His Dark Materials

by Joshua Potter

his dark materials

These three novels are young adult fantasy fiction at its finest; more insightful and liberal-minded than The Chronicles of Naria and far more exciting than The Lord of the Rings, the His Dark Materials trilogy is a fine, epic story that orients its young readers toward a lifetime of high literature consumption.

Philip Pullman / British / 1995-2000 / 1088 pages

I read quite a lot when I was a young child, but I don’t much remember the tone, timbre, and trajectory of those early novels. I recall there being a great deal of problem solving in The Boxcar Children and The Hardy Boys serialized books. I vaguely remember the miniature battles and long journeys of the personified animals in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series as well as the various excitements embodied in books like The Westing Game, Shiloh, The View from Saturday, and James and the Giant Peach. Then there came that infamous liminal period when children begin to read books that treat with “serious” subjects: The Giver and its presentation of a dystopian cult; Number the Stars and its introduction to The Holocaust; Bridge to Terabithia with its revelation that children can die; To Kill a Mockingbird with its discussions of racism and regionalism; and The Outsiders, where one learns that other children are coming of age in considerably different circumstances than oneself. At the tail end of this stage, you begin to encounter the books that push you into high school and the realm of more formal literary studies. Probably you read some of Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s simpler novels as well as Orwell’s more allegorical work. Maybe you remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth or The Lord of the Flies. 

It was around this time that I became substantially preoccupied with Philip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials trilogy. I would venture the assertion that no other “young adult” work left such a profound mark on my book-reading childhood and, perhaps with the exception of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Phantom Tollbooth, no other work so thoroughly oriented me toward an adult life of serious reading. Pullman’s trilogy was recently released as a single, mammoth tome by the good people at Everyman’s Library and I availed myself of the opportunity to indulge in the text’s abundant riches once again. I’m pleased to say that it holds up well to a second reading some 10 years removed.

His Dark Materials might aptly be described as “fantasy” fiction, but there are a number of realist, scientific, and theological (or, perhaps, anti-theological) aspects present as well. At it’s core, the trilogy is a story of a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, whose journey into womanhood has cosmic ramifications. This journey is one that passes through several dimensions (temporal, geographic, and moral) and ranges across multiple parallel universes (including the land of the dead), where different types of humans, angels, spirits, and animals stand in bizarre relation to one another. There are compasses that foretell the future, knives that cut through the fabric of space and time, self-conscious “elementary particles” that function like protons on steroids, ghosts that eat souls, demons that speak, gypsies that fight alongside armored polar bears, and diamond-backed cows that travel by jamming their right-angled legs into huge round tree seeds and rolling around upon them as if they were wheels. Did I mention the scientists, priests, politicians, and academics that populate a nontrivially large share of the trilogy’s pages? Have I lost you entirely?

One of the reasons the trilogy succeeds so well is Pullman’s ability to gradually introduce these vastly disparate elements in measured, considered time. His pacing is almost always impeccable. The trilogy begins with The Golden Compass and takes place in a fictional world that appears to be very similar to our “regular” world, but set back technologically by about a half-century. In this world, every human is endowed with a demon, or physical outward manifestation of her soul. The demon is an animal of some form and represents the personality traits of the individual: royalty possess graceful demons (like cheetahs), servants have subservient demons (like dogs), free spirited people have birds as demons, crafty personalities have monkeys or snakes, and so forth. The female protagonist — Lyra — frequently carries on conversations with her demon, a mirror of herself, that would typically be relegated to internal monologues. This turns out to be a nifty narrative trick that only begins to wear thin well into the third book.

