His Dark Materials
I just recently finished rereading Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. Typically I don’t write up reviews for books that I have already read, but for these books I thought I would make an exception. This exception is also brought to you because of Soccer Mom in Denial’s Day to Read campaign.
Philip Pullman is a British author who has won various awards including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for the His dark Materials trilogy. Before he made a name for himself as an author he taught at a few different Oxford middle schools and took a position at Westminister College teaching students in the B.Ed course. He has stated that his primary concern with education is that “an over-emphasis on testing and league tables has led to a lack of time and freedom for a true, imaginative and humane engagement with literature.”
The first book of the His Dark Materials series is called The Golden Compass and has recently been released in theaters as a movie. I have yet to see the movie interpretation, partially because with a toddler getting to the movie is a feat of dexterous planning but largely because I find that books translated to the screen are at best a weak rendition of the original and at worst a travesty. I’m not yet prepared to discover which of these the film version of Pullman’s book is.
The Golden Compass introduces readers to a vivid and imaginative world in which every person has an external representation of his or her own soul or spirit which takes on an animal form called a daemon. The form upon which the daemon settles is chosen which the person reaches puberty and starts the process of changing from a child to an adult and this animal form with be an external representation of a person’s character. For example, people in this world who become servants tend to have daemons in the form of dogs since they are loyal and follow orders. Obviously, the world in which this story takes place is not our own, however, a fact that is discussed throughout the book and becomes crystal clear throughout the course of the two subsequent books is that there are an infinite number of worlds which exist simultaneously in the same space and time but are just out of reach. In fact, most people have no knowledge of the existence of other worlds and those who acknowledge their existence are branded heretical by the church, an all powerful political player in the world of Lyra and her daemon.
The political role of the church is the central focus of Pullman’s series and has been the cause of much conflict and debate surrounding the books. I have no intention of touching on this debate here (again. See here for an earlier rant on this topic). Pullman pulls no punches in his accusations of organized religion. He does not try to sugar coat the fact that the political body of the church in Lyra’s world seeks complete domination over humankind and he has no qualms claiming that such a process is part of our world as well. Although this fact does not become clear until at least part way through the third book, Pullman asserts that the battle between the angels, those who have fallen and those who still support the Authority, has been wrongly viewed throughout history. The Church and Authority fight to suppress exploration, knowledge and free thinking and pursue the path of complete domination and the creation of weak willed subservient societies which exist solely for the purpose of revering their “creator”.*** The fallen angels, not wishing to succumb to this ideology, were not strong enough to be victorious but have been battling ever since on the side of freedom and knowledge.
The central crux of this story is the growth and development of the human mind and soul. On her physical journey to save a friend from the land of the dead Lyra and her companion Will discover that to be truly human and to truly participate fully in the world one must struggle for morality, learn right from wrong and how to act in circumstances that present the two without the help of some overarching edict. They help to pull down the Authority and put an end to the political maneuvering of the church in multiple worlds and learn from one of the fallen angels their true purpose on earth: “by helping [people] to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious.” (The Amber Spyglass p. 492)
Pullman’s trilogy is a series that I will never tire of reading, and this from a woman who does not enjoy fantasy. I would easily and freely suggest these books to anyone who enjoys books that make you think.
*** Creator – I use this term in inverted commas because Pullman makes it clear in his book that the Authority is not a creator and came into being in just the same way as other angels. He just came first and set himself up as a leader.
The above quote is from the Knopf 2000 paper back edition.