A series of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman, consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Though ostensibly for children, His Dark Materials has enough complexity in its characters, theology, and fantasy-logic that adults should not shy from it. In some respects, I consider it superior to Lord of the Rings (gasp!): the cast of characters is as large, and as lovingly developed, but it has a wider range of people and fewer instances of simplistic, absolute evil. There's absolute evil, all right -- just not absolutely evil people. They may be unhappy, selfish, misinformed, or insane, but Pullman's people have reasons for what they do. And, unlike in Tolkien, there are interesting and important female characters as well as Men. Pullman also succeeds in blending the grandeur of high fantasy with a mundane sensibility that makes it possible to love and identify with his story as well as stand back in awe.

The language of His Dark Materials is simple, but not condescendingly so. The prose is lyrical and the story is always captivating. The characters in the trilogy include angels, bears, priests, witches, Texans, ghosts, preadolescents, seductresses, and scientists. This isn't so amazing for a fantasy novel, but what is amazing is that all of them are first and foremost people. Their strangeness not only makes a good yarn, it also speaks directly to our own humanity and personal experience.

His Dark Materials is a trilogy in the true sense of the word - the books cannot be read out of context or out of sequence. There is no time lapse between the three volumes and very little mention is made of previous circumstances once the story has progressed - the reader is fully expected to be clued in to what is going on at every stage of the complex story. As the author himself says in a small introduction at the beginning of each book, this is a story in three books, not three books which are connected by a common theme. This is not exactly a revolution, but nevertheless a welcome departure from the current marketing driven trend of writing series into which a reader can enter at any time in order to maximise sales.

The single biggest upheaval of fantasy laws achieved by Pullman is his approach to good and evil. Not a single character is completely on either "side", because, despite the claims and protestations of some of the powers involved in the conflict at teh center of the story, that is not the line which divides the two camps (in itself a major departure from fairytale lore). The readers are not expected to place their sympathies with one coalition or with another, and any ideas which are formed in the course of reading are constantly undermined and re-examined. The protagonists are neither aware themselves, nor are shown to the reader to be clearly on a particular side, and it is only at the end of the book that one can retroactively decide (and even then, in a somewhat tentative manner) who was in the right and who was in the wrong ( and even then people who may have fought on the "right" side were bad people who did wrong things and vice versa).

Pullman weaves a complex net of personal loyalties, prejudices, interests and affection into  sets of alliances which in are infintely more powerful in helping the actors in the book claim allegiance to side of good than any moralistic or self righteous predestinations. Put more simply, no single character int he books is "good" or "evil" - evil is as evil does, and often right is achieved through the most selfish and roundabout of motives. This moral complexity is in itself enough to entrance and captivate a reader whose imagination has been stunted by the clear cut, almost despotic portrayals of good an evil in literature and other media. Even the most urbane adult reader can be cought up in these tangled relativistic webs.

There is also present in the books a wonderfully unselfconcious attitude towards the sexes, an area which has often been criticized as the genre's most backward feature. Witches are mostly female, and gerat warriors are mostly male, that is true; but the crux of the issue is that neither are more important or powerful than the other, and neither sex is being presented as more of a plot mover in any sense. In fact it would be impossible to predict whether any of the characters are going to be male or female just from reading a synopsis of their roles. Alongside this fluid approach to sex there is an equally uncomplicated view of species, or even cosmic states - ghosts and angels, bears and tiny people are all both good and bad, clever and silly, important or marginal. Real and unforced pluralism at its best, and very contemporary in a way that perhaps only the currently growing up generation of readers can fully appreciate.

While predestination and fate are central to the plot, this does not carry with it a fatalistic approach to characterisation. The most visible aspect of that is that although most of the people in the series communicate in English, they nevertheless speak in slight dialects - there is not such a confusion of languages that any one language becomes solidified, no such profusion of worlds that any world is a uniform, single nationality, humanoid reflection of the next. Some of the different universes in the book are similar to our own to such a degree as to be surrealistically confusing, others are so far removed that only a leap of faith can allow them to exist.

