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on 25 January 2018
His Dark Materials is a significant literary achievement. It is some way from perfection, but when it succeeds it does so massively. When it fails it is more often than not the result of forgiveable over-ambitiousness. It has rightly come to be seen as a young person's classic and a work which can stand alongside the two other great Oxford fantasies, set in Middle Earth and Narnia.
The first book, the Northern Lights, tells the story of Lyra, who has been brought up in an Oxford college in a parallel world. This is a universe where part of everybody's nature is externalised, and embodied in an animal daemon. As a child, Lyra's daemon is constantly changing, in contrast to the fixed daemons of adults. Subject to the benign neglect of the scholars of Jordan College, Lyra is virtually feral, roaming at will around the college and its environs, constantly fighting with different groups of children. She is only tamed by the occasional visits of her "uncle" Lord Asriel, a famous explorer. Lyra's world starts to change when she learns about Asriel's search for Dust, a mysterious elemental particle which falls from northern skies. His search is seen as heretical by an oppressive, unreformed church. Then children start to disappear, snatched by the mysterious Gobblers. Lyra is, however, removed from danger by the arrival of her glamorous mother, Mrs Coulter, who takes her away to a seemingly civilising life in high London society. However, when a link between Mrs Coulter and the Gobblers is revealed, Lyra runs away into the arms of the Gyptians, benevolent travellers on the nation's waterways. What follows is a fantastical chase to the arctic to rescue missing children and uncover Asriel's secret work. It is a chase involving witches, a ballon borne aeronaut, armour clad polar bears, evil scientists and the malign influence of the church.
For me, Northern Lights is the best of the trilogy. It is a tightly plotted action fantasy where Pullman uses his story to illustrate his magical world. He is a supremely visual writer, creating pictures which remain as after images long after the book is closed, but in doing so he manages not to put any brake on the momentum of his plot. The world he creates is marvellous, with daemons, and armoured bears being particularly wonderful inventions. The whole thing has a kind of steam punk aesthetic, this is a world of dark wood and shiny brass, where Zeppelins cross the sky.
The beginning of the second book, the Subtle Knife, almost feels like a disappointment. Having created such a marvellous canvas against which Lyra's tale is told, Pullman pitches the reader straight back into our own world. Will, like Lyra, lives in Oxford, but his is a mundanely frightening existence. His father, another explorer, disappeared shortly after Will was born, and Will is left caring for his mentally ill mother. Will's world changes when mysterious men start hunting for information about his father, and while fleeing them, he finds himself stepping through into another world. In what seems to be a tropical paradise, he meets a wild but disoriented girl, none other than Lyra, who left her own world at the end of the Northern Lights on the unknowing coat tails of Lord Asriel. The second book in the trilogy is set mainly in our own world and in the tropical Citagazze, as Will and Lyra, pursued by malevolent forces from both of their worlds search, for Will's father. In "real" Oxford Lyra finds a different perspective on Dust in the lab of a particle physicist, Mary Malone. In Citagazze, a world where adults are killed by malevolent spectres invisible and harmless to children, Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, capable of opening windows between universes. The book is very much the middle of a trilogy, broadening out from the first, and setting things up for the finale. In this central position, the final line is remarkably similar to that of the Two Towers, "Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy". Turning to Tolkein, in the introduction to his masterwork, he states that "this is a tale which grew in the telling". That is a feeling I had with the Subtle Knife, that new ideas are introduced which don't quite fit with what went before. For example, for all of Asriel's historic attempts to blast a gateway between universes we find that others have been blithely stepping through windows for years. However while I may quible at some details, there is some fantastic writing, not least in the heroic death of a major character which brought me close to tears.
The third volume, the Amber Spy Glass is vast in its ambition, but I'm afraid I found it the most flawed of the three. It is the story of war in heaven, and one in which Pullman draws heavily on Milton's Paradise Lost, while also turning it on its head. This is the story of the triumph of humankind, its ascent rather than it fall.. The first problem I have with it is that it is simply over-written. One almost gets the impression that Pullman has grown in confidence relative to his editor. Scenes drag on unnecessarily, to the detriment of his narrative drive. Whereas the building of the world took place around the story in the Northern Lights, here the plot is subservient to the creation of new universes. Secondly, the plot starts to get a bit ragged. Comparing once again with Tolkein, Pullman has undoubtedly created stronger characters, and also provides rounded female characters. However one of the beauties of the Lord of the Rings is its internal consistency. This is less the case with His Dark Materials. Asriel, having apparently just escaped from his universe has seemingly built up a massive alliance and military infrastructure in no time at all. Mrs Coulter and Asriel go through enormous, scarcely credible character arcs, indeed in the case of the latter, it is less of an arc, more of a hairpin bend.
Again, while having criticisms, I also thoroughly enjoyed a book in which Asriel seeks to replace the kingdom of heaven with a republic; a book in which the church uses both WMDs and individual assassins in an attempt to kill Lyra; a book in which armoured bears sail a river boat through central asia, using a flaming catapult against those who refuse them refuelling; a book in which Will and Lyra descend into the world of the dead; a book in which Mary Malone, the particle physicist takes on the role of the serpent in a garden of Eden inhabited by wheeled pachyderms;a book which ends with a heartbreaking sacrifice, but also on a note of bittersweet hope.
His Dark Materials is frequently described as being anti-christian. I'd say that is misleading, for the simple reason that there is no Christ figure, or reference to one, in the book. The religion in Lyras world is more like a sort of old testament Catholicism. Pullman's target could much more readily be described as oppressive organised religion. One can certainly see why Rome would object to the work. Furthermore, while Pullman nails his colours firmly to the humanist mast, he still leaves a small agnostic gap. There is no deicide in these novels. Two characters impersonating God die, but it is made clear that neither is the original creator. Also, while Pullman is a humanist, he is no cold materialist. This us a deeply spiritual work, with characters having life beyond the purely physical, and a trinity existing within human nature. It is telling that Lord Asriel does not deny heaven, his aim is revolution, to set up a republic.
In the same way as it reflects and inverts Paradise Lost, this trilogy also spins around the stories of CS Lewis, reflecting their deep Christianity with its glory in human spirit and consciousness. The point at which the two come closest is in the character of MrsCoulter, who, along with her golden monkey daemon is both a gloriously threatening villain, and an extremely close relative of Jadis,the White Witch of Narnia.
In short, not that brevity is appropriate in a work of this scope, Pullman draws together theology, quantum physics, evolution and an explanation of consciousness in a book which draws heavily on both ancient and modern fantasy.