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Exploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
WHAT IS HIS DARK MATERIALS?
The simplest way of answering this question is to state that His Dark Materials is a trilogy of young adult fantasy novels. However, this is much too simple a description of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (Book 1), The Subtle Knife (Book 2), and The Amber Spyglass (Book 3).
In reality, His Dark Materials is an epic coming-of-age trilogy that includes vast sweeps of science, theology, and magic, while speculating about topics as profound as the meaning of life and the fundamental nature of God, Satan, and hell.
Sound like a young adult fantasy series to you?
Not exactly … .
Yet millions of children and teenagers are big fans of His Dark Materials. And so are their parents. This may be part of the reason Pullman is the first author to win two of England’s prestigious Whitbread Awards for one book, The Amber Spyglass, which won the Children’s Book award and also the top prize, the Book of the Year award.
But nothing is ever simple when talking about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and as with the simple description of the series, mere popularity among readers isn’t the key to winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Much more is involved in the selection.
Juggling topics such as millions of parallel universes, quantum physics, and the existence of angels and witches, Pullman manages to write complex, nonstop action plots filled with unforgettable characters who are deeply drawn and deeply moving.
According to Pullman, as quoted on his official Web site, he thinks of the trilogy as “stark realism” not as fantasy. In fact, he says that he doesn’t like fantasy. “The only thing about fantasy that interested me when I was writing this was the freedom to invent imagery such as the daemon; but that was only interesting because I could use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature.”1
Pullman further explains that His Dark Materials depicts “a struggle: the old forces of control and ritual and authority, the forces which have been embodied throughout human history in such phenomena as the Inquisition, the witch-trials, the burning of heretics, and which are still strong today … .”2
In 1985, Oxford University Press published Pullman’s third novel (the first two were fairly unsuccessful), The Ruby in the Smoke. His editor, David Fickling, loved the book and claimed it was “as good as Wilkie Collins.”3
Following the success of The Ruby in the Smoke came 1995’s Northern Lights, later to be called The Golden Compass. This was the first book of a trilogy that Pullman called His Dark Materials. The book focuses on questions about the meaning of life and its purpose, the nature of evil and good, how we should conduct ourselves, what really matters, and what doesn’t matter at all. These powerful themes form the backbone of adventures of galactic proportions.
In 1995, Pullman won a Carnegie Prize for the book, and shortly after, when J. K. Rowling rose to conquer the literary scene, Pullman’s book was published in the United States, as well as in France and Germany. Although Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass, was published by the Oxford University Press as a children’s book, it was published in the United States as an adult book. Pullman followed the success of The Golden Compass4 with the final two books in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000.
So enough prelude: What are these books about?
The Golden Compass takes place in a world that is much like our Earth, but there are differences. For example, it begins in Oxford, England, but the most powerful college is Jordan College rather than Oxford University. Jordan College is the leading research institution in the field of experimental theology which, loosely defined, means: quantum physics. But oddly enough, much of the science of The Golden Compass is from the late 1800s rather than from the late 1900s or early twentyfirst century.
So right away, we know that we’re in a different kind of Earth from the one we live in. The big clues, however, come in the form of daemons, soul creatures that people must keep with them at all times. These daemons are shapeshifters, meaning they can assume the forms of many different animals; yet while the daemons change form during a person’s childhood, the creatures assume a fixed appearance as soon as the child reaches puberty. If a human dies, so does his daemon. If a daemon dies, the human might as well be dead, for he no longer has any soul or passion.
In addition to the daemons, The Golden Compass introduces the notion of witches, talking bears, and other life-forms.
From the opening pages, we know that this Earth is a stifling, scary place, dominated by a Church that subjects people to Inquisition-like terror. In fact, the Church in The Golden Compass feels like ultra-conservative Christianity pushed to the extreme.
As the book opens, main character Lyra Belacqua hides with her daemon, Pantalaimon, behind an armchair in the Retiring Room at Jordan College. Pantalaimon is in the form of a moth. The Master of Jordan College, with his raven daemon in tow, enters the Retiring Room and pours white powder into a decanter of special 1898 Tokay. Lord Asriel, expected soon from a long trip to the far North, will drink that Tokay and die. Lyra and Pan, as she calls her daemon, argue about what to do.
Lord Asriel arrives with his daemon, the snow leopard Stelmaria, who tells him to rest from his long journey. Lord Asriel tells the Scholars that he went to the far North to learn what happened to the missing Grumman expedition. He displays a series of photograms that he took in the far North, and these images show men with glowing particles on them called Dust. The images also show children who seem to be only partly there. In other images, everything is bathed in the Northern Lights, or the Aurora. Indeed, it appears that embedded in the Aurora is a city in a parallel universe. A lot has happened in this exciting novel, and we’re only on page 23 of the book.
