Back when I was a wee person, I discovered Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in the US) and absolutely loved it to pieces. Then I found the The Subtle Knife in a library and didn’t read it for ages because I didn’t realize it was a sequel. By the time The Amber Spyglass came along I was fully on board the parallel-dimensions-secular-humanism-war-against-heaven train and the His Dark Materials trilogy ranked among my all time favourite books.
That was a long time ago though, and I haven’t re-read all three books in quite a while. So I decided, why not blatantly rip off Ferretbrain’s Reading Canary format and do a mega-post on them, with brief detours to cover the movie and the two companion novellas Pullman put out? The aim will be to expose the books to the light of cold, objective analysis and discover if they’re actually as good as I remember them being.
The His Dark Materials novels were released between 1995 and 2000, and new versions of the books with different covers seem to get printed every other year. A few of those included bonus DVD extra in the form of little page-long story chunks that reveal bits and pieces of the characters and the world.
For the purposes of this review I’m going off the handsome hardback edition that the Everyman’s Library put out, which has all three books in one volume and the bonus DVD extras, plus the assorted fluff that always come packaged with reprints of famous novels like an essay written by someone you’ve never heard of and a timeline of the author’s life.
After the trilogy was over Pullman wrote two pocket-sized hardback novellas, one taking place after the action of the main story and one before it, that came with assorted doodads like fake newspaper clippings and a map. A larger book of short stories called The Book of Dust has been in the works for quite a long time and is apparently due to be finished some time this year.
A movie of the first book using The Golden Compass title was released in 2007 and was supposed to be the start of a trilogy. Needless to say that didn’t happen, for reasons we’ll get into later.
In Europe the novels enjoyed a fair amount of prominence as somewhat highbrow children’s literature; I assume people are still buying all of those reprints, but they seem to have largely faded from public consciousness. In the US, however, the books became somewhat infamous for supposedly being ATHEIST PROPAGANDA (Phillip Pullman himself is also infamous for similar reasons). Whether or not they are in fact ATHEIST PROPAGANDA will be addressed at the end, but this is a review of the books and not the author, so if you have a beef with the guy- as I gather quite a few people do- I’m not going to be addressing that here.
Northern Lights/ The Golden Compass
The first book in the trilogy was released in Pullman’s native UK as Northern Lights, but due to a hilarious publishing mishap ended up with the name The Golden Compass in America. I actually prefer The Golden Compass as a title since it fits in better with the naming theme of the other two books, so I’m going to use that (or just TGC) from here on out.
The book serves as partially a stand-alone story and partially setup for the two sequels, which are much more closely intertwined with each other. The story takes place in a literal alternate universe version of Earth that comes across as a mashup between the Victorian and WWII eras with a dash of the supernatural thrown on top. Also zeppelins, because parallel universes always have zeppelins. In this world humans are born with sentient animal familiars named daemons (or dæmons if you want to get fancy) that serve as essentially an external soul- the human/daemon pair is considered to be one being in two bodies, even though their personalities can differ quite widely, and the death of one will lead to the immediate death of the other. Children’s daemon’s can shape-shift into any animal up until the age of puberty, at which point they take on a permanent form.
The actual plot (which is remarkably complex to summarize) stars Lyra Belacqua, a roughly eleven-ish year old girl living a half-wild existence in Jordan College, located in this world’s version of Oxford, having been left there by her adventurer-scientist uncle Lord Asriel after the death of her parents in an airship accident. One day said uncle comes to visit and Lyra witnesses the master of the college attempting to poison him. She saves his life at the last minute and discovers that he’s involves in some sort of important business of a theological/scientific nature (the two being closely intertwined in Lyra’s world) that’s gotten everyone in a tizzy, but before she can find out any more he dashes off to the far North. Then two things occur to shatter Lyra’s comfortable existence- her friend Roger vanishes in a wave of child kidnappings that have been striking various cities, and an enchanting and powerful woman named Mrs. Coulter shows up and announces that she’s going to adopt Lyra. Upon hearing this the Master of the college gives Lyra an alethiometer, a compass-like device used to answer any question that normally takes years of study to use but which Lyra seems to possess some sort of innate gift for, and which she assumes (wrongly, it turns out) that she’s supposed to bring to Lord Asriel. Mrs. Coulter quickly whisks her off to London with vague promises of an expedition to the North, and Lyra is temporarily besotted with her new luxurious lifestyle until she discovers that her new foster mother is both the head of the shadowy government agency responsible for the kidnappings and an enormous raging asshole. She flees and is found by a party of boat-dwelling Gyptians from Oxford, who as it turns out are on their way North to attempt to rescue the kidnapped children from a sinister laboratory. What follows is a harrowing adventure involving witches, cruel experiments, quasi-religious government conspiracies, parallel worlds and a mysterious, seemingly intelligent substance called Dust that grants the alethiometer its omnipotence and lies at the core of the massive cosmic-scale conflict that Lyra finds herself unwittingly embroiled in.
