Growing up in the late 90’s/early 00’s, I was spoilt for choice when it came to children’s fantasy/adventure book series’. This was the time when Harry Potter became a lifelong friend for many, a time when we suffered alongside the Baudelaire orphans throughout their unfortunate events, and a time when Middle Earth enjoyed a new life on screen, prompting a new interest in the original books. However, as much as each of these series’ have touched me, no literary collection has meant as much to me as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
“Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all”
One of the many beautiful elements of His Dark Materials is that it essentially has two layers of understanding to it, each as complex and important as the other. One is the superficial reading of the text; the story of a girl in a world parallel to ours who discovers the ability to move between a multitude of worlds (including our own), and the adventures she has along the way. This is the understanding I had of the trilogy when I was first introduced to it at the age of 9. The second reading of the text is far more complex; an intertextual criticism that attacks God and religion itself, a story that erases innocence and celebrates sin. This is the understanding I had upon rereading the text at 17 alongside John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and today my understanding and love of the trilogy is largely a mix of these two ways of viewing Pullman’s narrative. This multilayered viewing of the text is just one of the multitude of reasons why His Dark Materials remains so close to my heart.
“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past,” said the consul. “Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere – not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die”
At the heart of The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass is Pullman’s protagonist, Lyra Belacqua. Later renamed Lyra Silvertongue due to her ability to seamlessly lie, Lyra is a huge reason why I love this series so. Lyra is an unkempt 12 year old who, with her dæmon Pantalaimon, adventures through numerous worlds with witches, armoured bears, Gallivespians (fairy-like creatures) and angels. She is heralded as the most important child to be born, but throughout it remains innately human and childlike; she cries, gets frustrated, has tantrums and uses words a child her age shouldn’t know. She is known for her proficiency for lying, and yet is gifted with the truth-telling Alethiometer. She Lyra is so simple and yet complex; just like the entire His Dark Materials series, she has two readings available. If reading Lyra as an allegory of the Narnia series, she is Lucy. If reading alongside Paradise Lost, she is Sin. All I knew is that I wanted to be her – I even auditioned to play her in the 2007 New Line Cinema adaptation of The Northern Lights. (Side note: DO NOT watch this film as your first impression of the series, it’s honestly awful, and I’m not simply saying this out of bitterness that I got beaten to the part by Dakota Blue Richards.)
The brilliance of His Dark Materials comes from the controversy surrounding them, and Pullman’s willingness to attack that which he felt was wrong. Just as Neil Gaiman did with his short story The Problem of Susan, Pullman criticises C.S. Lewis’ treatment of the Pensive children in his Narnia series, especially Susan who had the audacity to grow up and find an interest in “nylons and lipsticks and stockings” and therefore was banned from Narnia. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that C.S. Lewis kills the Pensive children (bar Susan) in order to ‘protect’ them from growing up and therefore becoming tainted by sin. This is a reflection of Lewis’ staunch born-again Christianity, an extreme view that Pullman flips by making the villains of his piece the people who share Lewis’ opinions. He does not shirk away from his opinion that sin does not have to connote negativity. After all, before Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she and Adam had no knowledge other than that told to them by God. Pullman promotes the idea that one may either remain naive and free of sin, or have knowledge yet partake in sin; as an atheist, he portrays the latter as the more appealing option.
Stepping away from the complexities of God and Original Sin, His Dark Materials is at it’s core a wonderfully crafted fantasy narrative. It promotes innocence and adventure, friendship and love, courage and loyalty. The fantastical elements created by Pullman are incredibly depicted – for example, the concept of dæmons. In Lyra’s world, each human has a dæmon, a physical manifestation of their soul that lives outside of their body in the form of an animal that reflects that person’s self. It is noted that servants often have dog dæmons to reflect their docile obedience, and Mrs Coulter’s unique golden monkey dæmon reflects her shallow decadence and violent temper. The fantastical element of this of course appeals to a younger audience, but the idea that one is never alone as long as you are with your soul, your dæmon, is particulalrly comforting to an older audience also.
“She wondered whether there would ever come an hour in her life when she didn’t think of him — didn’t speak to him in her head, didn’t relive every moment they’d been together, didn’t long for his voice and his hands and his love. She had never dreamed of what it would feel like to love someone so much; of all the things that had astonished her in her adventures, that was what astonished her the most. She thought the tenderness it left in her heart was like a bruise that would never go away, but she would cherish it forever.”
Pullman’s connection to science also sets His Dark Materials apart from the crowd. The Amber Spyglass discusses evolution and makes reference to Creationism, allowing Pullman to push even further his anti-religious stance. But what is also succeeded in this theme is a sense of oneness with the world;quite a feat once considered that Pullman’s story covers a multitude of worlds. Pullman reminds the reader that we are nothing but atoms, but that this does not make us insignificant, rather, it makes us the most powerful thing in the universe because we are what makes up the universe.
The His Dark Materials trilogy is complex, there’s no denying that. But it is this complexity that makes it unique, that allows a different reading of the text each time; I’ve read all three books (and the two spin-off novellas) countless times now and am still discovering new details or layers that only confirm that this is – in my opinion – the greatest young adult fiction series ever. Yes, even better than Harry Potter.