His Dark Materials
Attitude: Take Care → Positive
Series: His Dark Materials
Age Range: Young Teens+
Setting: Oxford and elsewhere in this and parallel Earths
- Lyra Belacqua: along with Will Parry, the most important figure in the trilogy. She appears to us first as a wildcat Oxford urchin who is alternately taken in and repelled by the glamour of Mrs Coulter who she learns is her mother. She has the gift (referred to as "grace" by the angel Xaphania in AS 520) of understanding the aletheiometer which gift she loses when she grows up. She lies her way out of anything. A very passionate character, fierce in all her emotions. She is said to be "the new Eve", according to a prophecy by the witches in SK 328.
- Will Parry: the other major player alongside Lyra Belacqua. His mother seems to have lost her mind following her explorer husband's disappearance and Will looks after her. He dislikes fighting, altho' his father was a soldier, but against his will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife which is "the one weapon in the all the universes that could defeat the tyrant. The Authority. God." (SK 334)
- Mary Malone, a former nun turned physicist who befriends the children. She rejected God outright after attending a physics conference while a nun and being reminded of a certain youthful experience of love. The retailing of this story to the children evokes the first stirrings of womanhood in Lyra. (AS 464-469)
- Iorek Byrnison, king of the armoured bears. A noble character who is loyal to Lyra and who turns up all over the place to defend her. Much pseudo-philosophy about bears acting like men. (NL 353)
- Lee Scoresby, shrewd and courteous western American and hot-air balloonist from Lyra's world. Friend of Iorek Byrnison whom he has rescued at least once.
- Gyptians are the Gypsies of Lyra's world inhabiting mostly barges and viewing the Fens as their home. They hide Lyra when she runs from Mrs Coulter and travel to the Arctic to reclaim their stolen children. Very clannish and fierce fighters.
- Serafina Pekkala, queen of the witch clans. Another of the protectors of Lyra and Will. Like all witches she mates with any man who attracts her but does not stay with him because she will have many times his lifespan. (NL 314: "men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season.")
- Lord Asriel, Lyra's father and one of the two most complex characters in the trilogy. He is essentially out for power. After an adulterous affair with Mrs Coulter produced Lyra, he killed her husband in a duel, deposited Lyra with Jordan College and went on expeditions to find out about Dust and its properties. His stated aim is to cross into the world from which Dust is flowing into his to destroy the source of original sin and consequently Death. (NL 377) His real aim is to challenge the might of The Authority, greatest of the angels, and he will use anything to achieve that. (SK 48)
- Mrs Coulter, Lyra's mother and the other most complex character. The ultimate schemer, whose daemon significantly is a vicious golden monkey, she has very maternal feelings towards Lyra, rescuing her on several occasions, but always has her own ends in mind. Tremendous glamour over men and women alike.
Lyra Belacqua a 12-year-old girl believes herself to be an orphan and is brought up in Jordan College, Oxford, in some recognisable but different England. She becomes caught up in a scheme headed by her true mother Mrs Coulter to kidnap children and to separate them from their daemons using the consequent release of energy to harness the Dust which has recently been discovered in the Arctic. She travels north with the Gyptians and Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison and thwarts most of the plans but inadvertently delivers her friend Roger to Lord Asriel, her true father, who kills him to create a bridge between worlds. Lyra crosses the bridge ahead of her father.
In modern-day Winchester Will Parry whose father disappeared in the Arctic leaves his bewildered mother with a friend for safekeeping and inadvertently steps through a doorway into Cígazze and meets Lyra who has just entered this world. Cígazze is terrorised by spectres which leave any adult as a zombie. By chance Will gets The Subtle Knife which will cut anything and can create doorways between worlds. They use it to escape into the present-day Oxford of our world where they meet Mary Malone, a researcher who is investigating Dust under another name. They return to Cígazze but the local children blame them for the loss of one of their number and they are saved by the Witches who have a prophecy concerning Lyra and Will and the Subtle Knife. Lee Scoresby has teamed up with Will's father John Parry who came into Lyra's world by accident and they travel to meet Will, Lee dying in an ambush and John dying, just as he meets Will, at the hand of a witch whose love he had rejected since he was still married to Will's mother.
Mrs Coulter captures Lyra. Will teams up with Iorek Byrnison and rescues her. About four different parties get involved in the struggle to find, capture, use or kill Will and Lyra whose fates seem to be bound up with those of the worlds. The children, accompanied unwillingly by a pair of dragonfly-riding spies and occasionally a lower-order angel, travel to the Land of the Dead to find Roger. To do this they must evade all the attempts to capture or kill them. Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel are at the twisted centre of a convoluted series of alliances and betrayals, most concerning institutions of the Church. Meanwhile Mary Malone has escaped to another world where she teams up with the peaceful Mulefa who can see Dust and she creates the Amber Spyglass which enables her to do the same. Will and Lyra return to the land of the living amid war involving angels, witches, bears and humans. They free the ghosts of the dead and search for their own daemons which had had to be left behind. They find them in the world of the mulefa where the fates of the worlds are decided when the children fall in love with each other and then have to separate for ever.