Also a talking polar-bear named Iorek Byrnison.
I strongly suspect that last point may have been why New Line decided to turn this book into a film.
I just spent quite a long time giving you the basic set-up of the plot, and one thing that struck me on re-reading this is how complex the story actually is. Later on this will become a liability as the plot threads increase and things start getting out of hand, but in the first book it just feels like Pullman has a refreshing respect for his reader’s intelligence and an unwillingness to dumb things down. If the story goes over kid’s heads it would actually be somewhat fitting, as Lyra herself is involved in both adult and cosmic-scale events that she doesn’t really understand or grasp the significance of. Stories with kid protagonists often feel like they struggle to come up with a reason for their main characters to be involved in the central conflict; TGC deftly sidesteps this by having Lyra be incredibly important to everything that’s going on, but most of the characters, including herself, don’t realize it for a long time. Her motivations are always smaller-scale and believable on a personal level, it’s just that the things she’s trying to do happen to also be tied up in the fate of the entire multiverse.
Lyra herself is probably the best thing about the trilogy as a whole. She’s rude, arrogant, immature, argumentative, melodramatic, throws tantrums, often makes assumptions about the world and how it works that turn out to be dead wrong, and threatens to violently murder people several times in fits of anger, one of which involves the previously mentioned talking polar bear. At the same time she’s also fiercely loyal to her friends and allies and tends to become deeply emotionally attached to people in an almost comically melodramatic way- but that attachment can quickly turn to raging and unyielding hatred if they turn out to not be as brave or virtuous as she first thought, as happens with Mrs. Coulter, who Lyra goes from almost worshiping to utterly detesting in the space of less than a minute (admittedly this is because Mrs. Coulter essentially physically abuses her).
In short Lyra has a believably childish view of the world, crossed with a tough and somewhat edgy personality baked into her from a childhood spent running about unsupervised on the streets of Oxford. People are either absolute good or evil, new experiences are to be reveled in with wild abandon, and her self-identity is an extremely fluid thing so that she can go from being a street-tough urchin to a pampered young lady of the city in the blink of an eye, and feel just at home in both settings. I particularly enjoyed the way she begins to take on the mannerisms and customs of the Gyptians after only spending a few days in their company and has to be gently knocked down a peg when they point out that she’s not actually one of them.
Protagonists of children’s literature have a depressing tendency to act as role models, and while there’s much in Lyra that’s noble and admirable, I seriously doubt any parent would want their son or daughter emulating her. I feel this indicates an author who is keenly aware of what it is young readers actually want from their fiction. On a related note, Pullman clearly realizes that kids enjoy descriptions of stomach-churning violence and so we get a scene (miraculously recreated faithfully in the movie) in which Iorek Byrnison tears another polar bear’s lower jaw off and then eats his heart. Let me tell you, when I was ten years old I thought this was just the bee’s knees.
Speaking of which, Iorek is probably the second best thing in the novel behind Lyra, as Pullman gives him and the other polar bears (who wear armour, which just makes them cooler) an intriguingly alien and non-human way of thinking while still making them relate-able. Iorek feels like a palpably dangerous and threatening presence even as he befriends Lyra because he simply doesn’t express emotions the way humans do, or hold to human ideas of morality. You never quite know if this is a character you can trust, even though he’s most definitely on Lyra’s side.
And he’s a giant talking polar bear. Who wears armour. I feel like this point can’t be repeated often enough.
The supporting cast are all excellent too, with a special mention going to Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, who turn out to actually be Lyra’s parents. They’re portrayed as these hilariously over the top Ayn Randian badasses who get shit done with the force of their iron will and routinely achieve the seemingly impossible, in ways that possibly border on the supernatural. In most novels they’d come off as shallow wish fulfillment, but Pullman avoids this by making it abundantly clear that they’re both kind of awful people as well- Asriel is a cold-hearted bastard willing to murder children to achieve what he considers a noble goal, and Coulter is a cold-hearted bastard willing to…. well, they’re both more or less the same except you’re never entirely sure what Mrs. Coulter’s goals actually are. You could easily take exception to Mrs. Coulter’s portrayal as someone with an almost unnatural gift for manipulation and who several times over the course of the trilogy uses her alluring beauty to get men to do what she wants, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with a criticism from this angle, but I do like that the world of the novel is strongly implied to be heavily chauvinistic and so she’s basically put in a position of not really having any other way to keep hold of the unusually high level of authority and influence that she has, as plenty of her male superiors and colleagues would jump at the chance to use an overt display of force to crush her, something they could do very easily if she makes a wrong move.
