Kaffeeklatsch: His Dark Materials

Dark Materials, in a Society6 print

"Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds..."
~ Paradise Lost by John Milton

I recently reread the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman in preparation for the release of Pullman’s newest book in his best-known character Lyra’s world, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. These are some of my all-time favorite books. This isn't a review, and it isn't a recap, either. It's more like a kaffeeklatsch discussion. First, it’s hard for me to put into words my love for this rather quirky trilogy, which manages to capture many things I love in fantasy while touching upon deeper, darker, and more complex elements of religion, human nature, and broad human history than might be anticipated in your average children’s fantasy. His Dark Materials, published between 1995 - 2000 is rather infamous, at least in the UK, for being the book in which God (known as the Authority) turns to dust and blows away. It is a trilogy which basically encourages older children and young adults to question what religion asks of us and more importantly why it asks it. It manages to cut a fine line between describing the oppression that can exist from dogmatic Christianity while deftly never denigrating religion itself. No less than Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Anglican Church), says that Philip Pullman is one of his favorite authors.: "First of all, he takes the Christian myth, or a version of it, seriously enough to want to disagree passionately with it.” Williams has also been quoted as saying that these novels should be taught in religious fiction classes, along with books like The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time, to show "what religion too often gets wrong." 

Meanwhile, Pullman has been quoted as saying that some subjects are too large for adult fiction and that they can only be dealt with adequately in children's literature. Yes, he means religion is just too big a topic to write about for grownups. So what are these mysterious and controversial children's books about? Be forewarned there are some further spoilers ahead, but nothing that will impede your enjoying reading the trilogy, or better still, listening to the full cast performance, narrated by Pullman himself.

The books in the trilogy are The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Three additional short stories in Lyra's world are Lyra's Oxford, Once Upon a Time in the North, and The Collectors

An Alethiometer, image published in the New Statesman, 
based on the original image at BridgeToTheStars.net

In the first book, titled The Golden Compass in the US and The Northern Lights in the UK, we are introduced to Lyra Belacqua, a character who forms the very heart of the HDM world, and her daemon (more on that later) Pantalaimon. She lives in an alternative steampunk sort of universe, which also has an Oxford University like our universe, but with a college called Jordan at which Lyra is living under odd circumstances that are never fully explained (such as why, specifically, Jordan College). Lyra is a naughty scamp of a child with a clever mind and warm, loyal heart. One of the most interesting things about this story is that Lyra is just an average child in many respects. What makes her stand out is her imagination. She is the ultimate confabulator. She talks and talks and often lies or at a minimum embellishes with flare. She is much loved by some at Jordan College. The adventures she embarks on to rescue her kidnapped friend Roger introduce the reader to the Magisterium (the Church), the Gobblers (a mysterious and truly evil group of child stealers), the Gyptians (like gypsies of our world), the panserbjørner or armored polar bears (yes, really) and witches. Over the course of the book, she learns the true identity of her parents (two diametrically opposed intellectual explorers) and the sad history of her origins. We are also introduced to a mysterious instrument called an alethiometer, a sort of complex compass to the truth, which can only be read by innocent (magical) children (like Lyra) or after decades of study (like a few less prominent characters can), and to the concept of Dust. The pursuit of Dust threads throughout this trilogy. Dust and its relationship to consciousness, knowledge, imagination, creativity, and religion is something that unravels to the reader slowly over the course of the three books. In pursuit of that understanding, we endure the shattering build up to the shattering end of book one, which leaves us with an understanding of what evil may be done in the name of science or religion. (From HeLa cells and Tuskeegee to the Inquisition, gay conversion and witch trials, people…)

Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon, with the alethiometer, reportedly by Jörg Kämmerer

One of the key features of the first book is that people in Lyra’s world carry with them a portion of themselves as a visible animal companion, termed their daemon. (You know mine would be an otter, right?) A person’s daemon is their inner spirit, or soul, and thus a treasured aspect of their nature.  Daemons talk, to their person and to other daemons and people. Sometimes a daemon is a signifier of a person’s position in life- those in service professions tend to have dog daemons, while many scholars and all witches have bird daemons. Daemons that don’t fall into those groups are always signifiers of persons of great interest in this story. (Not that witches like Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi aren’t quite interesting.) Beware the golden tamarind monkey, who might be named Ozymandias, or the sensual but dangerous snow leopard, Stelmaria. Pre-adolescent children possess daemons that can change form according to whim or need. Puberty marks a turning point, however: a child’s daemon settles permanently into a particular form, indicating that the child’s nature or self-aware identity is fixed. A regular person can never stray far from their daemon without suffering feelings of great desperation and pain, but a witch’s daemon could be hundreds of miles away from its witch and still be fully connected to her. Touching another person's daemon is vulgar and taboo, harming it even more so, and the ultimate evil... I'll let Dr. Williams explain that in a quote below, but you should read about it for yourself. (Have some deep thoughts about things like gender identity, sexual orientation, while you're there, please, okay?) The daemon as an externalized insight into a person’s nature is one of the most fascinating aspects of the HDM story. Pullman's inspiration for this aspect of the inhabitants of Lyra's world was reportedly found in three portraits of women with animals: The Lady with the Ermine, by Da Vinci, The Lady and the Squirrel, by Holbein the Younger and Young Woman with a Macaw by Tiepolo. Pullman said, "there seems to be a psychological link between the person and the creature." Years before he had presaged the daemon concept in a children's story (Spring-Heeled Jack) in which a moth hovered around a villain, acting and speaking as his conscience. 

