His Dark Materials:
- The Golden Compass
- The Subtle Knife
- The Amber Spyglass
a triology by Philip Pullman
InstaRating: 4 out of 5
This trilogy has apparently sparked quite the bitter controversy, especially online. It’s a tale of High Fantasy, quite consciously in the vein of Tolkein or C.S. Lewis, but it takes a tack quite different than, say, The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than a vague naturalistic faith that is actually Christianity in disguise, Pullman’s universe has Christianity in fact — but it’s unremittingly evil, dedicated to snuffing out all that is light and free in the world. I can see why believers are outraged…
The plot follows the adventures of Lyra, a semi-orphan girl growing up in Jordan College in Oxford, though not our Oxford. She’s been more or less abandoned by her father, the powerful explorer Lord Asriel, and given into the well-intentioned but mildly inept care of the scholars of Jordan College. She grows up clever but unruly, shrewd but erratically learned. One day she becomes aware that a nefarious shadowy organization — the Gobblers — are snatching children and whisking them off, never to be seen again. Not long after, her best friend Roger is pinched, and she vows to find him.
Lyra’s world is like Victorian England but different, with witches and talking bears and a curious mixture of science and magic. Most significantly, part of a person’s soul, called a
Pullman pulls no punches here. He comes down squarely on the side of freethinkers and against orthodoxy. In all ways, the Church — particularly, its Magesterium — is benighted, foul, selfish, petty, and evil. No good action springs from it. Indeed, the villian of the piece — Lyra’s mother Mrs. Coulter — is redeemed only when her love for her abandoned child drives her to flee the Church and join with her lover, Asriel.
The second book introduces Will, a young boy from our world or one like it. He comes into possession of “the subtle knife”, an instrument with a blade so fine it can cut between worlds, creating “windows” that allow anyone to cross over. This eventually becomes the driving plot point, as recently something has changed and it has something to do with the knife…
I’m not going to go on about the plot. It’s well-handled and holds together well, and absorbs one’s attention. No world is drawn as vividly as Lyra’s original one (which is perhaps inevitable), and it’s surprising how sharp that contrast stands out at the end of the trilogy, when we return to that original world for a few pages.
You can see why Pullman has cheesed off religious readers — because he meant to. He casts religion in the worst possible light. The “God” people worship turns out to be an angel who arrived first and lay claim to Creation — and who now is a senile pawn of his former Regent! The angels who rebelled turn out to have been the good guys, though they did get equally stomped. The Dust — which is universally seen as light and right and good — depends on free will. Wherever the Dust (or a daemon) has been removed, the person becomes dull, docile — faithful. Pullman makes no apologies and takes no prisoners.
This trilogy so desperately wants to be the atheist’s answer to Narnia that it’s awkward. Pullman doesn’t quite reach that lofty goal. The fantasy is above par and indeed quite inventive. The worlds drawn are varied but hang together. Unfortunately, his agenda undermines Pullman’s craft; too often it feels like being lectured at. (OK, so maybe it does share that pedantic nannyism with Narnia — Lewis’ craft is the superior.)
Worth reading? Definitely. Worth fighting over? Not at all — it’s not the equal of the storm it has raised.