While we’re talking about Gender Stuff (more Gender Stuff will come up later, in a much less positive way): Lyra’s time with Mrs. Coulter is ultimately portrayed as a negative experience in which she was being repressed and turned into an obedient pet, but I always liked that the book shows her getting to wear expensive dresses and makeup and try out other typically feminine-associated things that didn’t exist in the male-dominated world of Jordan college and doesn’t judge her for enjoying them or cast the experiences as frivolous wastes of time. Rather, the implication is that makeup and buying handbags and drinking tea daintily is just as valid a way to live as running around city streets getting into fights and Lyra was in some way being deprived of the chance to try this out before, and that getting to act like a stereotypical little girl wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing if Mrs. Coulter didn’t turn out to be manipulating her. It’s a refreshing change from a lot of male-written female characters, who often cast off the typical trappings of femininity not because they were being forced into them against their will but because Girl Stuff is stupid and a waste of time and heroines can only be cool if they act like men.
(Now let’s get some books where boys get to do all that stuff too without anyone blinking an eyelid)
Pullman has stated in interviews that he doesn’t sit down and plot his books out before he writes them. I have sympathy with this approach since it’s my personal preferred technique (when you write such spell-binding masterpieces as I do you don’t need planning), but it does give rise to some bad habits that will become worse as the trilogy goes on. Namely, the narrative can get somewhat vague and airy-fairy at times, with characters talking about how they’re going to go and do a thing but they don’t really understand why they should do that thing because they’re not entirely sure what’s actually going on, it just seems like the thing they’re doing is the right thing to do. This is a clear sign of an author who knew where he wanted the story to go but not how to get it there. TGC is far from the worst offender in the trilogy in that regard, but it does trot out a prophecy midway through in order to get several characters to take a course of action that they otherwise wouldn’t have had any reason to consider. The alethiometer also takes on this role several times, essentially telling Lyra “hey you should go over here now, no seriously this is important just trust me” but it’s somewhat more understandable as the device is meant to be very difficult to understand and even with Lyra’s preternatural gift for reading it she often has trouble working out exactly what it’s saying, only realizing why its advice was important after the fact.
While we’re discussing criticisms of the book I have to talk about the somewhat jarring attitude to race. The whole story is infused with the sort of uniquely British sense of xenophobia you tended to see in children’s stories and comics in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s a lot of talk of vaguely defined foreign hordes who are clearly based on actual ethnic groups and nationalities menacing not-Europe and barbaric-seeming tribal folks getting up to all sorts of weird practices, such as trepanning, which gets waved around a lot in all three books as something alien and bizarre that people who live in tents do. The much speculated on invasion by “tartars” doesn’t end up happening, but quite a few of the faceless mooks in the employ of the villains are “asiatic” dudes who speak in embarrassing me-no-take-candle pidgin English. Needless to say the entire cast of actual protagonists are white (later books get just a tad better about this as Lord Asriel’s allies, who are the nominal sort-of good guys, are implied to be a heavily diverse group from all over).
I’m also not entirely sure what to make of the Gyptians, who are clearly a riff on the Roma people and similar groups, and who are said to engage in smuggling and blood feuds and the like. Then again literally every single named Gyptian character is shown to be an upstanding heroic sort, and the the Gyptians as a whole side firmly with the good guys throughout the story in a way that no other single group or faction is portrayed doing, so I don’t know. I’d be curious to know how people who belong to the groups Pullman is basing them on react to them.
Overall the whole thing is lightly suffused with an air of stuffy faux-intellectual British racism, which I guess is exactly what you’d expect from a stuffy British intellectual, but it’s kind of uncomfortable all the same. At times it ends up feeling like something that fell out of a wormhole from 1945.
If that’s not a deal-breaker for you, The Golden Compass is easily the best book in the trilogy. It’s focused and rockets along at a lightning fast pace, neither of which is true of the rest of the trilogy, and there’s a weightiness and grittiness to Lyra’s world that really makes it come alive in a way that adult fantasy often doesn’t manage. Pullman’s prose has a kind of grandiose beauty to it, even if it does occasionally slip into weird melodrama and faux Victorianisms (“she cried, and lustily” is probably my favourite) and it’s over all one of those rare books that I think adults will get just as much out of as the target audience.
Before we get into ATHEIST PROPAGANDA I feel I should clarify the mindset I’m coming into this with. I’m an atheist myself and don’t see anything inherently wrong with the idea of a children’s book extolling the virtues of secularism or criticizing religion; after all, if people can write explicitly religious children’s books (of which there are thousands upon thousands) isn’t turnabout fair play?
