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His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Reviewed by Dorothy Koenigsberger
The three grand books, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, are masterworks on their own and together they make a stupendous story that embraces many fundamental concerns of life, the universe(s) and beyond. The trilogy has been published and reviewed for awhile now, the reviewers have almost all praised, even raved, about these engaging stories and so my review will be one of hindsight; for there is a wealth of imaginative material to ponder and dream about in these tales.
The targeted audience for the trilogy is supposed to be for older children and young people and the two central characters, Lyra Belacqua, and, from the second book onward, Will Parry, are twelve years old. Even so, the trilogy addresses a significantly wider audience of readers than the publisher’s targeted one. In my own family these stories have been enjoyed by people as young as five, in the form of audio books of Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, and as old as eighty nine for the complete work. Everyone who does not reject fantasy out of hand will derive pleasure and meaning from reading or hearing these stories; they are almost universal in their appeal.
Any attempt to dip into these elaborate and compelling stories can involve entering into mazes and labyrinths of important detail, and the narrator’s details all do matter. Pullman is a careful storyteller. Despite the immense scope of his trilogy, it is finely worked. Both the great and the small are described with gift and grace.
His Dark Materials Trilogy
Therefore, readers of this brief review should be aware that I am going to reveal outcomes. Anyone who does not like that should not read this paper before reading the work. Also, the selection of material for comment is my own. I would like to think I have singled out particularly important matters but I believe that equally important characters, events and things are left out; and this is even if they have a bearing on my selections and comments. Mine is a humble and tentative appreciation because Philip Pullman’s masterwork is comprehensive and large. If I manage to strike true to the mark in a few examples, it is because I hope to give readers an idea of the kinds of wonders, joys and terrors they are likely to encounter in these stories.
The whole work is in praise of pluralism, freedom in thinking and feeling and unchained imagination. The opposition to this is characterised in the Church, an institution that eventually acts in the parallel worlds. In the trilogy the Church is for authority and control. It is an amalgam of the most severe Counter Reformation Roman Catholicism, The Inquisition, and strict Calvinism. Lyra Belacqua’s beautiful, talented and cruel mother, Mrs Coulter, works for and within this Church. Mrs Coulter only leaves off her personal ambitions when she recognises the full power of maternal feeling and wants to save Lyra from being murdered by churchmen who are out to get her.
Lyra’s even more ambitious but ultimately more open father, Lord Asriel, also eventually comes to understand the importance of a prophecy connected with Lyra. Together with Marisa Coulter, Lord Asriel wrestles with a designing angel Metatron. Metatron is the Regent of angelic authority who uses the Authority/God and the institution of the Church to tighten control over conscious beings. These three characters perish by falling down an incredible abyss in a fight that weakens the threat of repressive authority, weakens the rule of the Church in every possible world; for, there are an indefinite number of parallel worlds in Pullman’s story.
So here are outcomes, some final things : the demise of three of the central characters, and something about the importance of the result of their fight; but I haven’t begun to describe Lyra’s initial struggles and, of course, those of her beloved daemon, Pantalaimon.
Lyra lives in an Oxford in a world parallel to our own. She is introduced residing in Jordan college and, like all conscious beings in this work, she has a daemon. Everyone in Lyra’s particular world has a visible daemon, one that takes the form of an animal of the opposite sex of the subject. Indeed all conscious beings in every possible world also have daemons but here in our world they are internal.
Children’s daemons shift forms until adulthood when they settle. So Pantalaimon changes from bird to mammal, to insect in a flash. He is Lyra’s thinking and feeling companion and a part of her psyche. Yet he performs more than internal and mental conversations. Pan can initiate to some degree and watch and look ahead, but never too far. Pan provides an alternative sense channel and his animal body is valuable both in its expressiveness and in essence. For in these parallel realities, even angels covet bodies and would like to have more body than their scant allowance.
Lyra Belacqua leads a rather unsupervised life in Oxford with the college staff of scholars, servants and playmates. Roger, a kitchen boy, is her particular friend. He shares wild playtime adventures with Lyra and the other children. Roger thinks well of Lyra and she clearly values his high opinion of her powers, powers that are expressed in their riotous games.
