His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.

8 thoughts on “His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two”

  1. This is a wonderful meditation on a fascinating and powerful trilogy – at the time I read it, the movie version of “The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe” was released. A quick rereading of the Lewis book reminded me how heavy-handed he was with his symbolism, and how he seemed more interested in being didactic than entertaining.I shudder at what Pullman’s book is going to become in the film. If the filmmakers reach “The Amber Spyglass,” will they have the courage to depict the decrepit, impotent God of the book?I also loved Karen Armstrong’s book about myth. I reviewed it here.(Lucky you to have a signed copy!)

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  2. Thank you teabird for this comment. Lewis’s Lion etc is pedestrian compared with Pullman’s books. I’ve recently read Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, which is very different and I’ll post on that soon.I can’t start to think what the film will be like.I particularly like Karen Armstrong’s books.

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  3. I had a very religious student two years ago who decided to look at the way in which writers had explored Christianity through fantasy for her dissertation. She looked at four writers, one of whom was Pullman. The other three all claimed to be propounding Christian doctrine. Her expectation was that the books she would find most unsympathetic would be Pullman’s. In fact, she ended up condemning the other three as hypocrites who all subverted Christian doctrine to suit their own predjudices and applauding Pullman for his integrity.

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  4. Great to meet you! I’m such a fan of the Pullman trilogy. I was drawn to him after seeing Melvyn Bragg interview him for the BBC. Such a fascinating man – I could have listened to him for hours. The books were astonishing – particularly as this has never been a genre that has interested me in the slightest. Serendipity indeed.

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  5. I love thess books and hope to read the series again soon. When I was at university I picked them for a project and wrote about the way science was dealt with and the scientific concepts in the books which I really enjoyed writing. I am in two minds about the film. I will definately go and see it and I hope they haven’t destroyed it too much by taking out the religious aspects (how could they).

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  6. aiii. I know I have the Pullman trilogy in an all-in-one hardback somewhere. I simply must find it and dig it out so I can read it.

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