Children’s fiction? Perhaps. Yet in few kids’ books that I’ve read do the protagonists attempt to kill God. Published a year after children began to disapparate into the world of Harry Potter, His Dark Materials offered a complicated, occasionally horrifying alternative to wands and wizardry. There was still magic- even witches- but the multi-worlds of Pullman’s imagination added science, Heaven and Hell. By writing the words ‘Lyra and her Daemon’, in an effort to overcome an instance of writer’s block, Pullman set in motion a journey from which some of us never totally returned. Ten years after he concluded Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon’s journey through worlds and out of childhood, he is returning with what he says is not a ‘sequel’, but an ‘equal’ titled The Book of Dust.
I’m not the only – now adult, alas – eager to begin thumbing its pages. To those who have read His Dark Materials, the name need not be explained. To those who have not, ‘dust’ or dark matter is the coursing undercurrent that carries the narrative through Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. What exactly constitutes dust is hard to explain, and indeed it is this revelation that theocrats and scholars seek alike throughout the trilogy. Free will is one way to describe it, released by ‘the fall’; Pullman subverts Eve’s loss of innocence into a moment of enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, the books were widely condemned by the religious community.
you can read it as a child, teenager or adult and enjoy it equally yet quite differently
Lewis Carrol, (whose character Alice begins her journey in Oxford just like Pullman’s Lyra) was a renown evangelical, and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia is a world so laden with Christian imagery, such as how Susan is essentially denied entry to Heaven at the end as punishment for her apostasy. Yet His Dark Materials provide an alternative, not a dismissal, of these works, and like all good artists Pullman was never afraid to borrow. Cittagazze is a world in which all other worlds connect, and exhibits a whole host of similarities to the world of the myriad pools in The Magician’s Nephew (along with a whole host of life sucking spectres). But it is nouns that Pullman has a genius for co-opting; the ‘PanserbjØrne’ are indeed an amalgamation of bears (think Beorn in The Hobbit) and armour, as in ‘Panzer’ tank. The ‘Gyptians’ are of course a kind of gypsy people, whist ‘Metatron’, the authoritarian Prince-Regiment of a usurping god, is also an archangel from Jewish mythology.
This is not to undermine the extraordinary feat of imagination that His Dark Materials are. Every world has qualities unlike the others, whether bucolic, our own or a Hades-style underworld accessible only by an act of self-betrayal. Unlike waving wands, the devices in this story are a Subtle Knife that rips the fabric between worlds, and an Alethiometer- a compass that can answer any question if asked correctly. These are tools of discovery and exploration that allow Lyra and her companion Will to navigate a sprawling universe through which rages a war between an inquisitorial church, and a rebellion striving to liberate knowledge. Although she does not know it, Lyra is prophesised to be the ‘second Eve’, and thus her death is the church’s endeavour.
These novels need not be read philosophically, as I certainly did not the first time. There is horror, awe and intrigue aplenty. Yet the true wonder of this trilogy is that you can read it as a child, teenager or adult and enjoy it equally yet quite differently. Should The Book of Dust come close, it will be a triumph.