But in this period some local children, children including Roger, are disappearing.
Lyra’s story in Northern Lights is essentially about her quest to discover what is happening to Roger and the kidnapped children and to free them and make it possible for them to return to their homes.
There is an important instrument that is given to Lyra with the instruction that she must keep it with her and keep it secret. It proves to be a truth telling compass, an alethiometer. Along the way Lyra discovers a gift for interpreting the meanings of curious symbols on the compass . In fact, Lyra can determine the true answer to any question that she asks the alethiometer.
She gets comfort and help from a river boat people, the Gyptians, who are aware that Lyra may be an especially destined child. The Gyptians have also lost children to the mysterious kidnappers or gobblers. They raise a party to accompany Lyra on a journey north to Bolvangar. Bolvangar is the place where Lyra thinks that Mrs Coulter, acting for the Church, has transported the missing children.
Along the way Lyra acquires other important helpers. And all along she is curious about the Aurora and about Dust.
Conversations that Lyra heard in Jordan college engaged her imagination about these things. She understands that Lord Asriel’s extremely important work involves them.
It turns out that Dust is not ordinary dust but clusters of innumerable elementary particles. These are attracted to conscious adult beings because, among other things, they themselves are aware; they are conscious. The Aurora intrigue Lord Asriel because he sees beyond them to a new world, a parallel world; and Lyra only comes to know more and more about the Aurora and Dust very gradually.
One feature of Lyra’s prophesied destiny is that she strives for intermediate goals. Lyra cannot fulfil the veiled prophecy unless she decides things piecemeal. She is meant to arrive at a crucial decision while she is still in a state of partial ignorance.
Thus, she heads north to free the children, and further north to bring her truth compass to Lord Asriel, and so on. These are her intermediate goals, while the hidden prophecy is only slowly emerging.
One matter is clear though, this prophecy is not from the Authority/God. In fact the Regent and the Church have much to lose from Lyra’s ultimate decision and that is why they are after her. They want her dead before she can make a fatal choice, one like Eve did long ago, according to the Bible.
Before this, Lyra’s first big task at Bolvangar , her desire to free the captive children, involves her with a number of heroic and helpful characters in addition to her Gyptian friends . There is a witch who is head of her witch clan, Serafina Pekkala, an aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, and an amazing speaking armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison.
These beings are involved at various stages of Lyra’s whole quest ,even to the extent of Lee Scoresby’s ghost and particle body holding out to help her in the final battle with the forces of repression and mind control. Serafina Pekkala also provides both witch fighters and guidance until the end.
Iorek Byrnison is one of the grand animal characters in all literature. Iorek will come to be as memorable as the Cheshire Cat or the talking Cricket in Lorenzini’s Pinocchio, and he is incredible; he is almost as awesome as Moby Dick.
Initially Lyra helps Iorek to regain his armour, and subsequently, to recover his kingship. In return, he and his bears fight battles on Lyra’s behalf and, most important, Iorek, because of his unique metal working skills, eventually repairs the subtle knife for her and Will Parry. Will is her age mate and partner in the ultimate great battle and quest.
The evil that is being done at Bolvangar does not involve Will yet, but it does concern Mrs Coulter. At her instigation and working for the Church, scientists are cutting and splitting children from their daemons. This is one of the most terrible things that can happen to someone; many would say it is even worse than death, because the subject, the child/person, is left like a zombie with no will. Lyra is absolutely horrified by the practice of cutting both in principle and as a witness. She actually met one of the kidnapped and severed children. Poor Tony Makarios looked pitiable and zombie-like; and, in a short time after their meeting, the abused boy died. Like many, Tony was unable to recover from the shock of separation.
Lyra even gets captured too and she is almost severed. Pantalaimon suffers, Lyra suffers; they experience the worst fear and torment imaginable. Even so, they eventually escape.