(See an accompanying article at MercatorNet)
General: For a while, scientists have posited the existence of something called Dark Matter: an invisible unknown substance which makes up a large percentage of the universe and which causes cosmic equations to balance. Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials takes this idea a step further, and reaches the conclusion that there is nothing truly immaterial in the universe: all beings, including the angels, are formed from this Dark Matter or Dust, which therefore ties everything together. This includes the highest angel, which men call God and who is, in Pullman's creation, a tyrant and oppressor.
The first book in this trilogy is called Northern Lights (“The Golden Compass” in America), the second is The Subtle Knife, and the third The Amber Spyglass. One set of characters inhabits all three books, with occasional additions and each book segues into the next.
The plot of the books traces the journeys of two children, Lyra and Will. Will is from our own world, Lyra from a parallel one which seems to repreent the author's conception of a modern - although Victorianesque - world in which church, state and science are entangled. There is a power struggle driven from Lyra's world which culminates in a Miltonesque battle between very human angels and men representing the Church or themselves. At the same time, and somewhat mysteriously bound up with it all, Will and Lyra trace their own path from childhood into adolescence.
Individually and as a series the books are very attractively written. The concepts of a parallel world are always enticing, as one recognises in the canal-travelling Gyptians of Lyra's world the caravan-travelling Gypsies of our own, etc. The characters, especially those outlined below, have depth and purpose although the plot is perhaps a little too all-embracing and elaborate to sustain itself. The third book was published some years after the first two and at a time when a certain other very popular children's series had produced its fourth, fuelling an appetite for bulky, attractively-packaged fantasy books for young people. Naturally enough, people who'd read the first two books wanted to read the third, and those who hadn't were drawn into the series by the appearance of the culminating part of a trilogy.
The Amber Spyglass (and by association the other two) was voted Best Children's Book of the Year and won the overall Whitbread Prize. Of over 140 reviews on amazon.co.uk at the time of writing, only a handful expressed less than overwhelming support and only two any concern about the content.
In a literary sense one can see why the series is so popular: a dramatic and broadsweeping plot; the love of two children juxtaposed with the hatred between warring adults; friendly and unfriendly angels, witches, bears, daemons and other beings; the discovery of the secret substance behind everything in all the parallel worlds; and the heartbreaking dénouement.
From the moral point of view, there is much in the books that is uplifting and praiseworthy. Friendships are a strong and important part of the series, and especially that between Lyra and Will. The fidelity of John Parry, separated for years from his wife, is exemplary. The fortitude and self-sacrifice of many of the characters is truly edifying. These are not books which run to smut or to gratuitous and glorified violence. For that reason, many people, many parents and teachers, will read them or learn about them and see nothing to worry about.
My concern with the series lies principally in the author's caricatured portrayal of the institution of the Church in Lyra's world (and his dismissal of it in ours on the lips of a former nun) plus the content of The Amber Spyglass, involving rebel angels, sentient all-pervading dust, power-mad churchmen, the land of the dead, pre-emptive absolution, and everything except a real & provident God. Ultimately, Pullman seems determined to turn the true relationship between Mankind and God on its head: rather than a loving God who is to be obeyed, Lyra and Will are taught of an evil God who is to be fought, and their arrival at adulthood makes them the new Adam and Eve whose intimate love for each other will break the bond that has tied the world to the tyrant God and will set everything right.
How much does this matter? Clearly it matters that the author has such apparent bitterness. But how much will this affect susceptible readers? Will someone carried along by the pleasure of the author's invented worlds accept or reject or be indifferent to his sideswipes at ours? My feeling is that anyone well-balanced and well-informed will be upset but not influenced by all this. But to someone whose views are being formed all the time this story will represent a wholly distorted view of things made to seem very upright by the fictional but attractive characters who support it.
Daemons: in Lyra's world everyone has a daemon in the form of an intelligent animal. This seems roughly equivalent to a soul, but Lyra says in AS that she can think about her daemon and about herself so there must be something else and Mary Malone quotes St Paul re spirit and soul and body (AS 463). Before adolescence daemons change shape at will but afterwards remain fixed in a shape which gives a good indication of the kind of person, eg a servant might have a dog; a sailor a seagull; someone wily a fox; someone timid a mouse or a rabbit. The bond between human and daemon is extremely strong. With only a few exceptions (cf witches) they can't separate by more than a short distance (NL 194) and it is completely taboo to touch someone else's daemon (NL 276), nor will one person's daemon usually talk to or touch another. (NL 146; SK 191)
Witches: somewhat recursively defined as those girls born to mothers who are witches, they live for up to a thousand years (NL 314), have bird-daemons who can fly a long distance apart from them (NL 164), and have certain powers, including that of being able to fly on any branch of cloud-broom.