What I do have a problem with is the idea of people preaching to kids, regardless of whether the idea being fed to them is one I agree with or not. I firmly believe that children (adults too, in fact) should be able to make up their own minds about these things rather then being handed down ideas that are presented as unquestionable fact, and I will quickly lose my patience with an author who starts sermonizing.
Now that you know where I’m coming from, The Golden Compass is pretty light on this front. The overall villains are The Magisterium, a tangled web of Church-affiliated organizations who are up to lots of nefarious things, and while said Church is clearly heavily based on the Catholic one it also has some notable differences (Jesus is never mentioned, for example). And the actual on the ground villains that Lyra and co tangle with are all seemingly completely secular individuals- it’s notable that the absolute worst villains in the book, the people who are identified as completely and irredeemably vile, are a cabal of ruthless scientists, which is something you would never see in a book written by, say, Richard Dawkins. And while they’re working for a religious organization they don’t appear to be motivated by any sort of religious dogma. Nor does Mrs. Coulter, who is a high-ranking agent of the Magisterium and occasionally pays lip service to matters of faith but doesn’t appear to actually believe any of it herself.
Overall the impression you get is that the Magisterium is a mix of secular fascism and theocracy, with the line between the two deliberately left vague. And the religious components are far from completely corrupt and evil, as Lyra and Roger encounter a priest near the start of the book who’s portrayed as a kind-hearted and thoughtful man, in contrast to the Magisterium bigwigs, who are ruthless and amoral. This ties into what I think Pullman was ultimately trying to get across about religion, but I’ll save more of the explanation for the next book, where it becomes more explicit.
The Subtle Knife
Our story opens with a boy named Will Parry, who lives not in Lyra’s world of talking polar bears and daemons and talking polar bears but our own world of things that aren’t talking polar bears.
Will has been having kind of a hard time of things lately. His explorer father vanished when he was very young, leaving him in the care of his mother, who shortly after started to develop a rather serious mental illness that causes fits of terrified paranoia and obsessive-compulsive behavior. So since the age of seven Will has basically been raising himself while also trying to keep his mother’s illness a secret from the authorities. Then one day some men break into the house looking for information on his Dad and he accidentally pushes one of them down a flight of stairs, killing him.
Will leaves his mother in the care of a neighbour and goes on the lam, quickly discovering something extraordinary- a hole in the air that leads to the empty city of Citagazze, in another world. Will climbs through on the basis that a parallel universe will provide an excellent hiding place and runs straight into Lyra, who also came to Citagazze through far more dramatic means following the events of the end of The Golden Compass. The two reluctantly pair up and begin to travel back and forth between our world and Citagazze, Will looking for clues to his Dad’s whereabouts and Lyra searching for information on Dust, the mysterious elementary particle that drives the alethiometer and which the Magisterium is attempting to destroy, Lyra having reasoned that since the Magisterium are douche-waffles she should oppose anything they want to do. In the course of these adventures Will becomes the bearer of the titular Subtle Knife, a blade that can cut through the fabric of reality and allow passage to other worlds.
Speaking of douche-waffles, Lord Asriel’s romping around the multiverse assembling a vast army to carry out his grandiose master plan: find a way to destroy The Authority, the all-powerful being that the Magisterium and its many counterparts across all of the worlds worship and obey. Get out your copies of Paradise Lost , it’s war against heaven time!
Oh also the Magisterium want to kill Lyra because she’s the second coming of Eve, or something.
Despite all of that sounding very sweeping and epic and Pullman really ramping up the mildly edgy and trangressive stuff that makes certain people fall into a tizzy over these books (gay angels!), I always thought of The Subtle Knife as “the boring one”. Partially this is because it suffers from the common problem of middle books in a trilogy feeling like setup for the finale but it’s also because the subject matter is noticeably stodgier and less high-flying than in The Golden Compass despite the much larger scale. Will is kind of a boring co-protagonist; both our own world and Citagazze are kind of boring compared to Lyra’s world; a fair amount of time is spent with our two heroes trudging up mountains while Will bleeds profusely from having two of his fingers cut off by the Subtle Knife. Overall it could really do with a few armored polar bear rampages to liven things up.
The biggest problem for me is Will. I just never warmed to the guy the way I did with Lyra. Like her he has a touch of grittiness, but in this case it makes him jaded and cynical instead of adventurous and fun; I read half of his sections in a world-weary noir detective voice almost without realizing it. It’s also hard to escape the impression that he barges into Lyra’s story and starts ordering her around, which I didn’t appreciate when I was twelve and still don’t appreciate now. More galling is the fact that she doesn’t tell him to go fuck himself (this is the same character who faced down a polar bear king less than a week ago in story time) and instead consents to taking on a largely subservient position.
