His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman. New York: Laurel-Leaf (paperback).
The Golden Compass (1995, 351 pp.)
The Subtle Knife (1997, 288 pp.)
The Amber Spyglass (2000, 465 pp.)
While religious leaders want to establish the kingdom of heaven on Earth, the heroes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) seek to overthrow the oppressive “kingdom” of heaven and establish a “republic” in its stead. This is the driving action in Pullman’s “young adult” fantasy series. And although the books are marketed to teens, the stories will, like all good literature, reward readers with more years and a few gray hairs as well.
The first novel, The Golden Compass (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Northern Lights) opens on a parallel Earth where humans and their daemons—the physical manifestations of their souls—live under the suffocating control of the Church and its security apparatus, the Magisterium. But oppression is furthest from the mind of twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her daemon (pronounced “demon”) Pan: They’re too busy getting into trouble and having adolescent adventures in and around Oxford, in particular hassling the children of the Gyptians, wanderers who visit yearly on their barges. The Oxford kids and the Gyptian youngsters engage in a good-natured conflict in which they “gobble” each other, “Gobblers” being this Earth’s bogeymen. But things take a decidedly more grown-up turn when Lyra gets wrapped up in the machinations of her uncle, Lord Asriel, an explorer and iconoclast.
After saving Asriel from an assassination attempt and learning from him and his colleagues a bit about the mysterious “Dust,” a subject that the other adults avoid discussing at all costs, Lyra is introduced to the malevolent Mrs. Coulter and is subsequently sent to live with her. Before she leaves Oxford, Lyra is given a truth-telling device called an altheiometer—the golden compass of the title. Powered by Dust, it can discern what’s hidden in the heart of any man, woman, or beast. While living with Mrs. Coulter—who, naturally, covets the altheiometer—Lyra discovers that Gobblers actually exist and have been kidnapping children for a dark purpose related to Dust. Eventually, Lyra goes north to rescue a kidnapped friend and makes the acquaintance of aeronaut Lee Scoresby and his rabbit daemon Hester, as well as witches and militaristic armored polar bears. The novel ends on a cliffhanger—and a dark revelation about the nature of Lord Asriel’s work.
The Subtle Knife switches locations, first to our Earth, and then to the dangerous, specter-filled world of Cittagazze. Another child, Will Parry, has escaped through a rent in the fabric of space from our Oxford to Cittagazze after inadvertently killing two men who came to search his home for materials related to his missing explorer father. In the seemingly deserted Cittagazze, he meets Lyra (who has been wandering for several days searching for Lord Asriel) and acquires the subtle knife—a device that allows him and Lyra to travel between worlds by cutting through the fabric of space. Returning to Will’s world, the two run into a sinister man who steals the altheiometer and then make the acquaintance of Mary Malone, an ex-nun cum particle physicist who is studying Dust. Following these meetings, the two friends find themselves in the middle of Asriel’s war to usurp the kingdom of heaven and kill God (or “The Authority,” as he’s known in the novels). Like the first novel, The Subtle Knife ends on a cliffhanger, with our heroes in mortal danger and several of their allies wounded, captured, or killed.
The final novel, The Amber Spyglass, picks up with Will in Lyra’s world trying to make a daring rescue of his friend with the help of the armored bears. Reunited, Lyra and Will make their way to the Land of the Dead, where they discover and implement the strategy needed to tip the war against The Authority. After the war, the adolescent heroes are faced with several hard choices, including Lyra’s temptation, which is prophesized throughout the trilogy. The series ends on a bittersweet note with the universe and our heroes changed in profound ways.
Being high fantasy, the novels may not appeal to readers who do not like genre fiction. However, the series wrestles with important issues for both adolescents and adults: What is the nature of independence? Why is it important? What are the consequences of ideas and decisions? What is the meaning of friendship and love? And what fundamentally does it mean to be human? This is all heady stuff to incorporate into a fantasy series featuring talking bears, daemons, witches, interdimensional travel, and visits to hell, but the framework allows Pullman to play with the ideas, develop them, and chew them in a way he could not in a philosophical or theological text.
Pullman, who is an atheist, has stated in interviews that he partly wrote His Dark Materials as an answer to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, which he detests.1 Further, among Pullman’s direct inspirations is John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the trilogy and first novel get their titles from that work, and the story itself is told from the point of view of Pullman’s Lucifer equivalent. It’s obvious that Pullman’s primary goals are to attack organized religion (though the novels are surprisingly “spiritual” in the best sense of the word) and to present his ontological views on both existence and the nature of mankind. These latter views are perhaps unsurprising, given Pullman’s vocation as a storyteller and his belief (which comes across in the series) that man’s ability to tell stories is his defining quality—the thing that makes him a thinking, reasoning being.
The novels, refreshingly, avoid many of the pitfalls of the fantasy genre, such as lengthy histories of the characters or realms, detailed descriptions of pitched battles, predictable resolutions, and excessive context setting. On this latter count, Pullman takes it as a given that armored bears can talk, that Asriel has been able to build a transworld coalition against The Authority, that hell exists, that seemingly supernatural vehicles like the “intention craft” work, and that miniature secret agents are able to use a radio to transmit messages anywhere in the universe. But he does not use these supernatural conceits as a deus ex machina to get the heroes out of tight literary corners. Characters die, bad things happen, and hard choices must be made in spite of the fantastical nature of his story. Never is a spell used to undo something terrible. The fantasy may involve the supernatural, but Pullman’s universe has its own set of immutable natural laws.
A potential disappointment for fantasy fans is that the climactic conflict occupies only a very small part of the final novel and is only partially resolved, via a great battle between good and evil. But the resolution does indicate Pullman’s heartening view of the nature of evil: It is ultimately impotent and easily overcome. Another element that will disappoint some readers is that Lyra and Will’s final choice is a sacrifice of sorts, but one that is made with their eyes wide open and in a fully reasoned and rational way. Regardless, these potential drawbacks do not outweigh the great value and power of the series.
For teens, His Dark Materials delivers an intriguing high-adventure story, presenting a world where the heroic is possible, where fighting for one’s own values is good, and where falling in love is as wondrous an adventure as visiting parallel worlds. For adults, the series delivers all that plus additional richness and complexity that may go over the head of the average teen reader. Pullman’s ideas about sin and redemption, for instance, are fascinating and come from a mature perspective. Consequently, His Dark Materials rewards on many levels, and Lyra’s world and the republic of heaven are worth repeated visits.