There are two major results in modern Cosmology: First, we can only observe about 90% of the Universe. The rest is dark matter, still unaccounted for. Second, theories predict that, just as our Solar System is not the only in our Galaxy, and our Galaxy is not the only one in the Universe, there can also be other Universes, inaccessible to us. Philip Pullman uses these results as the basis for his Trilogy “His Dark Materials”. Starting in a parallel World, or Universe, in a parallel Oxford, Lyra Belaqua, an 11 year old girl gets into fantastic adventures. These are related to the existence of a certain Dust, which is dark matter, which no one can see, except under very special circumstances. The “Church” of her world keeps the existence of Dust secret, and those who talk about it are considered heretics. This is the basis for a struggle, which deals not so much with good vs. evil, as in usual children’s stories, but with wisdom and consciousness vs. ignorance and stupidity. The plot thickens throughout the three books, introducing a major character in the second book; Will Parry, slightly older than Lyra, who comes from our own world, and who will team up with Lyra in her future adventures, both of them looking for persons they have lost, and which they care about dearly. Along the story, several interesting characters are introduced; inhabitants from several different worlds. Some of them familiar in Western mythology, such as angels, witches and spectres, as well as new ones which come out of Pulman’s imagination. In his plot, he dares to explore daring ideas about organised religion, particularly Christianism and Catholisism, that he extends to question the very existence of God, and that religious people will find outright heretical. Specially the ending of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to be replaced by the Republic of Heaven. However, organised religion should think twice before condemning the trilogy to bonfire, since that is precisely the kind of attitude which has lead Pullman to make his denunciation in the first place. A more rational approach to the story should be advised. Along each of the three books, we are introduced to three mysterious devices: a compass which can tell the truth, a knife so strong than can cut almost anything, including windows into different worlds, and a spyglass which humans can use to observe Dust. The story leaves compelling cliff hangers at the end of the first and second books, and becomes more interesting as it advances. I personally found the third book the best by all means. Its ending is absolutely heartbreaking, and it can take days to reflect on it and assimilate it. Although the reader is left with the feeling that a sequel is needed in order to fix things up, she (he) eventually realises that it is the best possible ending. Although profoundly sad and traumatic, it leaves an open window to optimism.
Overall, Pullman shows great artistry in the command of the English Language, which by itself makes the Trilogy captivating. At some points, we are left with the impression that more work should have been devoted by the author, in the development of some of the episodes. Although it is clear that it is a fantasy story, there is a minimum credibility to be expected from fantasy. Also, there are a few loose ends, which could have been easily mended by the author, with minor changes in some of the dialogues. Still, the story is extremely good, and the trilogy highly recommendable.
A final word of caution should be cast: Although His Dark Materials has been classified as a children’s book, it requires a minimum maturity to understand some of the issues it deals with, so “parental guidance” is strongly recommended. Furthermore, religious families may feel offended by some of the concepts, which as I mentioned earlier, are outright heretical on the face of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. However, open minded religious people will recognise that many of the main ideas fostered by Pullman are in line with religious values, except, of course, his doubt on the existence of God. In any case, it is just a story, not a manifesto. On the other hand, by the end, the reader is left with the idea that what Pullman actually did is to rediscover the existence of God in the omnipresent Dust, although he will probably not recognise it.