Stylistically as well as narratively, this work is miles removed from the impoverished mundanity of contemporary children's literature. There is harldy any direct exposition in the book. From the outset the reader is plunged directly into a world where things are just what they are, however different they might be to the reader's everyday reality. Physical and cultural phenomena which are similar to our own are called by different names, used in different ways, and are never explained or excused - the reader is expected to either figure it out for themselves or fill in the gaps as best they can. This respect for the reader's imagination and intelligence goes a long way towards making this book a work of real fantasy, in the proper sense of the word, rather than some kind of moralistic allegory behind a thin veil of improbable or imaginary worlds.

Another possible demand from the reader is that of general knowledge. The book makes use and mention (although occasionally in roundabout ways) of everything from Catholic Dogma to quantum physics and beyond. While not being aware of the context behind those references will not stand in the way of enjoying or understanding the story, it is nevertheless entertaining to notice and understand them, and hopefully might make children who don't understand ask questions and try and find out about such things as Christianity, the theory of multiple universes, the difference between gas lighting and electricity, zeppelins, and why polar bears don't eat penguins.

All in all this is the best children's book I have read in years, maybe ever. Best not in the sense of being most entertaining, most ethically correct or most inclined to get children to read, but in the true sense of being a damn good book which does not patronise its audience or pretend to be anything but a great yarn, yet still manages to be infinitely more than just that.

His Dark Materials
A trilogy written by Philip Pullman

"All this time I was away," Lyra said, "I never thought about my future. All I thought about was just the time I was in, just the present. There were plenty of times when I thought I didn't have a future at all. And now... Well, suddenly finding I've got a whole life to live, but no idea what to do with it"


The His Dark Materials trilogy consists of three books; "Northern Lights" (this book is known as "The Golden Compass" in the US), "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass". The previous write-ups have - in a beautiful way - said a few things about the book, but I nevertheless feel the need to add a few things.

The primary thing the books left me wondering, were to what degree they are children's books. And - raising significantly more curiosity - how I would have reacted if I had read this trilogy when I was 12.

The books start off slowly, by painting a vivid portrait of Lyra, the books' main character. Lyra is a 12 year-old girl with a heavy prophecy hanging over her. Early in the first novel, the reader learns that the existence of everything - in the widest possible sense of the word - depends on Lyra, and Lyra alone.

Well, Lyra and her dæmon (pron. demon) Pantalaimon - the morphing creature that is the embodiment of her spirit.

Compared to Harry Potter

As the books were released more or less at the same time (Harry Potter surfaced in 1997 and Dark Materials books were released 1997-2000), a comparison comes natural.

Harry Potter is a series about a guy with a special gift. He didn't know he was a wizard at all, until he was made aware of it. On top of that, it turns out that he is the most special wizard of all, because he is the only one to have survived Voldemort. His Dark Materials carries - in many ways - a similar concept. An adventurous child with a special prophecy is entwined into a story larger than herself.

Here is where the similarities end, however.

Whereas Rowling writes engaging and adventurously enough, Pullman's language and subtlety is in a different league altogether. Quite honestly, I cannot understand how Rowling has received such massive publicity, while Pullmans' work - which is significantly better in all aspects - has received little or none.

Throughout the trilogy, there are several key plot developments and endings of subplots, where you start to get the feeling that the book might end at any moment. Puzzled, I found myself looking at another 200 (100.. 50..) pages to go, only to be baffled by the new twists and bends in the plot.

Unlike most other children's books I have seen, this trilogy seems to be quite comfortable with death. Many of the key characters in the book snuff it throughout, and on several occasions I felt that I left dear friends behind - the sheer vividness of the characters, their characteristics, their passions and their thoughts are reasons enough to read this trilogy.

But it does not stop there.

It has been a while since I was 12, and I am not sure how far along I was, but I do suspect that if I had read this novel at that age (or - even better - if I had been read to), quite a few questions would have been looming.

The novel is never directly against the church, but it is fierce in its criticism against its bad aspect - with many a kick to the groin of the inquisition, suppression of truth etc. Far larger themes are also deeply integrated into the story.