To summarize more quickly, we soon learn that Lord Asriel is performing weird research into the Dust and the parallel universe. He plans to return North, and Lyra begs him to let her go, but he refuses.
Lyra stays behind, and as she romps around the city with her friend Roger, she discovers that mysterious Gobblers are eating children, or so goes the gossip. The missing children never return, and soon Lyra discovers that a seductive woman is abducting them by unknown means. The woman’s name is Mrs. Coulter, and she tries to befriend Lyra with offers of teenage luxuries.
Lyra is destined to change the world, we learn, but she must fulfill her destiny by making her own choices. She sets off on adventures with help from the gyptians (gypsies, we assume), whose children have been eaten by the Gobblers. Lyra and the gyptians head to the far North to search for the Gobblers and the lost children. They’ve heard stories that the children’s disappearances have something to do with the Dust.
Of much help to Lyra is the strange alethiometer device, a golden compass. Only Lyra can read and interpret the symbols on the device, and she uses it to ask questions and receive instructions and explanations. The alethiometer even tells Lyra things about the future.
Lyra is kidnapped several times, she finds a few of the missing children, and she makes a good friend in the form of a talking bear named Iorek Byrnison. Iorek is an overthrown, sad, wouldbe bear king, whose title was taken from him by a humanwannabe bear called Iofur Raknison. Because bears don’t have daemons, the wannabe Iofur carries a daemon doll—clearly, he’s not fit to rule the ferocious and mighty bear kingdom.
At the end of The Golden Compass, Lord Asriel—who, as it happens, is Lyra’s father—wants to find the source of the Dust in a parallel world. He tells Lyra that there are billions of parallel worlds, that the witches have known about the parallel worlds forever, that we can see these worlds through the Northern Lights, and that the Church excommunicates anyone who believes in the parallel worlds and in the Dust. He wants to destroy the notion of death.
Lyra sees Lord Asriel with Mrs. Coulter—who, as it happens, is Lyra’s mother—on a bridge leading to the parallel world. Lord Asriel has done something cataclysmic to open that bridge, and now he intends to cross. He tells Mrs. Coulter that everyone will want to cross the bridge, that the end of the Church is near, that he will destroy all the Dust. It so happens that Mrs. Coulter, the Church, and the General Oblation Board (GOB in Gobblers) all want to destroy the Dust, too. Which makes Lyra think … .
Perhaps the Dust is good rather than evil. After all, if the adults in the world think Dust is evil, then it must be good stuff. So Lyra and Pan walk across the bridge into the other world.
And by doing so, they walk into the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife.
This book begins with the story of twelve-year-old Will Parry, the son of an Arctic explorer who disappeared long ago. Will is the sole caretaker of an emotionally damaged mother. Will shops, cleans, cooks, and tries to help his mother cope with her imaginary enemies who, she claims, break into the house and demand things from her. Finally, when men really do break into the house, seeking his father’s exploration notes, Will arranges for his piano teacher to take care of his mother, and he flees, accidentally killing one of the men during his escape. Filled with remorse about killing a man, Will simultaneously worries about his mother and wonders who will feed the cat.
Will stumbles across a window—a tear in space—in his version of Oxford, England (not Lyra’s version of Oxford, England), and stepping through it, enters another world in a city called Cittàgazze.
Here, he hooks up with Lyra, her daemon, and her alethiometer. It seems that, in this new world, specters are killing all the adults, and hordes of crazed children roam the streets.
Along comes witch Serafina Pekkala, who must save her fellow witches from torture at the hands of Mrs. Coulter. It seems that Lyra’s mother is still trying to find her … for evil purposes, no doubt.
In addition to Serafina Pekkala, Aeronaut Lee Scoresby also tries to help Lyra and Will uncover the truth behind the specters and the Dust. Scoresby flies off to find Stanislaus Grumman, who is not only an Arctic explorer but also a shaman. Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter, is still on the prowl for her, intending no good; and Lyra meets Dr. Mary Malone, a researcher of Dust who calls her field theoretical physics rather than theological magic. A strange and evil man named Sir Charles Latrom sends Will and Lyra on a quest to find a magic knife, which we later know as the subtle knife.
Apparently, Cittàgazze is a crossroads among all the billions of worlds, yet no adults can enter Cittàgazze because of the specters. And apparently, the entire system of worlds is in turbulence, with disturbances everywhere, as if the balance of nature is horribly askew.
As Lyra is the only person who can truly interpret the symbols of the alethiometer and read the future, Will is the only person who can wield the subtle knife, which cuts windows from one world to the next. The knife also cuts through all materials, a characteristic that proves extremely useful when satanic evils are chasing you from world to world.