This probably sounds like it’s time to talk about Gender Stuff, and, well, yes it is, but I feel like I have to contextualize Lyra’s behavior a bit first. We see in the first book that she has a somewhat weird way of relating to people, in that if she feels superior to them she attempts to control or dominate them, but if they impress her she immediately falls to her knees and swears fealty to them and professes her undying loyalty. So the idea of her meeting Will and deciding to basically just do what he tells her to for the next while isn’t in itself out of character or troubling.
What is troubling is that I cannot for the life of me figure out what Lyra finds so impressive about the guy. At the start of the book he’s this grouchy asshole with less charisma than a sand dune and hasn’t done anything like the cool shit she has. In the absence of any other explanation I’m left with the inescapable impression that Pullman or his publisher decided the first book was too girly so now it was time to parachute in a boy to take the lead. And he does take the lead- Lyra is specifically instructed by the alethiometer to focus on helping him, and due to his possession of the Subtle Knife he becomes the main combatant of the duo more or less by default. In the first book Lyra having a device that basically makes her omnipotent gave her a massive degree of both importance and power, but compared to a knife that can cut reality her dinky little compass can’t help but seem kind of crummy. It’s even speculated that the Subtle Knife might be the only thing capable of killing The Authority (in the first book Lyra thought she was a central part of Lord Asriel’s plan; in this book Will actually is, although he doesn’t end up fulfilling that role) which means his importance in the emerging war with heaven upstage’s Lyra’s despite the whole “second coming of Eve” thing.
What I’m getting at here is that The Subtle Knife kind of ends up pigeon-holing its two lead characters into the old male = active, female = passive stereotypes, and it’s all the more galling that such a fascinating and likeable female character is being upstaged by such a bland male hero. It’s not balls to the wall sexist or anything, it’s not like Lyra gets completely robbed of agency (that will have to wait for the next book) but it’s still annoying that we go from The Lyra Variety Hour to The Will Parry Show (Featuring Lyra).
In The Subtle Knife some of those flaws I mentioned last time blossom from small weeds to larger, more different weeds. Side characters start to get their own side plots and the story grows more and more vague and insubstantial in a lot of ways, with the upcoming war in heaven always feeling more like this vague, insubstantial cloud affair that you’re not entirely sure about the particulars of. The feeling that the plot is being made up at breakneck speed with very little in the way of revisions also becomes more and more evident- the sub-plot with Will’s dad wraps up in the most abrupt and unsatisfying way possible and there are weird hints about Mrs. Coulter possibly being Not What She Seems that never really go anywhere. This could easily have derailed the book completely, but the focus on Will and Lyra saves it; no matter how muddled or confused or seemingly nonsensical the over-arching holy-shit-let’s-kill-god-war-in-heaven plot gets, the core of the story is still our two young heroes (and talking polar bears) and they remain compelling, even with Will putting a damper on things.
There aren’t really any race issues this time around (on account of everyone being white, which is of course a race issue by itself), but the book’s treatment of mental illness is potentially troubling. Re-reading the book after spending years working part time in a psychiatric hospital, I was initially impressed with how realistic and unflinching the depiction of Will’s mother’s condition is. Her paranoia and delusions come across very strongly like someone severely not well who isn’t getting proper treatment, and the book absolutely doesn’t hold back in portraying how devastating and frightening her gradual loss of sanity is for both her and Will. Aaaaand then it turns out that Citagazze is filled with invisible ghosts that feed on adult’s souls, and the symptoms of soul-ghost-attack look just like the symptoms displayed by Will’s mom! Fancy that. What if she’s actually just experiencing low-level ghost attack? Hell, what if all mentally ill people are
Okay, it’s never actually definitively stated for sure that this is correct, and you could read it as Will just wanting to believe that his mom is being attacked by ghosts because then he might be able to help her, but I think the implication is supposed to be that yeah, mental illness of at least some forms totally is soul-eating ghosts in this world. Sometimes you get authors who fancy themselves clever dicks pulling shit like this (HEY GUYS WHAT IF AIDS IS ACTUALLY CAUSED BY MICROSCOPIC SEX DEMONS) and I can only assume they don’t believe that the people who have whatever illness or condition they’re incorporating into their story actually exist and so can’t get offended by reading it.
The Subtle Knife is where the ATHEIST PROPAGANDA really starts in earnest. The Magisterium play a much more direct roll this time around and are quickly revealed to be a violently oppressive theocratic force, torturing and murdering people to further their goals. And unlike a lot of real world theocracies it’s clear that they’re not pushing their religion as a cover to sieze civil power- their grand, usually totally evil schemes are motivated by a sincere conviction that the powers of sin and devilry are trying to destroy them and unseat God himself from his throne in heaven. Which, okay, turns out to actually be true from a certain perspective, but still. The baddies here are very definitively a religious force. At one point a character gives a lengthy speech about how two forces have battled throughout history, one side snatching everything decent and good from the jaws of the other. The two sides are never actually identified, but it’s not hard to plug in “religion” and “reason/humanism/whatever” and get the sort of overly simplistic black and white characterization of history that atheists of a particular stripe like to engage in. For this reason, I tend to discount Pullman’s claims that the trilogy can be seen as criticizing any oppressive force, as opposed to religion specifically.
