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Philip Pullman His Dark Materials Trilogy: 3 books – The Northern Lights / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass Paperback – 2010
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Northern Lights introduces Lyra, an orphan, who lives in a parallel universe in which science, theology and magic are entwined. Lyra's search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and turns into a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. In The Subtle Knife she is joined on her journey by Will, a boy who possesses a knife that can cut windows between worlds. As Lyra learns the truth about her parents and her prophesied destiny, the two young people are caught up in a war against celestial powers that ranges across many worlds and leads to a thrilling conclusion in The Amber Spyglass. The epic story Pullman tells is not only a spellbinding adventure featuring armoured polar bears, magical devices, witches and daemons, it is also an audacious and profound re-imagining of Milton's Paradise Lost. An utterly entrancing blend of metaphysical speculation and bravura storytelling, HIS DARK MATERIALS is a monumental and enduring achievement.
Top customer reviews
I was in my mid-30s when I first read them, about 17 years ago. I have read them several times and thoroughly enjoyed them each time.
This is yet another repackaging of the books. These are 3 individual books wrapped together in shrink wrap.
The books are, and always have been advertised as "Children's books", but the content and the way they are written will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. There is a start in the first book to the main story which develops and is carried on to the end of the third book. There are so many twists, turns, new stories developing throughout.
I will add that I am atheist but brought up in the CofE. At no point do I find these books offensive. From reading His Dark Materials, I moved on to "Paradise Lost", by John Milton, which is extracts taken from it and used several times during His Dark Materials.
There is also an audio-book version read by Philip Pullman which is excellent to.
Strangely enough I enjoyed ‘The Golden Compass’, a film based on ‘Northern Lights’, when it appeared and regretted the decision not to produce a sequel due, it was stated, to religious opposition in the United States. Having bought the DVD recently and thoroughly enjoyed it even more, I decided to tackle the last two parts again. The result is this review where I found myself concentrating on the final part, which I found so challenging as to come to a conclusion some might question.
I read ‘The Subtle Knife’ again, ignoring the slight difference in coverage between the film and its textual basis, and was surprised how my reading experience was transformed. There were still some problems - the facile slipping between worlds being a major one and the activities of such ‘creatures’ as angels and ‘Spectres’ another - but I enjoyed the flight of Lyra and Will, bound together in a common purpose without knowing it, as they eluded one menace after another. The voyage of Lee Scoresby and John Parry (aka Stanislaus Grumman aka Jopari) seemed more tiresome, especially the ‘preposterous powers’ of the shaman, until the balloon had been grounded. Why ‘preposterous powers’? Witches, daemons, Spectres and such are simply the products of fantasy (even in a work exalting ‘rationality) but a man with a hole in his head and a mind full of mangled ritual who can summon up storms is a bit too far! Even so, as the two themes slide together the old magic I couldn’t stop turning the pages until I reached: ‘And Will looked down from them to Lyra’s rucksack and back again, and he didn’t hear a word they said’. I was reminded of: ‘Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive and taken by the enemy’ (J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘The Two Towers’) Both catapult the reader into the final part of a great trilogy in the company of the bearer of the ‘Macguffin’, to use the term Hitchcock used for the focus of his thriller plots.
In ‘The Amber Spyglass’ Pullman is warming to his work - which appears increasingly to involve persuading readers that ‘The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.’(P. 464) . There are a variety of interesting characters - the acerbic angel, Balthamos; the arrogant and effective, despite their size, Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, the boatman (Charon?) and his assessment of the Dead. There are less absorbing sections such as Mary Malone and the Malufe - which even intrudes on the masterly account of the land of the Dead. For me this was the highpoint of the book - just like Book Six in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’- even though Pullman offers the naively weird deal between the Harpy and Lyra. Quite frankly I became confused how the ‘parallel developments’ in the plot fitted together, I was also concerned by events I seem to have missed - e.g. how did Mrs Coulter gain control over her daughter (P. 4) who had simply disappeared at the close of ‘The Subtle Knife’(P.340) and why are the Authority’s followers (angels) such ‘pushovers’ when compared to ‘accidentals’ such as Spectres?
