dial as if they had a mind of their own. Tick, tock, tick, tock! Bit by bit they move, and tick us steadily on towards the grave.

Some stories are like that. Once you've wound them up, nothing will stop them; they more on forwards till they reach the destined end, and no matter how much the charaters would like to change their fate, they can't. (p. 8, 9)

Pullman says:

I realised I could use the story to say something about the inexorable nature of responsibility. If you have a child you should look after him. If you make a promise, you should keep it. If you start a task, you should finish it. If you begin telling a story, and people are listening, you should take it to the end and not run out halfway through.

What's important is that we choose the right course of action at the outset - that we wind up events in the right way. In the story, good choices about the way to live (kindness, compassion, warmth) result in life being given to others; bad choices (laziness, greed, selfish ambition, irresponsibility) lead to death. Pullman applies this to being an artist or craftsman, whether a clockmaker or a storyteller. Dr. Kalmenius suggests that Karl can have something for nothing; all he needs to do is really want something and he will have it. The future has no choice 'once you have wound it up' (p.35). But in fact, says Pullman, life isn't like that. You need to work hard to pursue your dreams - and even that's no guarantee of success:

Here's the truth: if you want something, you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and the despair, and only if you're willing to risk failure. (p.36)

A successful artist needs real determination, some talent and some luck, and it would seem that Pullman sees these as the key ingredients for a successful life too. Ultimately, the book suggests, while actions do have inevitable consequences, the future is in our hands - we need to make the right choices now.

Christians would agree, though they would see the talent as a gift from God, and would have a rather different perspective on the third element of luck - seeing it as connected with God's sovereignty. But Christians would also go further and say that the choices we make now about how to live have repurcussions beyond death. And the key choice to be made is even more fundamental than moral choices - though they inevitably follow from it as the cogs of a clock move in response to the drive of the spring or pendulum - and that is how we will live in relation to God: in dependence on him, or with ourselves as the mainspring of our lives.

  1.  Philip Pullman - 10 June 2004).
  2.  Philip Pullman, Carnegie Medal acceptance speech (accessed 10 June 2004).
  3.  Clockwork was also turned into an opera by composer Stephen McNeff and librettist David Wood, and first staged in 2004. For more information on the making of this production, see the Royal Opera House website (accessed 5 May 2004).
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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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