Reviewing His Dark Materials Sequence I - Philip Pullman's Universe


I have not been able to find a good paperback copy of The Amber Spyglass. When I say "good paperback copy", I mean one of the Knoff editions, with the cover illustration by Eric Rohmann. I know that other paperback versions exist (including a mass market version with a truly dire cover), but I've purchased copies of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife in paperback with Eric Rohmann's covers, and I wanted to complete the set.

In the end, I bit the bullet and purchased the hardcover version. It has a cover design by Eric Rohmann and is thus similar to the first two books of the series, despite being more expensive. Divergent editions of the same book are a pet peeve of mine.

I haven't read The Amber Spyglass straight through, but I've read enough to have a very good feel about where the series is going and how it's going to end. This idea for a series of articles on the His Dark Materials sequence has been bubbling in my mind for some time, now, and I'm going to try to give these thoughts a voice over the next few days. I hope you find these articles as interesting to read as I found them to write.

Please note that this segment contains considerable spoilers for the three books. Look away now if you don't want to be spoiled.

Philip Pullman begins the first novel of His Dark Materials sequence (The Golden Compass) in a world very different from, but intriguingly similar to, our own. Lyra Belacqua is a twelve-year-old girl who lives a half-wild existence in the care of the professors of Jordan College, in Oxford, England. This is a world of Arctic powers, intelligent armour-wearing polar bears and a United States run by the Danes and the French.

Five centuries beforehand, Pope John Calvin (yes, this world's history is seriously messed up) dissolved the Papacy upon his death. There has been no Protestant reformation and a single, united Catholic Church (with no sign of a separate Orthodox church) is now run by the Magesterium -- a group of governing committees and orders whose brands of Christianity compete with each other for prominence. The Inquisition is still a political reality, and the progress of science is about fifty years behind our own. Zeppelins are the primary means of getting around.

The most intriguing element of Lyra's world is the presence of daemons. I've talked about these before (here; basically, they are animal representations of an individual's soul, separate in personality yet so deeply attached that one can feel what the other feels. Daemons change shape depending upon mood or necessity until children reach puberty, after which point the daemon settles on a particular shape and stays in that form for the rest of the person's life.

Lyra is quickly swept up into the political machinations of this world. Lord Asriel, thought originally to be Lyra's uncle, but in truth her father, has been conducting experiments that make the Magesterium edgy. They have found evidence of parallel universes and the means to cross between them. Mrs. Coulter, truthfully Lyra's mother and a devoutly religious figure who is not above using sex to achieve her ambitions, convinces the Armoured Bears of Svalbard to take Lord Asriel prisoner and put a stop to his investigations.

At the centre of it all is Dust, a mysterious elementary particle that appears to gather around humans once they've passed puberty. The Magesterium is terrified of Dust and what it could represent, and they're not above performing ghastly experiments in order to find out more about it. In Bolvangar (an Arctic fortress and research station), Magesterium scientists and philosophers are experimentally severing children from their daemons (a truly horrific sequence that is the most powerful part of the first book). Lord Asriel has a similar purpose: using the energy released from severing to break the barrier between worlds.

The Magesterium, as represented by Mrs. Coulter, and Lord Asriel have different interpretations of what Dust is. The Magesterium calls Dust the manifestation of original sin, and looks at the prospect of severing children from their daemons as a means of preventing original sin from lighting on the children. Lord Asriel takes Dust to represent Death, and this charges his personal crusade to break the barriers between the Universes and start a war that will end Death.

This is where the sequence of books veers into an explicitly anti-clerical realm. In The Subtle Knife, Dr. Mary Malone of our universe (a former nun who gave up on the Church) is investigating Dust -- or, as she calls it, Dark Matter. With Lyra's help, Mary discovers that the Dust is sentient, and she is able to communicate with it. In another excellently written scene, Mary learns that Dust are Angels -- fallen Angels (like Lucifer), who are seeking re-start the Battle of the Heavens. In The Amber Spyglass, Lord Asriel becomes the general of a rebel army, avenging Lucifer by attacking God himself.

Philip Pullman is a masterful writer. Though he slips up on occassion (witness this surprising example of cardboard characterization), he weaves together his characters, his narrative and his dialogue into a compelling vision that sweeps the reader along. All of the books are well paced, especially The Golden Compass, which sweeps the reader alongside young Lyra on a fascinating journey featuring Zeppelins, gypsies, schooner ships and Arctic fortresses. Indeed, one misses Lyra's world when the action moves to our world and the transition world of Cittagazze in The Subtle Knife, but the chemistry between Will Parry and Lyra holds our interest here.

It is impossible not to sympathize with the wild, precocious and intelligent Lyra, as she struggles through a world of power-mad adults, and many would have happily breezed past the central message of this story -- the corruption of Christianity and the need to kill its God -- if Philip Pullman hadn't thrust it in our face.

Do I have a problem with this? Well, yes. Does that detract from the quality of the books? Not much. In the coming days, we will sort out Philip Pullman's message and my personal response to it. This will also be an excellent opportunity to examine my own beliefs, and see how they fare against Philip Pullman's agenda.

Yes I am investing a lot of time in this review, but the Dark Materials sequence deserves it. It is not that Philip Pullman's agenda is dangerous or egregiously offensive. Rather, it is because his books are so good, and his message so plain. Simply put, Philip Pullman asked for a response, and I feel honour bound to give it.

Tomorrow: From Where I Stand... Where do I stand?

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