Is His Dark Materials just ATHEIST PROPAGANDA through and through? We’ll be talking more about this toward the end, but the short answer is that although the ATHEIST PROPAGANDA gets thicker from here on out, Pullman had something else driving him to write the books.
The Amber Spyglass
The Amber Spyglass, which arrived in 2000, is the longest and most ambitious of the three His Dark Materials novels. Following on from the cliff-hanger ending of The Subtle Knife, Lyra has been captured by Mrs. Coulter, Will is going off to rescue her with the help of two rebel angels who have sided with Lord Asriel, and the cosmos-shattering war in heaven looms on the horizon. Once they’re reuinted our two young heroes go on a journey to the afterlife, fall in love (of course) and accidentally kill God (sort of).
Meanwhile a scientist Lyra met in the previous books travels to another world and talks to sentient elephants and makes a titular telescope thing that can see Dust, but that’s not all that interesting.
So here’s where the wheels start to fall off the whole enterprise a bit. Over the course of The Amber Spylgass’ many pages Pullman becomes entirely too excited about his grand secular humanistsfreedom warriors vs religious peoplegeneric forces of oppression story and gets rather carried away with himself. The seams hold together right up until the end, at which point the final battle we’ve been waiting for since near the start of the second book turns into an incoherent mess where gigantic armies appear out of nowhere and fight each other for no discernible reason; even when I was a kid I was frustrated with the fact that I seemed to have a better grasp of the plot than the characters (at one point Lord Asriel straight up says that he has no idea who their enemy is or why they’re fighting. Should have asked me, I could tell you).
You can also see Pullman blatantly papering over cracks in the plot this time around, such as when we learn that Lord Asriel has a giant rebellion tower set up in a parallel world and he’s drawing a gigantic army from every universe. How the hell did he manage to build all of this so quickly? How are his forces getting to him, when travelling between worlds has been shown to be incredibly difficult for all but a select few? At one point a character speculates that Asriel can somehow control time and I think we’re meant to at least consider this as a possibility (there’s a bit in The Subtle Knife where Mrs. Coulter also does something seemingly impossible with no rational explanation). It’s clear that Pullman found his already kind of complicated children’s adventure story ballooning into something much bigger, and he doesn’t handle the transition particularly well. The daemons are one of the casualties of this- now that the action is taking place in worlds where they’re not the norm Pullman has trouble giving them things to do, and on occasion even seems to forget that they’re there.
As with The Subtle Knife the central dynamic between Will and Lyra is left with all the heavy lifting, but this time it can’t quite bear the weight of the confused plot, particularly since the romance borders on the absurd by the end. Our thirteen year old heroes start spewing absurd, grandiose declarations of affections and I’m sorry, but kids their age do not think or act this way. Even worse, the plot parachutes in a contrived reason to tear them apart at the last minute, a twist that just feels like a cheap shot designed to heighten the pathos of the trilogy’s grand finale.
Lyra’s gradual move from heroine to Will’s fashion accessory continues apace; at the start of the novel she’s drugged and captured by Mrs. Coulter, who has turned into this crazed possessive mother figure (women and their emotions, am I right). That doesn’t last very long, but even after her escape it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Lyra becomes less and less active in the story. Essentially her ultimate role in the over-arching plot of the trilogy is just to fall in love with Will, whereas Will’s fate is to BECOME A MAN and TAKE UP HIS FATHER’S MANTLE and shit. There’s this absolutely galling bit near the end where the two find their way back to Lyra’s scientist friend in talking elephant land and the scientist doesn’t hug Will like she does Lyra because she realizes that he’s BECOME A MAN or whatever the flying fuck.
On the ATHEIST PROPOGANDA front, this is where it becomes abundantly clear that the story is intended in many ways to be a humanist parable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing- I agree with more or less every point Pullman tries to make- but the way he goes about presenting his case is heavy handed and obnoxious. For example, Lyra and Will go to the afterlife and discover that it’s a dark, blasted hellhole where harpies torment the huddled masses of ghosts. In seeking to find some way to free them they discover that the only alternative is complete non-existance, a fate that a large number (possibly a majority) of the ghosts willingly choose.