Lyra comes from good stock: a father who is an ambitious statesman-academic and a mother who is a highly-placed operative in the all-powerful Christian Church. However, she is raised as an orphan by the scholars of Jordan College — a subsidiary of Oxford — and is given the gift of a mysterious golden compass that points to the direction of truth. Using this compass, she sets sail for the North Pole on a quest to find a schoolyard friend of hers who has recently gone missing. The narrative accelerates rapidly at this point, bringing Lyra into contact with an increasingly bizarre menagerie of characters (including her long-estranged mother and father) as she makes her way north. She is traveling in a world in flux: the Church and the academics are colliding in their search for a cosmic dust, which the Church argues is the source of original sin and the academics argue is the building block of sentient matter. Lyra’s father meets her in the north, where he has been laboring to produce a contraption to tear a hole in the fabric between parallel universes. He succeeds in spectacular fashion and Lyra hesitatingly follows him through a portal before the first volume of the trilogy abruptly ends.

While Pullman sets the lay of the land with vim and vigor in The Golden Compass, he begins the second volume — The Subtle Knife  — in more measured fashion and takes the time to really drill down his thematic aims. There is clearly a Church-Science dichotomy at work in the trilogy as members of the two groups seek out the nature of this cosmic dust for diametrically opposed reasons: the Church to squash it as heretical blasphemy and the scientists as an intellectual curiosity. Somewhat famously, Pullman has a bone to pick with organized religion and he uses Lyra’s series of moral quandaries to draw religion’s failings in increasingly stark terms. In the second book, she pairs up with a young lad named Will and the two of them are faced with a series of obstacles where — disregarding the conflicting advice of two opposing sets of authority figures — they have to rely on their own highly attuned (but nevertheless undeveloped) sense of right and wrong in order to succeed. Whereas Compass was a linearly progressing roller coaster with a clear trajectory, Knife is a more meandering (nay, searching) quest where the protagonists and the readers realize that directives are misleading, truths are false, and the ends are increasingly invoked to justify the means.

The scale of the narrative explodes exponentially in the third volume — The Amber Spyglass — which forsakes entirely the carefully realist construction of the second book for a scattershot blend of heady intellectualism, confusing action sequences, pitch-perfect renderings of emotions, spot-on reinterpretations of ancient mythologies, and irritatingly glossed-over plot points. While Spyglass contains many of the trilogy’s low points, it also includes some of the best, most arresting scenes in the entire 1000-page affair. At one point, in the course of hopping through different parallel universes, Lyra and Will venture into the land of the dead and it is a truly horrifying sequence. Pullman convincingly depicts elation, exhausting and a range of other emotions, including those surrounding the trilogy’s bittersweet and complex denouement.

Without a doubt, His Dark Materials is an arresting read from beginning to end when one is a young adult. After one has grown up a bit, the cracks are somewhat more apparent: the novel suffers from some pedantic narration, overly specific explication, overblown dialogue, and a climax that is, well, blown. But although I’d argue that the trilogy accomplishes the most in a younger reader, I’d also advocate that the novels be read more broadly by older individuals as well. Pullman’s narrative tools are many, deft, and often excellent and he tends to exhibit a subtly of skill — especially in his many head nods toward classical mythology — that are almost surely lost on younger readers. His plot still elicits strong emotions from the reader and it’s a treat to leaf through a young adult novel with a strong female lead. Although Lyra doesn’t always come off the better in direct comparisons to her male counterpart, His Dark Materials is Lyra’s story and she is always at the helm. Indeed, should I have a daughter of my own in the future, I would be straining at the bit for the day to come when she’d be old enough to handle the tenacity of Pullman’s darker moments. Lyra is a figure to admire.

And I know nothing of contemporary young adult fiction that comes after this watershed epic, so I have very little against which I’d weigh it. The first volume of the Harry Potter saga was published right in the middle of the period in which Pullman was working to publish the three installments of His Dark Materials and — despite appearing to borrow some source material from him — the boy wizard certainly seems to have rode roughshod over the trilogy’s popularity. Other young adult lodestones featuring strong female leads are (presumably) too much smut to consider seriously (ahem, Twilight) or too dissimilar to make for a meaningful comparison (Hunger Games). Like I said, I don’t know. But I’d have a hard time thinking up a better, more striking story than Lyra’s. Is His Dark Materials the ideal typical young adult novel? It certainly was for me.  

Rating: 8 / 10

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