Dust: this is the name in Lyra's world for what Mary Malone, our modern-day point-of-view adult, calls Dark Matter or Shadows and the Mulefa she befriends call sraf. It connects together daemons, the aletheiometer, the doors between the worlds, the spectres and just about everything else. It is described as aware particles which congregate around conscious beings, altho' only adults. In SK 259-262 Mary Malone has a conversation with it where it claims to be Angels out for vengeance against the rebel angels.
Aletheiometer: a truth-telling compass, somehow worked by Dust, usually requiring years of study and many reference books. It enables the user by holding questions in his or her mind at different levels to determine a present state of affairs anywhere. Lyra has a natural ability to work it, which the angel Xaphania attributes to grace (AS 520).
Angels: These angels are very human-like beings, with higher and lower orders, loves and hates (including one pair who talk very much like the typical depiction of male lovers), and relatively few powers besides that of flight with traditional wings and the ability to assume other forms. The Authority is taken by the Church in Lyra's world to be the Creator God but is nothing of the sort, rather simply the first angel, condensed like all the others out of dust. (AS 33) The existence or otherwise of a provident creator God is left to one side (AS 221). Some angels were men before they became angels (AS 18) and all can be wrestled by men (AS 30) since they do not have “true flesh” (AS 30).
The World of the Dead: In AS 35, Baruch says “the churches tell their believers they'll live in Heaven, but that's a lie.” Then from AS 249 onwards for many chapters, Will & Lyra journey in the land of the dead, first in the Suburbs of the Dead (!) and then into the Land of the Dead while their daemons stay on the living side. They meet the daemonless ghosts of their friends and many others and eventually Will cuts a door into another world where they can leave this underworld and become “part of everything” (AS 335).
Suicides / Mercy Killings: The old bearer of the Subtle Knife poisons himself rather than be taken by the Spectres which will leave him a Zombie (SK 197). Serafina Pekkala knifes another witch who has been tortured almost to death (SK 41). Juta Kameinen, another witch, stabs herself and dies after she has killed John Parry, Will's father, who rejected her love out of fidelity to his wife (SK 338).
Sex / Love / Marriage: The earlier two books are written from the viewpoints of Will and Lyra when slightly younger while the later one turns to an extent on their entry into adolescence. In a way the whole series is tied up with the importance of adolescence: your daemon becomes fixed; you see spectres and they can trap you; dust is attracted to you more than before; and, foretold in a prophecy, the advent of Will and Lyra's adulthood is crucial to the Dust which is causing upheaval in the world. (AS 506) In a fairly commonplace way, Mrs Coulter is represented as having several lovers, in marriage and in widowhood. In particular her love with Lord Asriel gives birth to Lyra, while later we see her in a relationship with Lord Boreal whom she eventually kills. The witches (qv) do not countenance monogamy and indeed have different Gods. At first neither Will nor (a little surprisingly) Lyra have any inkling of the meanings behind phrases referring to adult relationships although they do display a certain modesty on the occasions when they undress near each other. See below for John Parry's fidelity to his wife, Will's mother. Will and Lyra, having had a child's love for each other throughout the books, ultimately experience the more intense yet still innocent sensation of adult love. This proposes to represent the love of Adam & Eve and therefore to give humanity a fresh start. While the text itself treads delicately enough (“So, wondering whether any lovers before them had made the same blissful discovery, they lay togetherÂ ” AS 528) the passages leading up to the one quoted are quite sensual in nature including the handling of each other's daemons (daemons always play their own visible part in sensual feelings between two humans).
Attitude to the Church: The Church in Lyra's world is a caricature combination of mediaeval scholasticism and nineteenth century science. Science is called experimental theology, church and state are pretty much the same thing, and power-hungry factions dominate the Hierarchy. At first this seems merely a literary device to give the reader the familiar-yet-unknown feel of an alternative world. However in AS, we are treated to Miltonesque angels (AS 11), an assassin priest who has been pre-emptively absolved (AS 75ff), Ecclesiastical departments with torture chambers (AS 74) and which compete against each other (AS 72), including sending armed (“Swiss Guards”) contingents (AS 156) to get hold Lyra and Will whom they know from the witches' prophecies and from their Aletheiometer to be at the centre of the fates of the worlds.
God & Creation: This is mostly covered in paragraphs above, but in summary: everything comes from the Dark Matter or Dust, including the angels, of whom the first and most powerful is known as The Authority or God. It is Will & Lyra's new-found love, human love, for each other which - literally - sets this Dust on its right course, away from God's creation and towards Man's.
“There are two great powers and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit. And now those two powers are lining up for battle. And each of them wants that knife.”
Thursday 3rd June 2004