Now, yes, this is a pretty neat summary of the secular humanist position on the afterlife: there isn’t one, once we die it’s game over, we’re material beings that arose from the inanimate matter of the universe and will some day return to it and instead of fearing this we should embrace the life we have now and live so that we leave it behind with no regrets. All good stuff. But wasn’t there a more subtle way of getting this across without presenting the alternative viewpoint as basically a giant scam that only wild-eyed zealots find any comfort in? Maybe you could point out some of the actual downsides to a belief in an afterlife, such as that it might encourage people to squander their limited time on Earth instead of spending it in a manner of their choosing or throw their lives away in acts of martyrdom? Or you could even point out that a lot of traditional conceptions of the afterlife don’t necessarily sound all that desirable if taken at face value? No? Just going to go with spooky harpietown? Well okay then.
I guess I should probably get to that whole “two thirteen year olds kill god” thing which has become a semi-infamous plot point. Near the end of the book Lyra and Will encounter an old man in a crystal carriage being pulled along by angels, shortly after his retinue was attacked by creatures from Lyra’s world called cliff-ghasts and he’s been left for dead. Unknown to both of them this is actually The Authority, the being that the Magisterium and its counterparts worship as a God and the head honcho that Lord Asriel is trying to destroy, although he’s now so indescribably ancient that his actual power has been usurped by a younger upstart named Metatron. They try to cut him out of the carriage with the subtle knife, whereupon he dissipates into Dust and floats off into oblivion, just like the ghosts that they release from Harpietown.
Now to be clear: it’s stated explicitly that The Authority is not god, in the sense that he didn’t create the universe, the angels, humanity or anything else, but is just a powerful angel who set himself up as the ruler of, well, everything eons and eons ago. When asked about the topic of a creator the rebel angels state that they have no idea whether such a being exists; the angels themselves are implied to be beings of Dust who might have come into existence entirely through natural forces and so wouldn’t be in the position to know the answer to this question either way. As such, the ultimate position of His Dark Materials on the question of God is agnostic, and seems to be of the “we can never know for sure and the question is pointless” variety of agnosticism, a position that most hardcore atheists do not have a lot of respect for. It’s also notable that almost none of the protagonists ever actually question or even seriously doubt the existence of some sort of God- Will brings the topic up once when discussing the Authority and then never again, which rather seems to to suggest that he’s not particularly bothered either way. Again, I don’t think this is what you’d find in a children’s book written by Richard Dawkins or the like.
This also leads us to Pullman’s ultimate beef with religion, with seems to be less “religion is bad” and more that personal religion and religion as practiced by small communities (see for example the trepanning tribes who get waved about at various points) is benign; it’s only when people place moral authority into the hands of planet-spanning churches and institutions with laws and dogmas that you start to run into trouble. Which isn’t really all that fresh or original, but it’s at least more sophisticated than the “religion is bad grrr” viewpoint that’s often incorrectly put into Pullman’s mouth.
Pullman has publicly stated that His Dark Materials are something of a response to the CS Lewis’ Narnia novels. Since Narnia is well known for being a Christian allegory many people assume, understandably, that Pullman objected to the religious moralizing in the books and set out to write an atheist/humanist counterpoint. I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with that, but according to Pullman himself that wasn’t the case. What he really disliked about Lewis’ books is the way they demonize growing up toward the end, treating childhood “innocence” as something important and special to be preserved.
As such, by the end of The Amber Spyglass the focus has shifted from the war on heaven stuff, which ends up feeling kind of perfunctory and not as important as it had been made out to be, to Will and Lyra’s developing romance and their thundering teenage hormones. The argument presented is quite simple: “innocence” is just ignorance by another name and growing up (here contextualized as puberty and the onset of sexual development) is a good and wonderful thing, and not some shameful secret to be fought against and held at bay for as long as possible. Once you realize that this is the ultimate point of the trilogy the Magisterium’s obsessive quest to eliminate “sin” by severing children’s daemon’s before they reach puberty suddenly makes a whole lot of sense, as does the metaphorical nature of the daemon’s shape-shifting powers settling in the early teens. In fact the daemons are more or less stand-ins for the characters genitalia- there’s a massive social taboo against touching another person’s daemon, Will and Lyra do it anyway after they fall in love and speculate that everyone else does it too behind closed doors only they pretend not to (do you see), the daemon-severing thing is explicitly compared to practices like female genital mutilation and castration designed to bring about some nebulous idea of purity or innocence.
Given how deeply uncomfortable a lot of people are with the idea that sexuality exists in anyone below the age of about eighteen, especially in the US, I’m amazed it’s the religion thing and not this that gets everyone all riled up over Pullman’s novels. None of these themes are the least bit subtle, either- it’s all spelled out explicitly in the text. Maybe none of Pullman’s critics ever reached the end of The Amber Spyglass, which I couldn’t really fault them for.