At the end, Lyra’s alethiometer tells her that she must help Will find his father, the Arctic explorer; we know that two forces are preparing for an enormous battle; and Lyra is kidnapped once again.
At this point, we begin the third book, The Amber Spyglass, in which Will is determined to save Lyra, and he enlists the aid of angels and bear king Iorek Byrnison. Meanwhile Dr. Mary Malone has left her world for another, where she encounters the humorous mulefa creatures.
In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, the subtle knife breaks, and Lord Asriel’s Gallivespian spies (tiny creatures) accompany Will and Lyra on their adventurers. One of these adventures leads the group to the Land of the Dead.
The Church sends an assassin priest to kill Lyra, the vile harpies learn a lesson, and all sorts of people and creatures try to help Lyra and Will save the billions of worlds from destruction. We see talking bears, witches, angels, Lord Asriel, and even God (somewhat shriveled and glad to be done with it all).
Mary Malone constructs an amber spyglass to help her see the Dust, and in the end, only love can set you free.
Now, this book—the one you’re reading—attempts to analyze some of the main elements in His Dark Materials.
• Chapter 2 analyzes the science and philosophy of Dust. Just what might it be? And what does it have to do with dark matter, consciousness, and sin (Adam and Eve)? This chapter is very straightforward and serious; the topics of Dust and dark matter are based in science and philosophy, and hence cannot be treated lightly or quickly.
• Chapter 3 discusses angels, gods, and paradise.
• Chapter 4 is about witches.
• Chapter 5 focuses on daemons and souls.
• Chapter 6 discusses parallel worlds.
• Chapter 7 focuses on the afterlife, with subjects such as hell, harpies, heaven, and the world of the dead.
• Chapter 8 delves into the ideas behind specters, vampires, night ghasts, and zombies.
• Chapter 9 describes the role of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
• Chapter 10 is the first Weird Science section and describes the alethiometer, Lodestone Resonator, mechanical insects, zeppelins, and gyrocopters.
• Chapter 11 is the second Weird Science section and describes strange topics, such as the I Ching and shamanism.
As you can see from this lineup, the focus is on the scientific and philosophical ideas in His Dark Materials. As for science, we tend to take for granted what’s around us, such as toasters, ovens, cars, subways, and televisions. But to a visitor from another world—say, one of those billions of worlds in His Dark Materials—the things we take for granted are probably pretty strange. When Lyra visits Will’s world, she’s amazed by ordinary things such as cars, which don’t exist in her world. And to Will, the alethiometer and the Dust seem magical. Taken to extremes, most of the science in His Dark Materials seems magical to us: billions of parallel worlds, dark matter, and quantum physics, to name only three.
As for philosophical ideas, we tend to take for granted that our religions are good; that those who fight religion may not be so good; that we probably won’t be able to read the minds of our teachers, friends, neighbors, or parents; and that we’re probably not going to encounter angels, harpies, witches, tiny people, and talking bears anytime soon. These ideas are all taken for granted in His Dark Materials. And of course, there’s the Big One: daemons. In our world, Earth, our souls are inside us. In Lyra’s world, souls are shapeshifting creatures who are born with you and die with you. They talk to their humans, and they change what they look like: turn into different creatures based on how their humans feel or what their humans are doing at any particular time. As soon as a child is about twelve years old (puberty), the daemon finds its permanent shape and never changes into another creature again.
When asked about his comment that His Dark Materials is “stark reality,” Philip Pullman responds, “Well, when I made that comment I was trying to distinguish between these books and the kind of books most general readers think of as fantasy, the sub-Tolkien thing involving witches and elves and wizards and dwarves.”5 He further states that, “I’m telling a story about a realistic subject, but I’m using the mechanism of fantasy.”6
What do you think he means? Is the stark realism about right versus wrong, religion, quantum physics, billions of worlds, or what?
Luckily, he tells us. As CNN reports, “There are, indeed, fantastical creations throughout the trilogy, but Pullman says he uses them to reflect certain truths about human nature … . In The Golden Compass, we meet daemons, the animal soul mates of humans in Lyra’s world. Daemons can change form as long as their soul mates are children, but once they become adults, those creatures become fixed—a reflection of ‘the inner nature of its human.’”7 So the stark reality probably has to do with the truth about what it means to be human.
Philip Pullman is quoted by many sources as stating that His Dark Materials “lay in the extraordinary poetry of the phrase ‘dark matter,’ and my discovery that Milton had anticipated in Paradise Lost: ‘Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain his dark materials to create more worlds.’”8
And so with that in mind, we move to our chapter about Dust, or dark matter. What is Dust? What is dark matter? And what do these things have to do with quantum physics and outer space?
Copyright © 2007 by Lois H. Gresh. All rights reserved.
Posted March 11, 2013
Posted January 8, 2011
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