Before this outcome, Lyra had already discovered a house full of terrified and disoriented, severed daemons, all of them imprisoned at the Church’s scientific facility.
Lyra does eventually manage to rescue the children and cut off daemons with essential help from her brave friends. Meanwhile Mrs Coulter, together with her forces, follows them in hot pursuit. They all end up fighting. This is just one of the battles in what is a prolonged war. In due course, Lord Asriel musters various conscious species and inter-world forces to resist and defeat the Church’s soldiers of repression.
Lyra’s pal Roger is among those rescued at Bolvangar. He sticks with Lyra as she carries on even further north, to far north Svalbard. Neither child realizes it, but this is a serious mistake for both of them. At Svalbard Lord Asriel requires the energy from a child to complete his bridge to the parallel world. This will be the first crossing that is known to Asriel and to all of the people in Lyra’s world. However other openings between worlds already exist, and Lyra and Will Parry will discover some of them and will create even more of them.
Lord Asriel’s ambition and aim, to open up his newly discovered world, is far more important to him than any urchin’s life. He cheats Lyra, who is unaware of his intentions, and kills Roger to effect the completion of the bridge.
Pan and Lyra find themselves totally alone feeling immense sorrow, fear, pain and guilt. They are, thankfully, still together but they are lost in vast spaces filled with mist, snow and ice. Now both have to face mysterious and unknown dangers: the unimaginable perils of an altogether different world.
Will Parry has run away from Oxford, our Oxford, where he lives with his beloved and emotionally damaged mother. Over years Will learned to hide their plight from the interfering social services. That way they could manage to stay together. His father, John Parry, had disappeared when Will was a baby and, as we learn later on in the story, John Parry got trapped in another parallel world and could not find a way to return.
Will is seeking knowledge of his father’s fate when her runs off. Accidentally, he kills one of two mysterious men. The men were stalking him and his mother because they also wanted information about John Parry. The murder, as Will sees it, makes another pressing reason for Will to hide, to get away.
Will observes a cat walking through an unbelievable opening in space. Frightened, but even more, curious, Will follows the cat into another altogether different world.
The world is called Cittagazze and the region Will tumbled upon is haunted by Spectres. These are terrible spirits who absorb the souls of adult humans. This is why Will finds only children about when he begins to look around. He also meets up with the disoriented, lost Lyra and, as they get to know each other; Will learns about Pantalaimon and the existence of daemons.
Every conscious being has a soul or daemon and daemons can even initiate, as later Lee Scoresby’s daemon, Hester, tells him to take the ring of an enemy he killed because it might become useful in the great struggle and battle.
Will and Lyra both learn about their parallel Oxfords and a little of each other’s present aims; his, to find out what happened to his father, hers, now to enquire further into the nature of Dust. Will comes to understand more about the value of Lyra’s alethiometer and he uses another important tool, the subtle knife, to help Lyra recover it from a person associated with the Church who has stolen the truth compass from her.
With the help of Lyra and Pan, Will acquires this knife in a fight in Cittagazze’s Torre degli Angeli. Will is horribly wounded in this fight, he loses the small finger and the next one on his left hand. His wound never quite heals. It bleeds abundantly or slightly throughout the quest.
A dying old philosopher tells them about his brotherhood’s creation of the knife. He teaches Will how to cut through to other worlds; for this is what the knife can do, and how to seal up the holes. Now Will has become the keeper of the knife. He is the only one entitled to use it; however, as they later learn, the knife also has a will of its own. It is dangerous.
Armed with the subtle knife and the alethiometer Will and Lyra have many adventures together, these are struggles that involve angels, good ones and evil ones, witches, also both good and bad, and other different sentient, conscious beings.
