His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

HIs Dark Materials Philip PullmanThis month, I’ve broken the habit of a (five-year blogging) lifetime and reread the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman ahead of the publication of ‘La Belle Sauvage’, the first volume of the Book of Dust trilogy later this year. The first book in the series ‘Northern Lights’ is set in a parallel universe similar to ours but different in many ways and introduces twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon companion Pantalaimon who travel to the North Pole to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers who are carrying out experiments on children. In ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’, Lyra meets Will Parry and they travel between different universes including our own in pursuit of the meaning of Dust. 

My very brief summary above doesn’t really do justice to the vast complexity of the trilogy and its large cast of characters. As with all of the best books for children, it is the darker elements which really drive the plot and ensure that the books appeal to adults as much as they do to younger readers. At the heart of the story is the mysterious substance known as Dust, interpreted as original sin by the Magisterium (the church authority which holds an enormous amount of power over society in Lyra’s world). Pullman’s strong anti-Christian message throughout the series has generated a lot of controversy and one of the main reasons why I wanted to reread the trilogy was so that I could appreciate this aspect more than I did when I was younger. The books are an inversion of ‘Paradise Lost’ and if I ever read John Milton’s most famous work, I would probably have to reread ‘His Dark Materials’ again to further appreciate the allegorical context.

I rarely read fantasy novels but when I do, I generally prefer them to have at least some grounding in our universe and for that reason I still find ‘The Subtle Knife’ the most accessible of the three volumes. However, the parallel universe presented in ‘Northern Lights’ is a clever combination of historical, fantasy and contemporary elements. The scope of Pullman’s imagination is impressive with Texan aeronauts, armoured bears, witches and angels all making an appearance in a story full of exciting adventure alongside more challenging philosophical ideas. Pullman is also pleasingly unsentimental about the reality of Lyra and Will coming of age and growing up as young adults (in contast to the children in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, for example) and acknowledges the capability of heroes and heroines to achieve both good and bad things.

While I see the first two books primarily as adventure stories which rattle along at a good pace, ‘The Amber Spyglass’ is a much more reflective and dense volume which I think has a lot more appeal for adults than it does for children. Pullman has previously said he doesn’t write with a specific audience or age group in mind and even though the trilogy continues to be marketed towards younger readers, ‘The Amber Spyglass’ in particular becomes increasingly complex in its exploration of religious themes. Inevitably, the ending has also proven to be divisive among readers.

With the Book of Dust series and the forthcoming BBC TV adaptation of the ‘His Dark Materials’ books to look forward to, I’m sure lots of people will be revisiting one of the most celebrated trilogies of all time over the next few months. Are you planning to reread ‘His Dark Materials’ or any other books this summer?

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

  1. You’re making me want to re-read them!

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  2. Once the Man Booker List is under my belt, I fully intend to do just that as I suspect some of the ideas, especially from The Amber Spyglass, are going to be re-examined in the new series. More please, I loved His Dark Materials, which drove me back to Paradise Lost and Homer. Milton I had studied at A Level and Homer is sort of in my bloodstream…

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  3. I’m reading His Dark Materials for the first time prior to the publication of La Belle Sauvage. Just finished Northern Lights and really enjoyed it. I love Pullman’s creation of daemons and dust. It’s the kind of children’s series that can be equally loved by children and adults. Looking forward to The Subtle Knife, although I’ve heard that it’s the least one in the series.

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  4. I just read Paradise Lost and it was a little bit difficult. But it was good. I also read His Dark Materials. The series was ok. I might not be able to see the show, but I would love to.

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  5. I’ve never read this series, I have just never been one for fantasy. But I’ve recently read Harry Potter for the first time ever and am keen to get into a new series so I think this will be the one!

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  6. You did a really good job of summarizing the appeal of the His Dark Materials trilogy! I reread all three books about a year ago, so it was before the new books had been announced. Northern Lights/The Golden Compass in particular was one of my favorite childhood books, but I hadn’t read any of them in ages, and it was interesting how I gravitated toward different aspects than I did when I was younger. I used to just love the adventure and world-building, and I think that’s still really well done, but the philosophical themes resonated a lot more this time, particularly the critique of authoritarianism and how knowledge is controlled and restricted by those in power. I originally didn’t care for The Amber Spyglass at all, but I now really appreciate its complexity and ambiguity.

    Sorry if this comment is rambling/long. I just really love these books.

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  7. peaksandpages

    I’ve never read these, but we discussed them during my Paradise Lost class and now I think I’d like to! They seem like they touch on a lot of interesting topics.

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  8. Most definitely planning a reread! Just don’t now how I’m going to fit them in before the next book comes out.

    It’s only 10 yrs since I first read the trilogy, but I had a lot going on at that point in my life, so although I remember that I thoroughly enjoyed the books, the details are hazy.

    Sadly the one movie was ghastly. Hopefully the BBC will do a more creditable job 😊

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  9. Col

    It’s been a few years since I read His Dark Materials but am looking forward to LaBelle Sauvage. Like you I enjoyed The Subtle Knife most of the three – Northern Lights was clever and Amber Spyglass much darker but for me The Subtle Knife was gripping – one of those books I stayed up all night to finish!

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  10. I am so looking forward to Pullman’s new book. I hadn’t planned to re-read the original series, but maybe I should. It’s been a couple of years since I re-read them. I like to re-read on audio, so I’ll have to see if I can get them again.

    I didn’t know about the BBC series coming. Yay! I’m so excited. We recently showed the movie of The Golden Compass to my son, and while it’s not as good as the book, it’s sad they never made the other two books into movies. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the new series.

    Great recap/review!

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  11. I’m not into fantasy either but the strong understanding of the difficulties the teenage protagonists were going through won me over. I should read more Phillip Pullman than just this triology – it was great revisiting the experience by reading your article though. I’m really curious as to who will be in the TV production!

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  12. Now I really want to read it! I used to be a huge fan of Harry Potter series once upon a time (books of course) but have not ready many other fantasy series besides. I am more into classics and absolutely go ga ga over Thomas Hardy or Brontè sisters. I will definitely pick up a copy of “His Dark Materials” as well as all the foregoing ones as it has intrigued me enough to read it all.

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  13. Thank you for this post. I really liked His Dark Materials (the Subtle Knife, not as much as the first and third) and plan on rereading The Golden Compass this year.

    I did not know about his new trilogy so thanks for that!

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