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Book Review: "His Dark Materials" Trilogy by Philip Pullman


During my reading career, I have come across many books on the topic of religion. Being younger and having received a Catholic education, I was deeply interested in the texts that showed a critical view on the subject, my first contact with it being Dan Brown’s novels. The books I am going to speak about today are far from those fitting in the fantasy and children book category.

What happened to me with those books is something that has happened to many others: I read the two firsts being a child, and I did not understand what was going on. At that time I got to see more or less what can be seen watching the film adaptation, that is, less than a third of what the story really is. When I read them for the second time, I was in my late teens, and the effect they had in me was quite different.

Pullman presents us a new universe that is parallel to the one we know and with many differences. The most important one is the fact that their inhabitants' souls are not inside of them, but walk by their side taking the form of an animal which receives the name of dæmon. Every dæmon is a reflexion of his/her owner and is connected to that person’s feelings and sensations. They can speak to them too, but they cannot leave their side without suffering a terrible pain. The world is governed by an institution called “Magisterium,” that is at the same time a mix of many minor institutions that fight to impose over the others. This is the world of Lyra Belacqua, the protagonist, a wild twelve-year-old girl raised at the Jordan College of Oxford after their parents' death.

Lyra has always felt curiosity with regard to the magistrates' reunions and the private room where they take place, being the entrance to it absolutely forbidden for her. One night, along with Pantalaimon, her dæmon, she manages to sneak into that room, and ends up witnessing a very strange conversation about something called “dust.” She does not understand exactly what that is, but she knows that it is related to the highest politic circles and that it is something the authorities want to control.

Not long before that, children begin to disappear mysteriously everywhere in the country, and it is believed that there is a group of people behind this, though nobody knows which are their intentions or what happens to the children before their abduction.

Lyra has never wanted to leave the college, but when Mrs. Coulter, a fascinating and charming woman invites her to join her in one of her travels, the girl accepts without thinking twice. The night before her departure, the Master of the college put a special object into her hands: An alethiometer, a curious device similar to a compass, but capable of revealing the truth to any question to the ones who have the gift of reading it. Lyra is instructed to take it with her, but keep it a secret from Mrs.Coulter.

Soon she will find out that there is a macabre connection between the children disappearances and it called “dust,” and also that the woman she is staying with is not what she says she is. This revelation will push Lyra into a dangerous trip to the North, in which she will make loyal friends but also terrible enemies, and that will be the beginning of a big adventure that will extend to many other worlds.

Later in the story, a boy with the capacity of managing another object as powerful as the alethiometer, will join Lyra in a desperate fight to save not only their respective worlds, but all that exists, from the destruction that the battle between the Church and the only man decided to face it can cause.

I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are."

— Philip Pullman

Why Should You Be Reading It?

The Church has been critical of this work, and Pullman was even accused of promoting atheism among children, but I think that what we have here is more than an attempt to antagonize an institution.

The story revolves around something that Catholics are very familiar with: The original sin. Is there a way to avoid it? Is it possible to make people purer and happier doing so? From this point, the author manages to express, by the hand of fantasy, a number of personal thoughts about the Church’s doctrine, being most of them highly controversial.

Pullman has expressed very clearly his disbelief of many of the most important teachings of the Church. For example, during the third book, some characters visit as part of their mission, the world of the dead. He did not write about a Heaven and a Hell, only about a world when everyone is suffering equally, regardless of the life they lead when they were on Earth. He also contradicts directly the most sacred belief of religion: The existence of God. Named in the books as “the Authority,” Pullman’s characterization of God is not flattering at all, showing that he has his doubts about the omnipotent power of the said. One of the key characters of the trilogy is decided to destroy the source of sin, and therefore, to destroy the Authority itself. We also come across with a bit of physics and technology, picturing the eternal disagreement between science and religion.

“But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can calculate all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it.”

— Philip Pullman

Read More From Owlcation

But the main point of the books, I believe, is not to criticize, but to pose a question: How far is the Church capable of going to keep its power? If eliminating the original sin means relieving men of something as essential as their souls, would the Church be willing to do it?

Despite all those facts, we do not have to forget that His Dark Materials is still a fantasy trilogy: We have witches, powerful polar bears and epic battles for the sake of what is right, things that are more than capable of drawing all the attention from the younger readers, just as it happened to me in the past. That is why I recommend this trilogy not only for children but also for adults, especially the ones that read it being children. It challenges every reader to think.

The last book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass was published in 2000, and the author has published some short stories featuring the principal characters of his novels since then. It was only last year that the first volume of the very much expected The Book of Dust came out. Starting with La Belle Sauvage, this new trilogy in which the author has been working since 2005, will widen the story we already know. This first volume narrates the events that lead the baby Lyra Belacqua to the Jordan College, and it is known that the second volume will show Lyra in her early twenties.

Apart from the successful theater adaptation, and the rather disappointing film version of the first book, it has also been known that a TV series covering the whole trilogy has started being filmed. The series script has been written by Jack Thorne, well-known for collaborating with J.K Rowling in the writing of the successful play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. So, for the fanatics that, like me, do not wish that amazing story to be over, it could be our chance to visit Pullman’s wonderful world once more.

© 2018 Literarycreature


Literarycreature (author) from Argentina on August 13, 2018:

I really like what you say about being led back to your faith by these books. I consider myself an agnostic, even though I have been raized as a Catholic, but it is good to now that there are people that do not consider "His dark materials" an attack to religion, but a challenge to think and grow personally.

I have not had yet the chance to read "La belle Sauvage" (That is why I did not write about it more extensively!) but I will as soon as I can. I have heard good things about it, so I am really curious.

With regard to my daemon, the first time I asked myself that question it occurred to me that it could be an owl, but maybe it could also be badger (An idea stolen from "Harry Potter", since I am a Hufflepuff) Anyways, if I could really see my daemon I think I would be so thrilled that I would not care at all which form it adopts!

I also want you to know that your comment has been the first one I have ever had in one of my hubs, so thank you!

Dina AH from United States on August 12, 2018:

It's been a long while since I had my hands on these books, but they definitely impacted me since I had read them. While I am not Catholic (I am Muslim), the question of how far a religious authority can go to assert its power resonated. I think Pullman led me back to my faith because he had me questioning traditions rather than blindly following them.

I remember a particular aspect of the books where Lyra and Will are tempted by some vague sexual awakening.

I think I'm going to have to get my own copies of these books. I miss the characters. Did you find the newest addition to the books as powerful as the original trilogy?

Also: what would be your daemon? Mine would be a rabbit! (I think? I wish we had a bigger fandom for these books).

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