Phew, it looked for a while like we were in for another wet, greenish-grey Christmas, but lo, the Arctic winds came through for us at the last minute.
Maybe it was the snow, or the nostalgia, or both, that leads me ultimately to the third and final retrospective on stories that take me back to the good old days and have impacted me ever since: the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Phillip Pullman.
His Dark Materials, better known as the Golden Compass Trilogy for its first chapter, is based in what I like to call a ‘little bit to the left’ world, a setting that is similar to our world but drastic differences have arisen in the weave of its history. Compare the world of Nation or the Leviathan Trilogy for other examples.
In the world of the Golden Compass, England is still a true monarchy, there is a single Church that has power over all of society,the Arctic is ruled by witches and armour-clad polar bears, and people have a kind of external soul in the form of an animal-shaped ‘daemon.’
The Golden Compass features Lyra, a tomboyish orphan living in the care of a distinguished Oxford college, and her daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra is more at home among street urchins than scholars, and longs to join her uncle, Lord Asriel, on his mysterious expeditions to the north to investigate the Northern Lights.
She has matters of her own to worry about when children start disappearing. At the same time, Lyra is swept into a new life with a glamorous adventuress, Mrs. Coulter. Before she leaves, the Master of the college gives her an alethiometer. Like a compass, this device points your way, but not North; it points to the truth, for those who can read it.
Discovering that she has a natural talent at interpreting the alethiometer’s symbolic signals, she runs away and finds allies; the boat-gypsies of Britain’s waterways, a witty balloonist, a beautiful witch queen, and a ferocious armoured bear and joins them to find the missing children and discover the intentions of Lord Asriel and what he knows, and what Mrs. Coulter dreads, about the force known as Dust and the other world behind the Northern Lights.
The second novel, the Subtle Knife, jumps to our own world to introduce Will Parry, a boy who leaves his mentally ill mother to find his father, missing for many years, to try and find out where he disappeared to, and why men seem to be hunting for his father’s old letters. He finds a strange door into a new world, and meets Lyra, who has also crossed over from hers, and they discover that they are caught between powers that span universes. Will also discovers the Subtle Knife, with which he can cut portals between worlds. With the help of a physicist, they begin to figure out one side and the other, and the nature of Dust.
Finally in the Amber Spyglass, answers start being uncovered as Lyra and Will start to realize they have a key role to play in this new war for Heaven. Dr. Malone, their physicist friend, creates a special glass to observe Dust, while Will and Lyra make their own discoveries about the motives of the different sides of this pan-dimensional war. As they come of age together, their actions and their feelings will determine the fate of all that exists.
I have praised a lot of stories for their world building, but I have to say that in the realm of fantasy literature, Lyra’s world achieves all the charm, depth and wonder of the classic Middle-Earth type fantasy setting while retaining almost none of its usual trappings. There are a thousand little touches to let you know what the rules and history of the world are; electricity is called anbaric force,a scientist is an experimental theologian, chocolate still answers to its ancient name of chocolatl and, as often seems to be the case with alternate worlds, there are a lot of zeppelins.
Phillip Pullman is on par with Brian Jacques in his skill and describing landscapes and people, and there’s no one to match him with writing dialogue. The characters fairly leap off the page for me, and you can feel all their joy and anguish almost as vividly as your own. Lyra was and remains one of my favourite fictional characters ever. Pullman has a skill, a subtlety and an economy of language in his writing that makes it incredibly fun to read. The story itself gets progressively more epic in scope, and hits strong emotional notes and high action points just often enough to keep you engaged and in suspense, and clever elements of mystery will keep you guessing. The lf story itself can be harrowing at times, especially for young-adult readers, with all victories coming at a cost, sometimes a gut-wrenchingly horrible one.
The trilogy is based around the classic theme of innocence to experience. Both Will and Lyra start out less innocent than some, but discover the heights of goodness and the depths of evil and where they stand throughout the story. It is the most basic heart of the story, and in many respects the main thing we, and Pullman himself, are here for.
There is a passage in the Last Battle, final instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia, where Susan, one of the four children from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is said to be “no longer a friend of Narnia” and interested “in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, along with Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling and others, have interpreted this to mean that Susan is being excluded, damned after a fashion, because she embraced her adulthood and particularly her sexuality. Pullman voiced strong objections to these and related themes in Lewis, and His Dark Materials can be read as the anti-Narnia. Crucially, the process of losing innocence is treated, on balance, as being a positive force.
It’s a brilliant idea, but certain side effects do cause problems. His Dark Materials is that most ornery of beasts, a story that exists to make a point. Lots of famous works have done so, but it’s a difficult line to walk because you risk your tale turning into a tract. It isn’t as apparent in the Golden Compass or in the Subtle Knife, but as the threads get tied together Pullman starts piling on symbolism and exposition to make his point that starts to turn the Amber Spyglass into more of a slog than it could have been. He lays in a lot of references to Adam and Eve, the Rebellion of Lucifer and similar matters. They get explained in-text but it can be very out of left field if you don’t already know something about Christian theology and symbolism. This is part of the reason why I found I could barely remember anything about the third book after I read it when I was 13. However, I can’t be sure if that says more about the book or about me…
And of course the point being made might be one you find distasteful. As I said of Terry Pratchett’s Nation, when a particular philosophy (secular humanism in both cases) informs the story, it can potentially be off-putting if you do not share it, and Pullman is nowhere near as subtle or lighthearted about it as Pratchett is either. Since I happen to share views with both writers, it doesn’t distress me, but it might be a bit glaring for some.
While I can’t really point to anything specific, I sometimes get the feeling that Pullman worked out the thesis but played the story around it by ear. It would certainly explain why it always takes Pullman freaking forever to come out with a new book. Part of this is that as new characters get introduced – Will in Subtle Knife and a whole whack of people in the Amber Spyglass – it can get unfocused after spending the whole first book getting to know Lyra. That said, our heroine seldom leaves our field of view and stays pretty active throughout. And indeed, the other characters are sufficiently engaging that it’s still a pleasure to meet them. Lord Asriel’s plan escalates with almost ridiculous speed, and the plot of the second two books seems at times to meander a little.
The trilogy is still one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and has affected me a lot ever since. It’s a deep, moving, superb story with a vast amount of imagination and talent behind it. It falters only in that, in its determination to make a statement, it loses the accessibility and clarity of its breakout contemporary, Harry Potter, which is a shame because, artistically, it’s at least the equal of Harry Potter. It’s well worth a try for any young reader.
Happy New Year. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t watch the movie. It’s dreadful….