His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman. Trilogy includes The Golden Compass published in 1995, The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is supposedly for “young adults,” teenagers, but the three books are so compelling, so powerful and thought-provoking and heartfelt, that they certainly should not be limited to a single age bracket. With beautifully drawn characters and a taut, suspenseful plot, the fantasy series makes for an electric, enjoyable read, and yet ultimately, the books are profoundly serious. As the story unfolds, Pullman’s true audacity becomes apparent: He has written a strange kind of sequel to Paradise Lost — unabashedly heretical but undeniably hopeful. By no means should teenagers have a monopoly on these books.

The saga opens with Lyra, a brash, highborn girl growing up with no parents and little supervision at Oxford — not the Oxford of our world but that of a parallel world. Her best friend, Roger, disappears mysteriously along with several other poor children of the community, and she herself is whisked away by the charming but cold-hearted Church official Marisa Coulter. Fearful of her new guardian, Lyra runs away to find Roger, a quest that takes her across her world and into others. Along the way, she meets Will, a quiet boy from our world fleeing authorities there, and she and he band together on a mythical odyssey.

As protagonists, Lyra and Will are indelible creations. Pullman’s portrait of their maturation from childhood to the cusp of adulthood is extraordinary. Even though their trials are fantastic, even apocalyptic, their emotional journey is immediately recognizable to anyone who remembers the uncertainties of adolescence. Pullman didn’t stop with his heroic pair, however. His Dark Materials overflows from finely drawn characters, among them brave Iorek Byrnison, a noble bear in exile; broad-minded Mary Malone, a nun turned physicist with more faith than she realizes; bold Lord Asriel, an “experimental theologian” on a profane crusade; and duplicitious Mrs. Coulter, with her sinister golden monkey dæmon.

The dæmon, in fact, is an essential conceit in His Dark Materials. In Lyra’s world, every human being has a dæmon, an animal partner that stays with him or her from birth until death. Children’s dæmons are shapeshifters; a young girl’s dæmon might be a rabbit one moment, a bird the next, and a small tiger after that. But when she grows older, the dæmon “settles” on a single form, and the shape it picks reflects the type of person the child has become.

Dæmons provide rich metaphoric material for examining what is gained and what is lost when we grow up. They also allow Pullman to write about the soul, one of many spiritual concerns in the trilogy. He fearlessly tackles original sin, the nature of God, the existence (or nonexistence) of an afterlife, the quality of love, and even the meaning of life — all without collapsing into a dry treatise.

His blend of fantasy and philosophy reminded me of Madeline L’Engle, whose A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my favorite novels, but unlike L’Engle, Pullman holds deeply unorthodox views. Those who see blasphemy in the truly benign Harry Potter series would do better to direct their ire at the His Dark Materials books, which actually are irreligious, overtly and unapologetically so. But though Pullman demonstrates considerable anger at organized religion, he never indulges in nihilism. Lord Asriel’s dream of a Republic, rather than a Kingdom, of Heaven is undoubtedly sacreligious, but the poetry of the idea reflects doubts that many believers feel and holds a note of true beauty.

For these are beautiful novels, with passages so lovely that they beg to be reread, the better to savor Pullman’s exquisite imagery and his lyrical voice. Lyra and Will’s journey might be unsettling for some, but the robust storytelling and haunting characters draw us in nonetheless. And for those who appreciate revisiting Eden with a dramatically different guide, the pilgrimage is itself a kind of paradise.