In any case, given how many wildly conflicting societal messages kids in their early teens receive about this stuff it is kind of nice that a series of books aimed at precisely that age group has as it’s ultimate message “Growing up is not something to be afraid or ashamed of, sex is not this dirty secret”. Or at least it would be if Pullman’s presentation of his message wasn’t so massively heteronormative and rooted in traditional gender roles.
The Golden Compass is easily the best of the three. It remains a brilliant adventure story that adults can enjoy as well as children, marred by a heavy strain of parochial racism and xenophobia. The Subtle Knife is slightly plodding but still mostly entertaining. The Amber Spyglass is majorly let down by its own ambition and falls apart by the end. If the race issues aren’t a deal breaker I’d recommend checking out The Golden Compass and skipping the two sequels. Despite the open nature of the ending, it stands alone relatively well and can be enjoyed without needing to read anything else.
Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time In The North
After the main trilogy was complete there was still a lot of interest in the book’s world and the characters. These days it seems to be common practice for popular YA trilogies to get a slew of prequel/sequel/interquel ebook novellas, but since this was back in the dark pre-Kindle era Pullman’s publisher decided on a more lavish release format.
Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon A Time In The North were released as handsome hardback mini-booklets with glossy paper and little envelopes full of goodies like maps and papers presented as mementos from Lyra’s world.
Lyra’s Oxford takes place after The Amber Spyglass. A witch tries to kill Lyra because her husband died in Lord Asriel’s war, then another witch saver her. The end.
That’s…. pretty much all there is to it. The presentation is nice but I’m honestly kind of baffled that anyone thought this was a story worth telling.
The main action of Once Upon A Time In The North gives us an origin story of sorts for Lee Scoresby, a Texan (parallel universe ‘Murica) aeronaut who Lyra befriends during The Golden Compass, and his friendship with Iorek Byrnison. This one is much more substantial than Lyra’s Oxford and amounts to a fairly entertaining Western-style romp that happens to take place in the Arctic (a North-Western?), but I can’t help but feel that the marketing push for it was slightly dishonest. The book was heavily described as telling the story of the beginning of Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison’s friendship, which isn’t quite accurate. Iorek is barely in the story and only speaks a few words of English here, which means he’s essentially silent for what little page time he has. The feelies this time around also offer slightly more information on what Lyra gets up to after the end of The Amber Spyglass, which seems to amount to “not much”. I have to wonder if Pullman was trolling fanfic authors or something.
Overall these two novellas are nice physical collectors items, but absolutely not worth reading unless you’re a super-fan of the trilogy.
And then we come to the movie.
In terms of plot outline and characters, The Golden Compass is pretty much faithful to the source material... at least for the first half. The film-makers (and I use that vague term for a reason, one I’ll get to later) decided to swap the order of two major plot points around, having Lyra’s run-in with a polar bear king occur before she goes to the scary Magisterium laboratory. This turns out to be a smart move; the polar bear thing always felt like an unnecessary bit of wheel-spinning delaying the end of the story, whereas here it’s just one more obstacle on Lyra’s journey.
Another big change that doesn’t work quite so well is to have the film end early, just before the book’s climax. Pullman himself came out in defence of this move, claiming it was right for the story, but it’s hard not to interpret it as New Line getting jittery about the novel’s downer ending. At least parts of the ending were filmed and showed up in late trailers with what looked like special effects work completed, so it seems the decision came at the last minute.
But then, the same could be said of the entire film’s structure and pacing. The Golden Compass is a choppy mess, a barely coherent narrative that races forward at a breakneck pace, seemingly terrified that any lull in the action will bore the audience. Director Chris Weitz claimed afterward that the movie was chopped to pieces behind his back, and it certainly seems that way.
Regardless of whether Weitz’s claims are true, it’s clear New Line doomed the movie from the beginning by saddling it with unrealistic and impossible expectations. They wanted this to be the next Lord of The Rings franchise (take a look at the original trailers, which attempt to draw parallels between the two and even seem to be trying to imply that they’re related to each other somehow) even though it was never going to be, which prompted them to spend far too much money on it. Add in the fact that they sold off distribution rights to all territories except the US (the only country it didn’t do well in, likely due to the ATHEIST PROPOGANDA backlash) and it’s not hard to see why the film is credited with more or less bankrupting New Line, leading to their merging with Warner.
There’s not a whole lot to say about the film of The Golden Compass beyond that. It’s clear that a lot of the people involved were passionate about the project, but it was developed in an environment that just didn’t allow it to reach any measure of success. In hindsight it’s perhaps a good thing that the next two movies were never made; rumors indicate that the fairly dark ending of the novel was going to be sugar coated, and I have trouble imagining that The Amber Spyglass would have reached the screen in a halfway decent or coherent form.