Lord Asriel, who has formed his army and established his stand in a world that is empty of conscious beings, employs all sorts of human beings and other (unknown) species. A common cause is made by all of these aware beings, beings who want to establish a free environment or, “the republic of heaven”. Lyra and Will are implicated because of the prophecy. However the children move on unknowingly in all of this. Lord Asriel thinks he must have a tool, the subtle knife, to win out and he is also trying to recover Lyra. Asriel’s forces track the children who at one stage became separated. Mrs Coulter has got hold of her daughter and is hiding her from the churchmen who are out to get her. She is keeping Lyra in a drugged sleep in a remote cave in the Himalayas. There Lyra dreams that Roger’s ghost is calling to her from the land of the dead. In the company of a couple of Lord Asriel’s spies, Will rescues her. Lyra then decides that they must journey on to the unknown land of the dead. Lyra feels that she needs to make amends to Roger’s ghost, that is, if she can find him. And Will Parry would like to contact the ghost of his dead father.
This new goal involves Will and Lyra with Pantalaimon in the most horrifying situation that can be imagined.
Thus far in the trilogy, the worst thing that can happen is for a conscious being to be separated from his or her daemon. Additionally, visible daemon’s, ones like Pan, have singular qualities: they can express themselves with their bodies and senses and they can be observed doing this by their subject persons and by any one else that can see them. It is fair to say then, that Pan is part of Lyra and that he is also her most intimate companion and friend. Before all others, Pan was there for Lyra and he would be the last to disappear from her. This would happen precisely at the moment of her death.
Ah! But that is unless Lyra decides to ditch him and distance Pan before she dies. Then he would be obliged to suffer continuously and terribly. He would have to wander away abandoned. Yet his death would still be attached to Lyra’s death. For poor dear Pan is limited by the life and will of Lyra Belacqua . Daemons are dependent on their people. No daemon can ever say,”Well this is it, I’m off!” People can do this to their daemons but daemons are not independent; they do not abandon their people.
The horrific action, this betrayal is carried out by Lyra when the boatman ferrying ghosts to the land of the dead absolutely refuses to admit daemons. He says it is against nature.
But admitting live beings to the land of the dead is also unnatural, extremely unnatural. The boatman does allow this.
Lyra and Will and the two spies persuade the boatman to permit them to make the journey. They all abandon their daemons. But Pantalaimon is the only visible, embodied daemon. The poor thing runs and weeps on a bleak shore as Lyra and the others pull away and move out of sight. Despite her real regrets, Lyra Belacqua’s betrayal is a real backslide. In Dante’s Inferno Lyra Belacqua would be joining the most infamous betrayers in the ninth circle of hell.
Well we might say that Dante was influenced in his views by propaganda from the Church, from the Authority. Lyra Belacqua however, is under the influence of another something that is deeply hidden, the veiled prophecy. Beyond the gods of the witches, and even above fate itself, the secret destiny of Lyra, together with her companions, seems to be manipulated by the prophecy; it is one that promotes an opportunity for the victory of independent will and free choice in every world. Nevertheless this same prophecy uses its agents with peculiar indifference to their emotions and to their fundamental natures. This portion of the destiny of Lyra Belacqua and of Pantalaimon is cruel and brutal.
The final harsh arrangement and situation of Lyra and Will in the whole story is also a result of this anterior and severe power.
Lyra and Will gradually have come to love each other. At one point, they recognize their feelings; they fall in love. But the future of their young love is pitted against the whole health and continuance of conscious beings in all of the existing worlds. They are given a choice, which is more than Pantalaimon was. But it is a rigid and stern choice. They must choose to allow all of the worlds to be sealed up and closed off from each other. The vital elementary particles have been escaping through the holes in space and Spectres are created each time any new hole is cut open. How can Will and Lyra choose differently? They have to elect to continue their lives in their different worlds with no future contact with each other.
Hence, Will could be hit by a car and killed on the day after parting and Lyra would never realize that he was gone. After everything that they have experienced as they climbed through the grim land of the dead and struck the crucial blow against authority by opening an enclosed underworld, after these incredible deeds and many, many more, Lyra and Will must remain separate for as long as they live.
The narrator suggests that they accept this result stoically. Amazed, I can only imagine that their unique adventures must have matured them to near nine hundred years old.
© Dorothy Koenigsberger.
Review of, Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, Scholastic Children’s Books, London, 2000. ISBN 0439 99358.
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