For a while, scientists have posited the existence of something called Dark Matter: an invisible unknown substance which makes up a large percentage of the universe and which causes cosmic equations to balance. Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials takes this idea a step further, and reaches the conclusion that there is nothing truly immaterial in the universe: all beings, including the angels, are formed from this Dark Matter or Dust, which therefore ties everything together. This includes the highest angel, which men call God and who is, in Pullman's creation, a tyrant and oppressor.
The first book in this trilogy is called Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in America), the second is The Subtle Knife, and the third The Amber Spyglass. The plot of the books traces the journeys of two children, Lyra and Will. Will is from our own world, Lyra from a parallel one which seems to represent the author's conception of a modern - although Victorianesque - world in which church, state and science are entangled. There is a power struggle driven from Lyra's world which culminates in a battle between very human angels and men. At the same time, and somewhat mysteriously bound up with it all, Will and Lyra trace their own path from childhood into adolescence.
Individually and as a series the books are very attractively written. The concepts of a parallel world are always enticing, as one recognises in the canal-travelling Gyptians of Lyra's world the caravan-travelling Gypsies of our own, etc. The characters have depth and purpose although the plot is perhaps a little too all-embracing and elaborate to sustain itself. In a literary sense one can see why the series is so popular: a dramatic and broadsweeping plot; the love of two children juxtaposed with the hatred between warring adults; friendly and unfriendly angels, witches, bears, daemons and other beings; the discovery of the secret substance behind everything in all the parallel worlds; and the heartbreaking dénouement.
From the moral point of view, there is much in the books that is praiseworthy. Friendships are a strong and important part of the series, and especially that between Lyra and Will. The fidelity of Will's father, John Parry, separated for years from his wife, is exemplary. The fortitude and self-sacrifice of many of the characters is edifying. My concern with the series lies principally in the author's caricatured portrayal of the institution of the Church in Lyra's world (and his dismissal of it in ours on the lips of a former nun) plus the content of The Amber Spyglass, involving rebel angels, sentient all-pervading dust, power-mad churchmen, the land of the dead, pre-emptive absolution, and everything except a real and provident God. Ultimately, Pullman seems determined to turn the true relationship between mankind and God on its head: rather than a loving God who is to be obeyed, Lyra and Will are taught of an evil god who is to be fought, and their arrival at adulthood makes them the new Adam and Eve whose intimate love for each other will break the bond that has tied the world to the tyrant god and will set everything right.
How much will this affect susceptible readers? My feeling is that anyone well-balanced and well-informed will be upset but not influenced by all this. But to someone whose views are being formed this story will represent a wholly distorted view of things made to seem very upright by the fictional but attractive characters who support it.
Some points of interest in the trilogy are:
daemons: In Lyra's world everyone has a daemon in the form of an intelligent animal. This seems roughly equivalent to a soul. Before adolescence daemons change shape at will but afterwards remain fixed in a shape which gives a good indication of the person's character, (e.g., a servant might have a dog; a sailor a seagull; someone wily a fox; someone timid a mouse or a rabbit). The bond between human and daemon is extremely strong. With only a few exceptions (cf witches) they cannot separate by more than a short distance, and it is completely taboo to touch someone else's daemon, nor will one person's daemon usually talk to or touch another.
witches: Somewhat recursively defined as those girls born to mothers who are witches, they live for up to a thousand years, have bird-daemons who can fly a long distance apart from them and certain powers.
Dust: This is the name in Lyra's world for what Mary Malone, our modern-day point-of-view adult, calls Dark Matter or Shadows. It connects together daemons, the aletheiometer, the doors between the worlds, spectres and just about everything else. It is described as aware particles which congregate around conscious beings. Mary Malone has a conversation with it where it claims to be angels out for vengeance against the rebel angels.
aletheiometer: a truth-telling compass, somehow worked by Dust, usually requiring years of study and many reference books. It enables the user by holding questions in his or her mind at different levels to determine a present state of affairs anywhere. Lyra has a natural ability to work it, which the angel Xaphania attributes to grace.
angels: These angels are very human-like beings, with higher and lower orders, loves and hates (including one pair who talk very much like the typical depiction of male lovers), and relatively few powers besides that of flight with traditional wings and the ability to assume other forms. The existence or otherwise of a provident creator God is left to one side. Some angels were men before they became angels and all can be wrestled by men since they do not have "true flesh".
suicides/mercy killings: The old bearer of the Subtle Knife poisons himself rather than be taken by the Spectres which will turn him into a zombie. Serafina Pekkala (a witch) knifes another witch who has been tortured almost to death. Juta Kameinen, another witch, stabs herself and dies after she has killed John Parry, Will's father, who rejected her love out of fidelity to his wife.
sex/love/marriage: The earlier two books are written from the viewpoints of Will and Lyra when slightly younger while the later one turns to an extent on their entry into adolescence. In a way the whole series is tied up with the importance of adolescence: your daemon becomes fixed; you see spectres and they can trap you; dust is attracted to you more than before; and, foretold in a prophecy, the advent of Will and Lyra's adulthood is crucial to the Dust which is causing upheaval in the world. In a fairly commonplace way, Mrs. Coulter, Lyra's mother, is represented as having several lovers, in marriage and in widowhood. In particular her love with Lord Asriel gives birth to Lyra, while later we see her in a relationship with Lord Boreal whom she eventually kills. The witches do not countenance monogamy and indeed have different gods. At first neither Will nor Lyra have any inkling of the meanings behind phrases referring to adult relationships although they do display a certain modesty on the occasions when they undress near each other. Will and Lyra, having had a child's love for each other throughout the books, ultimately experience the more intense yet still innocent sensation of adult love. This proposes to represent the love of Adam and Eve and therefore to give humanity a fresh start. While the text itself treads delicately enough, some passages are quite sensual in nature including the handling of each other's daemons. (Daemons always play their own visible part in sensual feelings between two humans.)
attitude toward the Church: The Church in Lyra's world is a caricature combination of mediaeval scholasticism and nineteenth century science. Science is called experimental theology, church and state are pretty much the same thing, and power-hungry factions dominate the hierarchy. At first this seems merely a literary device to give the reader the familiar-yet-unknown feel of an alternative world. However, we are eventually treated to Miltonesque angels, an assassin priest who has been pre-emptively absolved, ecclesiastical departments with torture chambers and which compete against each other, sending armed contingents to get hold Lyra and Will whom they know from the witches' prophecies and from their aletheiometer to be at the centre of the fates of the worlds.
God and Creation: Everything comes from the Dark Matter or Dust, including the angels, of whom the first and most powerful is known as The Authority or God. It is Will and Lyra's new-found love, human love, for each other which sets this Dust on its right course, away from God's creation and towards man's.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.