Philip Pullman’s Cosmic Fantasies: An Appreciation of “His Dark Materials”
“Pullman’s trilogy has been my all-time favorite reading during the last decade . . .” (from Parents’ Choice)
I had extraordinary dreams the night I finished Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. In my mind’s eye, legions of angels and hosts of thousands crossed a starry sky composed of galaxies upon galaxies. These memorable visions made obvious to me that my usual nighttime fantasizing occurs on a much smaller scale, as if I were watching a modestly scaled television sitcom. But the dreams that night were different because they were so epic and so grand. If most people are like me and dream in a humble, sitcom-sized ways, then maybe only a rare few have minds capacious enough to engage in vast cosmos-making, imagining realms and inventing universes. I am thinking of Dante and Milton and Blake. We may now add Philip Pullman.
Pullman’s audience is commonly described as young adults and fantasy readers ready to move beyond Harry Potter, but sales indicate that he is also very popular among adults not so young. Critics often compare him to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, but here I am ready to make a bold prediction: Within a few years, Pullman will outstrip these two and leave them in the dust. He is really that good.
But Pullman will not have an easy time in the spotlight. His anti-clerical attitude will not sit well with the religious; even to my irreligious tastes, his occasional bits about the papacy struck me as a cartoonish prejudice leftover from the nineteenth century. But more to the point, in recent years, evangelical Christians have engaged in witch hunts with the Harry Potter books (and even with the Oz books), hunting for, well, witches. Meanwhile, these same right-wing inquisitors have given a “pass” to Lewis and Tolkein because these two revered Writers-From-the-Past have linked High Fantasy with the High Church. Pullman, however, will never receive such an imprimatur because at bottom, in his world, ecclesiastical and adult authorities are conspiring against children in a vast plot to keep the human race shallow and unconscious.
Saving the human race is the job of Lyra (Pullman’s wonderfully imagined young heroine) and her friend Will. They must thread their way through an ambiguous mix, the evil motivations and noble aspirations of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter (whom Lyra later discovers are her parents). And having suggested the trilogy is imagined on a grand and cosmic scale, I will not surprise anyone by saying that a cast of thousands appears–including armored bears, tribes of witches, gypsy-like “gyptians,” and more, lots more.
In the first book, The Golden Compass, Lyra is a wild child who negotiates her way through two locales, the university town of Oxford and the arctic North. She does so by means of cleverness and the alethiometer (an I-Ching-like device that reveals the truth). Pullman also creates an interesting ambience for the story, part Victorian (say, explorers meeting in the paneled rooms of the Royal Geographic Society) and part sci-fi or futuristic. To grasp this hybrid atmosphere, imagine, for example, high-tech dirigibles. This style has come to be known as “steampunk.”
In the second book, The Subtle Knife, we are introduced to the notion that universes upon universes are stacked one upon the other and that these very different worlds are accessible. In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, the unity of the trilogy becomes clearer, including its preoccupation with “dust” or luminescent particles of consciousness that cluster around humans and permit us to rise above our material circumstances. Of course, what I have offered here is the skimpiest of summaries. Instead, you should turn to this trilogy yourself to see how Pullman has created an awesome universe of incredible complexity and, by the way, linked cognitive science with cosmology.
Still, the greatest of Pullman’s creations is the “daemon,” an animal-like creature which accompanies each human and embodies one’s particular personality. For example, Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard who visibly stalks by his side and interacts with others, while Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is an especially sinister golden monkey. Lyra’s own daemon is Pantalaimon who, like other daemons who belong to children, constantly changes shape in accompaniment to Lyra’s feelings: becoming a timid mouse when she is frightened, for instance, or a challenging bird of prey when she is courageous. This shape-shifting continues until a person enters puberty; then one’s daemon settles into a fixed and appropriate animal form. It says something about Pullman’s child-centered universe that puberty is regarded as the Fall.
So, now a personal disclosure: The three books of Pullman’s trilogy have been my all-time favorite reading during the last decade, and I have read them numerous times.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2007). While British readers have long known Pullman’s work (the trilogy has been a bestseller in the U.K. and garnered awards like the Whitbread Prize), Americans seem to first need a film before picking up a book. In 2007, New Line Cinema released “The Golden Compass,” a movie based on the first book of the trilogy and starring Nicole Kidman as the villainous Mrs. Coulter. The result brought both good and bad news: Good, in that more viewers were prompted to seek out the books; Bad, in that there was no way a 113-minute film could do anything more than skim the surface of a complex story populated by a gejillion inhabitants. In any event, there has been no sequel to this initial film. But now word reaches us that the BBC is planning a series based on the trilogy.