Deceit, lies, love, compassion, custom, habit and curiosity pull the characters in various directions, and no matter how far-fetched some of the actions are - Pullman manages to make it seem as if all the characters act correctly out of their own viewpoint. Not one single of the characters acts "wrongly", and Pullman does not fall in the trap of labelling the bad forces "bad" just because they are bad. All the actions happen because of a reason - and although it takes three sizeable volumes to explain all the reasons, the final result is a literary work of art far beyond most of the other books I have read lately.

If you have children of around 12 years old - or, hell, even if you don't. In fact, ESPECIALLY if you don't - do yourself a favour and pick up the first book in this trilogy. If you manage to read the first book, and if you then manage to avoid the two next ones, something completely inconceivable has happened.

CST Approved

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the best series of books I have ever read. I won't try to rephrase the excellent synopses above, but I will add a few opinions of my own. Like SharQ, I don't think I would have understood the books at 12 as I understand them now. I would have seen a great fantasy adventure story with likeable characters, a fair amount of humour, cute animals, and a really awesome last battle at the end. I would have thought 'why does Lyra get Will, why can't I have him?' and I would have longed for a daemon. (OK, the last one hasn't changed. I think the daemon idea is pure genius and I wish it was true for our world!) At least - I think that's how I would have read the books. I shall come back to that in a moment. 

Anyway: I didn't read the books when I was 12, I read them at the age of 24, and spotted the Miltonic references before Pullman started quoting him. I was also reminded of a short story by Neil Gaiman, the title of which eludes me right now, but it's in the Smoke and Mirrors collection, and if you've read it you will know which story I mean. Basically, the protagonist (I read it as Gaiman himself) is stuck in Los Angeles for a day while his plane is delayed, and he meets a homeless man who claims to be an ex-angel. He tells his own version of the fall of Lucifer, saying that Lucifer was kicked out of Heaven because he saw something he wasn't supposed to see: i.e., he would have uncovered a scandal. Gaiman's story has common ground with His Dark Materials, in that the Fall is seen as a clash of personalities or a simple fight for leadership/domination, rather than a fight between black and white good and evil. Although Milton writes in terms of good and evil, this aspect is clear in Paradise Lost too.

So: returning to how a child (or early adolescent) might view this book. Again like SharQ, I wonder to what extent these are books for children. Anyone who's seen Pullman's website and read some of his essays will know that he has an axe to grind, and is unashamed of it. And good on him, I think. Apart from the fact that critiques on religion are fascinating, I do believe that if there is an argument one way, someone should make it another way. Nothing should be beyond reproach. And although everyone has a right to an opinion, I can't help but cringe at the manner of expression some of his critics have chosen to adopt. 

However. To put these kinds of questions upon children, is something I am less sure about. I have seen His Dark Materials in the 8-12 section of my local bookshop. And OK, maybe there are many levels upon which these stories can be read, and most children under about 15 probably wouldn't pick up the more serious aspects. But what if they do? It may vary from child to child, but I was personally not mature enough to handle serious religious questions until I was about 15, and I was quite a mature child. I was raised Catholic, and while I wasn't devout or even very serious about it when in my early teens, I tended to brush aside any critiques or attacks on Christianity, feeling rather uncomfortable - not disagreeing with them, exactly, but just not feeling able to deal with it either way, just at that moment.

Pullman has been quoted as saying he wants to kill God. Fair enough, but don't involve kids. If I am ever blessed with children, which I sincerely hope I am, I would be angry on their behalf if someone attempted to foist a religion upon them - any religion - before they're old enough to make an informed spiritual decision. And I count atheism in that.

But I don't want to end on a negative note. It may have been quite a major concern I was voicing, but it doesn't affect my opinion of the series. I think these books are brilliant. I found them entertaining, breathtaking, enlightening, educational, and very well written. I would recommend His Dark Materials unreservedly to anyone 15 or over, and without much reservation to over-12s. Parents: if you are concerned about these books, read them. You'll enjoy yourselves. If you're a Christian, remember that this is only one man's opinion, and, moreover, that the actual moral message of the books is probably something with which you'll agree. Pullman may have talked about killing God, but he has also said that Christian virtues are not exclusively Christian, but universal.

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