What do I still dislike about ‘The Amber Spyglass’ (apart from the title object being of relatively unimportance to the main plot)? The virtual absence for well over 100 pages of the real driving force of Part 1 and, for me, of the whole book - Lyra. On Page 174 she remarks, ‘All that happening, and I was asleep,’ but was ‘all that’ worthwhile? Part 1 succeeded because it so concentrated on Lyra’s search for her father - the ‘distractions (such as the fighting bears) being easily recognised as crucial to this central them. By the last part characters and themes: the Consistorium; Lord Asriel; Lyra & Will(but are they only together by chance?); the assassin, Gonzalez; Mary Malone are mainly operating in different worlds (literally!). The bears, Gyptians and even God (aka ‘The Authority’) seem to take a back-seat for most of the trilogy and make sudden appearances towards the end. This may be also true of Tolkein’s Sauron - but ‘The Lord of the Rings’ clearly splits the tale into the Ring-Bearer and the battle against Sauron. while this work can appear chaotic. The Regent for ‘The Authority’, Mertatron appears remarkably gullible in being duped by Mrs.Coulter, The Regent supposedly once was human as Enoch who ‘walked with God; sand he was not, for God took him’ (Genesis: 5:21). Angels aka ‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair’ (Genesis 6:2) and this appears to be Pullman’s source for this lamentable plot device. Both Lord Asriel and John Parry (the father-figures for Lyra and Will) appear as feeble examples of such constructs, obsessed by their personal ambitions, In contrast, Mrs Marisa Coulter, the developer of a technique which, in effect, butchered children, kidnapper of Tony Makarios (Part 1 P.456), poisoner of Lord Carlo Boreal (aka Sir Charles Latrom) (Part 2 P. 326) can suddenly become a passionate mother with cries of ‘Lyra, my love! My heart’s treasure…..don’t go, don’t leave!.... you’re tearing my heart.’ (Part 3 P.169); surely she can only be a multiple-personality on a par with Jekyll and Hyde.
However, my real complaint is the novel often slips into a rant on behalf of Humanism. Tolkien fiercely denied ‘The Lord of the Rings’ had a religious ring - or even that it paralleled the struggle against Fascism - but Pullman appears to see his work as an allegory of freedom based on rationality vs. tyranny resting on superstition. Perhaps ‘The Authority’ was a successful Lucifer seizing power from the Creator (see ‘Paradise Lost’) or perhaps Dust came from the ‘Big Bang’. The final battle appears a delightful muddle between sides composed of different orders of creatures of Fantasy in one world apparently unnoticed by other worlds.
As I final comment I must confess an underlying comparison with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which I summed up in this way: the varying purpose of the two authors can be glimpsed in their concluding sentences. Here’s Tolkien’s description of the return of Sam Gamgee: ‘And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath, “Well, I’m back,” he said.’ Almost an ‘everyday story of country folk’ except that it follows a riveting clash of forces in a world of fantasy dubbed ‘Middle-Earth’.
In contrast here’s the conclusion of ‘His Dark Materials’: ‘In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Gardens. “And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?” “The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.’ I fear, in this respect the author falls short and exhibits, to quote one of his sources:
‘…. Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.
Yet, with a pleasing sorcery, could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope….’( Milton: ‘Paradise Lost’II:565-8)
So, as I consider the trilogy can be summed up by the title of this review I have to award it 4 stars - reluctantly because I’m drawn towards giving it only 3.
It is the "how" that holds the story together. We are intrigued with Lyra's ability to plan and lie her way out of trouble. Eventually it is the truth that sets her free.
The "why" she is being sought and the "why" she must go on brings us many conundrums that we not only face in the tale but also in our real life.
Lyra must fulfill a prophecy; however if she becomes aware of her destiny, that destiny may never happen. For those readers who have read Josef Campbell you will recognize the classic Heroine's Journey where a person coming of age must sacrifice the apron strings and face the challenge of adulthood. This includes going into a dark place and confronting an unknown which usually is one's own fears and ego. From there they are reborn to become a fully functional person in society.
Oh, did I forget to tell you that this is a fun read.