"The threat in Pullman's novels is the Authority – people like me in his imagination – which wants to divide the human spirit and cut off and silence that daemonic voice, that voice of the imagination. And so you end up with these unforgettably poignant pictures of children who have had their daemons taken away, who are just lifeless automata. And that's evil, that's the essence of evil." ~ Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
Favorite Line from The Golden Compass: "You cannot change what you are, only what you do."

The Subtle Knife by IcedBlueTiger on Deviantart

In The Subtle Knife, we are introduced to a new character, Will Parry, a child one year older than Lyra, who lives in a universe like ours. We learn that the experimental philosophers of Lyra’s world are the experimental physicists of our world and that the existence of millions of Universes must have been known by the philosopher-scientists of at least one universe in the multiverse because three hundred years ago they created a canny tool to access other universes. That means, the Subtle Knife or Æsahættr (God-Destroyer) or teleutaia makhaira, cuts smoothly through the fabric of the multiverse when in the hands of the right bearer, opening portals to the other worlds. It is by going through just such a portal from their own worlds that Lyra and Will meet, in a place called Cittágazze, home-world of the knife. It is here that Will, with no small misfortune in the revelation, is identified as the new bearer of the knife. The Subtle Knife also introduces us to Dr. Mary Malone, an experimental particle physicist studying dark matter in Will’s world, who was once a nun but who now studies dark particles she calls shadow particles that are none other than the Dust of Lyra’s world. (I envision Dr. Malone as the physicist Rosalind Franklin, by the way.) While some have viewed Lyra’s character as weakening with the introduction of the male character, Will, to me, the two children perfectly embody two different aspects of intellect- intuition and rationality. As Lyra struggles to overcome the shocking events at the end of the first book, Will becomes a driving force in this second book, propelling the reader toward yet another shocking loss (his, not hers) and setting up the watershed journey of the third and final book.

Favorite lines in The Subtle Knife "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."  

Dr. Malone's Amber Spyglass by IcedBlueTiger on Deviantart

The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy, follows two separate storylines (and briefly even a third and a fourth), giving us Dr. Malone’s escaping into a new world, that of the  sentient Mulefa species, to regroup, learn about acquisition of knowledge, and study Dust, all while Will and Lyra reunite to venture into the World of the Dead along with two tiny humanoid companions, the Gallivespians Lady Salmakia and Chevalier Tialys. Will, bearer of the Subtle Knife, also learns from Iorek Byrnison that the knife is not a benign tool- that it has intentions of its own and that Will and Lyra should be wary of it. In one of the most reviled aspects of Pullman’s book, there is no real Heaven and all the dead, saints to sinners, end up in a bleak world, without their daemons, stranded forever, hounded by harpies with recollections of every misdeed they have ever committed. From babe to long-lived do-gooder to murderer or thief, all people cross the river to a dark place where they exist as restless, sleepless ghosts. And it is here that Lyra and Will look for loved ones lost, and resolve to build a better fate for the dead humanity of all the worlds. In fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy, Lyra is the lynchpin of change in the multiverse. While some readers have felt that it was Will that was still driving this book it is ultimately Lyra’s vision of Roger, and her overwhelming need to see him again, even if it means going to the World of the Dead, that drives this book toward its maximal darkness and its benevolent conclusion with the Republic of Heaven. Their actions with the dead are coupled with insights of Dr. Malone that bring Lyra and Will to the precipice of puberty. Interestingly, just as Susan in the Narnia stories loses her ability to enter Narnia when she begins wearing makeup, Lyra's attraction to Will results in the loss of her ability to read her alethiometer. Much as Pullman dislikes C. S. Lewis's books, it seems in many respects that both have taken the same route on thinking sexualized girls lose their connection to magic. This is an aspect of the book I find quite disappointing, needless to say, and rather ironic given Pullman's outspoken statements about Lewis.

Favorite lines in The Amber Spyglass: “He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world because where we are is always the most important place.... We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different world, and then we'll build... The Republic of Heaven.” 


There are still so many questions that I felt were left unanswered in the trilogy. I hope to find some answers in The Book of Dust trilogy, which at least in the first book predates The Golden Compass. What is Dust, really? A particle of consciousness? How and why did God abandon ghosts to a bleak and hopeless World of the Dead, after promising a Heaven? And with an eye toward understanding deeper character motivations- Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, what on earth is their deal? They were both willing to use whatever means to an end was available to destroy or preserve, respectively, the Church's goal of ending individualism. What could possibly motivate Mrs. Coulter to make the world harder for women like her to exist in it? What kind of self-loathing power-hungry person is she? What is Pullman's deal with the effect of puberty on our understanding of truth, decisions, and on finding our way? (Seriously want to take him to task for his making Lyra lose her ability at puberty. How is that really different from what C. S. Lewis did to Susan Pevensie?) And finally, is that gentle atheist* Pullman truly telling us that the real problem with religion is how it is used to control people, to strip them of their self-expression and originality, rather than with the idea of religion itself, just as Archbishop Williams suggests?  Hmmmm. We shall see.

So much to look forward to in The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. I'm speeding my way to and through it.

Lyra, Pan and Iorek, attribution unclear.

*by which I mean an Alain de Boton-style atheist, rather than the more “in your face” Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens/Bill Maher-style atheist. By this, I reference Alain de Boton’s book Religion for Atheists, an interesting read if you, like me, enjoy art, architecture, and music.


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