Over the past three weeks, I read, and, alternately listened to, Philip Pullman’s fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy–The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Here’s the short review:
If it’s necessary to critically situate and compare a fantasy or sci-fi series against precursor series–namely, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, Harry Potter, etc.–and I don’t think it is necessary to critically situate and compare a fantasy or sci-fi series against its precursors, but that’s generally how these things are done–(this is turning into a monster of a “short review”)–but if it is necessary to critically situate and compare a fantasy or sci-fi series against precursor series, I think that Pullman’s His Dark Materials must be considered a new classic, an instantly-canonizable contribution to children’s literature, imaginative fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, or whatever genre you want to affix to these marvelous books.
His Dark Materials follows Lyra and Will, two children from different worlds (literally) who must work together to repair a damaged multiverse. Lyra comes from a world where people travel side by side with their daemons, spirit-images of their souls who take animal shapes. Will is an outsider in “our” world, a young fatherless boy who must take care of his mentally ill mother. The novels, in their simplest sense, detail the coming of age of these two as the traverse multiple parallel universes. In the backdrop there are witches and zeppelins, armored bears and dark specters, a compass that can point to the truth and a knife that can open all worlds, angels and scientists, and Lyra’s cruel and terrible parents, the cunning Mrs. Coulter, and Lord Asriel, whose will to kill God–The Authority–precipitates the action of the narrative.
As many critics have pointed out, His Dark Materials recapitulates Milton’s Paradise Lost (the series takes its name from a line from that epic poem). However, the series really reinterprets the British Romantics’ assessment of Paradise Lost. Pullman engages a host of Romantic writers, foregrounding Keats’s idea of negative capability, and prefacing many of the chapters with quotes from Romantic poetry. In particular, Pullman cites William Blake. Indeed, it seems to me that His Dark Materials effectively synthesizes many of Blake’s poems and ideas, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence and of Experience in particular. The novel also engages a number of Nietzsche’s ideas, and even, I believe, alludes to several concepts of Derrida’s (in particular, the idea of the gift of death). Additionally, Pullman weaves in the many-worlds theory, extended discussions of evolutionary anthropology, rampant infanticide, and auto-trepanation. Good stuff.
When the film of The Golden Compass (I didn’t see it) came out last year, it ignited a small controversy about the books. According to the Baptist Press, Pullman presents “a fantasy universe where witches are good, the church is bad, and at the end of it all, God dies.” This really isn’t the case, if you want to go with a precise reading of Pullman’s actual words, but, consider the source. I’m sure the controversy is healthy for Pullman’s sales; it certainly piqued my interest in the book, and I’m guessing that there are plenty of kids who, once their private Christian schools banned the books, couldn’t wait to get their hands on the verboten goods. And that’s a good thing.
His Dark Materials meets and surpasses my notions of good fantasy/sci-fi/imaginative fiction: the books engage multiple complex ideas in a new and often unsettling way. Unlike the Harry Potter series, which simply operates within familiar, preexisting archetypes of fantasy, Pullman’s work consistently disrupts reader expectations, pushing set ideas about religion and science, art and fantasy into new and fantastic places. Ultimately, although many will seek to suppress this book as an “amoral” work, His Dark Materials proposes a very real set of ethics inscribed in a world of moral relativity. The characters grow up and make good, selfless choices, decisions they make independent of absolute moral authority.
I very highly recommend these books.