19 Jun 2012

His Dark Materials: a Review

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the main causes for my appreciation of fantasy. Throughout the three books, Pullman’s skill in creating three books equal in depth and majesty keeps readers, young and old alike, stuck to this strange world of dæmons, armoured bears and angels. The imaginative genius of Pullman cannot be doubted. Tolkien and a few other writers had it: the ability to create believable, fantastical worlds and characters with which the reader can identify.

And yet, the book comes under fire from religious groups worldwide. In America, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for a boycott of the film adaptation of the first in the trilogy, The Northern Lights or The Golden Compass, as it introduced children to atheism. It hardly takes a forensic read to find out why: the protagonist is an illegitimate daughter of an adulterous relationship; the Church is portrayed as being completely devoid of morals; and the Authority (God, to us) is portrayed as a fragile, naïve and almost corpse-like figure who, in the end of the trilogy, dies.

I do not want to become immersed in the quagmire of religious debate, where insubstantial opinions are claimed to be facts, however it is impossible to deny it completely when dealing with these books. I find my own Atheistic opinion sitting quite well with Pullman's:

I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away. Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them.
The first book in the trilogy is The Northern Lights, which introduces us to the strange but seducing concepts of dæmons and dust. A dæmon is a part of one’s personality in the form of an animal, as a separate entity. In Lyra’s world, no one would ever have to ask the question, ‘if you were an animal, what would you be?’ in a job interview again (yes, I’ve had it twice already). This is the main aspect of the first book that I found most engrossing. And enigmatic: Pullman, predictably but still powerfully, withholds his secrets for the later books.

The Subtle Knife introduces Will, a boy who lives in our world, who is on the run after accidentally killing an intruder in his house. His path crosses with Lyra’s and the blade that gives this book its name which can cut through barriers between dimensions and worlds. Deeper mysteries now emerge, with the two young protagonists’ paths entwine until the very end of the trilogy, which takes a much more eerie and disturbing tone from here.

Finally, there’s The Amber Spyglass. It features a multiplicity of new characters, worlds, races and emotions, concluding the trilogy in a suitable fantastic fashion. For example, Pullman introduces us to a race called the Mulefa, an intelligent, elephant-like race on which evolution took a different course. In the final book, Pullman does a brilliant job of tying all the loose ends together and answering all of the outstanding questions in a final, epic and astounding journey.

The quality of Pullman’s imaginative writing is best displayed in the ending of the trilogy, in The Amber Spyglass. When Lyra and Will realise their heart-wrenching but inevitable fate, even the most pitiless readers must flood with empathy.

I first read these books many years ago, and I’ve gone back to them several times already. Pullman leaves a lasting impression; the individual plot, coined from a fantastic imagination, leaves you thinking about the trilogy years after reading it.

“I'll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we'll cling together so tight that nothing and no one'll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you... We'll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams... And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won't just be able to take one, they'll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we'll be joined so tight...”
I admire how Pullman is able to tie such cold, harsh scientific fact with raw, fantastic emotion. My admiration also stems from Pullman’s aspiration. He tackles such vast themes as evolution, religion, existence, death, morality, sin, love and wisdom. Even more impressive is that he does this in three relatively short fantasy novels for young readers.

If I was to find a fault with Pullman’s trilogy, it would be his writing style, which does not do justice to the depths of plot that occur in all three books. The reader is thrown from one epic battle to a perfectly peaceful world instantaneously, through the use of Will’s handy device. This sort of plot, I feel, deserves a little more lyrical flair and perhaps more descriptive magic. Still, this is me being picky. His Dark Materials is home to a myriad of originality that will stick in your mind years after you finish the book.

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