Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a trilogy made of The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It follows the coming of age adventures of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry through several worlds. Unknowingly she must make a choice that will save or doom the worlds. Lyra is a willful child who lives in another world’s Oxford; as children disappear she goes on an adventure to save her friend Roger. On the way she crosses path with witches, gyptians and bears who are in turn allies, friends or enemies. She has a gift for stories – more often than not lies – and to help her an alethiometer. Will Parry’s father disappeared 12 years ago and his mother’s mental state is more than fragile. Trying to escape men who are attempting to find his father, Will kills one and eluding the police he finds himself in another world where he meets Lyra. Together they will change the future of all the worlds.
It’s one of these books you read as a teenager or a young adult and don’t necessarily understand fully at your first reading. It’s filled with a number of ideas that are more complicated than the children’s audience the publishers intended it for.
First, there’s the underlying reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which many adults haven’t read and the entire discourse of the rebellion of angels against God (the Authority). There’s also the acknowledged link to William Blake’s works. In some way Pullman’s writings are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s famous quote “God is dead” from Also Sprach Zarathustra.
As a reader, one of the most interesting things about this book is the world building. The story of a Chosen One who will save or undo the world is somewhat familiar in fantasy writing. But the world building is phenomenal. Everything about it feels so real.
One of its crucial elements is the daemon (pronounced demon): the soul of a person, which has a proper form and can speak. Daemon comes from the Greek daimon, which is a spirit not quite divine but not human either. It doesn’t necessarily provide guidance although when it’s benevolent it may. When I first read the books I found the concept absolutely enthralling as well as (since I’d just studied the daimon in class on theater and politics) really interesting. When we studied it, we were shown the difference between the daimon and the ethos: one is pure feeling, soul while the other one is the acting deciding power. Some psychoanalysis in a way.
I would have liked the book, but the actual existence of your soul or spirit was just a great hook for me.
The different races and cultures within the book were really interesting too: from the gyptians to the Bears, with witches and Tatars. Very rich and detailed without being explained too much. Every single people has its specificities, at once relatable to what we know in our own world and yet alien enough that there’s that fantasy feel one looks for in such a book. It draws on different mythologies and gives a lot to think about: some people live their entire lives with their death nearby. The travels to the world of the dead definitely recall Homer and the Greek consulting the dead (Odysseus calling upon the seer Tiresias) for example.
There was (probably still is) some controversy about the book and its view on Catholicism and a first read could indeed lead someone to think the book to be anti-Christian and anti-God. The way I understand it though is a bit different: it is definitely a critic of organized religion – not only Christianity – and how it can bully people while pretending to save them. But the thing is that ‘the Authority’ isn’t God. It is specifically mentioned several times. Also the Chariot (Heaven) is actually led by Metatron, an angel who was once a man and who is corrupted too. So as much as Pullman’s argument may be that the angels were right to rebel, it’s not an endorsement of killing God but rather destroy those who would falsely claim to be Him or serving His will when they actually don’t. At least that’s how I read it. So to take with a grain of salt.
I hadn’t read the book since 2004 so I rediscovered it when I read it for this review. I discovered things I hadn’t noticed before but I’m sure I’ve missed other things still.
It’s not perfect; there are parts in The Amber Spyglass that are unnecessarily lengthy or that don’t really tie up with the rest of the story – at least not seamlessly.
The long forays in the mulefa’s world with Dr. Malone aren’t convincing. It seems more of an artifice to get the story where it needs to be but it’s not as smooth as it could be. The entire idea of Mary Malone being the serpent to Lyra’s Eve isn’t really explored in a satisfying way: it’s a bit shallow. There’s the entire dynamics between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel; it sometimes feels tight, forced. Particularly their ending. The entire point of the daemon taking a final form is that people don’t really change after: it’s hard to get past that and think that Mrs. Coulter and her absolutely despicable monkey daemon would end up doing something good. Or Lord Asriel although he could be making that choice just out of pride…
Even though His Dark Materials is considered a young adult’s book, it raises multiple questions about faith, organized religion – and its potential for autocratic ruling – friendship and the choices one makes. Throughout the book I was reminded of the expression ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Lyra represents that a little. Then there’s this moment when Iorek the bear says that even a tool, such as the subtle knife, has intention. And so Will and Lyra for all that they intend to do good, don’t really know whether that’s what is going to come out of. So Fate plays a role too.
It’s definitely worth a read and it’s probably deserving of a space on the 100 books to read before you die, although I’m surprised Milton or Blake aren’t.
Have you read His Dark Materials?
What did you think of it?