Philip Pullman is a master in the literary genre. I have rarely read novels with such beauty and depth. His Dark Materials is a trilogy of works including the books The Golden Compass1Recently made into a feature film which does no justice to the work. This is mainly due to its less-than-epic nature. It needed Peter Jackson’s treatment and willingness to push the boundaries of acceptable movie length. It was simply too short to express the richness of Pullman’s vision, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These works are rather recent but already deserve to be considered among the classics fantasy genre (alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia).
The Golden Compass Summary
The first volume, The Golden Compass introduces us to Lyra in a world parallel to our own. In this world a Roman Catholic-like church rules with a dictatorial grip and the scholars are a rebellious yet subdued group. There are witches, armored bears, and all sorts of fantastical creatures – including the presence of daemons – visible creatures which accompany each individual throughout their life in a visible manifestation and represent the human spirit. Lyra becomes entangled in grand adventures and must liberate a friend from a secret group that is separating children from their spirits.
The Subtle Knife Summary
The second volume, The Subtle Knife brings a grander scale to the tale (one might thing of Tolkien’s The Hobbit in comparison to his Lord of the Rings trilogy) and introduces our second main hero – a young lad named Will Parry. Eventually our two heroes’ tales intertwine and we follow as they explore not only their own worlds but many parallel universes.
The Amber Spyglass Summary
In the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, the tale becomes epic in scope and the story is of a grand battle between good and evil – except it is the religious, the god who is evil and the usurper who is good.
[Okay, I really didn’t reveal much there, you’ll have to read it to find out. I am afraid that this book is marred by the urgency of the polemic Pullman offers.]
Why It Is So Good
What makes these works so amazing? First is the quality of the writing. Pullman has a way with words. He can make them sound so beautiful and describes in such vibrancy an entirely other world. But words alone do not make a story. No, the quality of his tale is deep and rich, the light of the world shines bright and one’s imagination easily pulls out the vivid pictures he draws with words. But even beyond this, it is the theories and the mysteries which he throws at the reader which draw this book above the masses of quality reads and enters it into the realm of classics. His discussion of daemons and dust and angels all are worthwhile and offer a philosophical as well as entertaining read.
But Aren’t You A Christian?
With that said, some may be amazed to hear me sing the praises of Pullman. My personal belief system is Protestant Christian and yet Pullman is an outspoken agnostic2 An agnostic believes we cannot know God (if there is one) while an atheist believes that God does not and cannot exist. In fact, while his first work is extremely subtle, and the second slightly more outspoken, by the third work it is evident that Pullman intends to undermine many of the basic beliefs of Christianity3While the attacks seem somewhat more focused on the Roman Catholic and similar hierarchical churches as compared to many of the less organized forms of Protestantism, the underlying principles attacked extend across all denominations.. Pullman has made no attempt to hide his aims and the work is as much entertaining fiction as it is a philosophical treatise.
So why would I read it? First, it is partly because it is a theological/philosophical treatise that I read it. When I speak to others about my belief systems it is with an eager desire for them to honestly consider my ways of thinking and why I believe as I do and the evidence I offer to support my beliefs. How can I offer any less of an open and listening ear to those who believe differently from me? As such, I find great value in understanding and being able to intelligently interact with Pullman’s beliefs.
Secondly, the book offers wonderful insights into the majesty of God. As Pullman discloses pictures of angelic beings, portrays the complexity of the universe, and contemplates the scientific topics that boggle the minds of modern scientists he unwittingly offers insight and wisdom which a Christian can well utilize4I especially think here of his portrayals of angels and dust.
I cannot recommend these three volumes highly enough. The first two are relatively light reads, but the third becomes highly dense though still extremely readable and seems the size of at least both the previous volumes. I cannot speak to the UK volumes, I have only read the US volumes and am aware that Pullman’s works have been censored in the US editions to remove some of Lyra’s sexuality which plays a small but core role in the third volume. But, to the US editions, I give my praise…and hope that some day Pullman will willingly use the skills he has been given by God in the defense of God rather than maligning Him.
P.S. For those interested in learning more about this trilogy, take a look at Wikipedia’s article on the subject.