Monday , June 17 2024
A wild and woolly trip around an imaginary universe... not an easy read, but the most intelligent books of their kind I've ever read.

Book Review: His Dark Materials: Special Omnibus Edition by Philip Pullman

According to the Book of Genesis it's been all downhill since Eve took a bite out of the apple. From that time forward we humans have supposedly laboured under the curse of that "original sin" with little or no hope of salvation. Christians caught a break though, because they believe a young Rabbi from Nazareth to have been their saviour and if they accept him as such, and live their lives according to whichever sect of Christianity they adhere to, they will obtain salvation after their death and ascend to heaven.

Of course we would have been a lot better off if that silly Eve had never let herself be sweet talked into chomping on that forbidden fruit in the first place. If only she could have resisted temptation, humanity's fall from grace would never have happened in the first place, and the curse of consciousness would never have been released. If we hadn't gained awareness in the first place, we never would have even dreamed of questioning authority, and how much easier a time the church would have in ensuring our salvation.

If they had the opportunity to prevent Eve from succumbing to temptation what do you think the folk running the Roman Catholic Church would do? If it looked like they would be given an opportunity to rid the world of awareness – to somehow reverse the process that was precipitated by biting the apple – would they jump at the opportunity? How much easier it would be to ensure that everybody obeyed God's will, as expressed by the Church, if they could be reverted back to that state of grace – that state of unthinking obedience.

Pretty heavy subject matter for a series of books supposedly composed for young people don't you think? Yet, that's the basic premise behind the spectacularly successful trilogy His Dark Materials by British author Philip Pullman. To coincide with the release of The Golden Compass, the first instalment of the movie adaptation of Pullman's work, Random House Canada recently published an omnibus edition of the trilogy bringing all three titles under one cover for the first time. Included in the publication are new afterwords to each book by the author, which encourage readers to let their imaginations speculate about characters and places mentioned in the book, beyond the confines of the original story.

On the off chance that someone reading this isn't familiar with the story of Lyra Belacqua and her world, His Dark Materials is composed of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Long ago the witches of the world Lyra inhabits prophesied that a young girl would be born upon who existence as it was known would depend. Her actions would dictate the fate of not only the world in which she lived, but all worlds everywhere.

In Lyra's world each human being coexists with an extension of itself known as a daemon. Taking the form of an animal, these daemons constantly change their forms while their human is a child, only settling on one self after puberty. It's the relationship between these daemons and their people, especially between children and daemons, and how it is connected to the birth of consciousness that the trilogy revolves around.

Lyra becomes the central figure in the war to control the flow of awareness to human beings. The equivalent of scientists in her world have managed to isolate the particle which they believe carries consciousness and self-awareness to sentient beings. While decrying the existence of "Dust", as its called, as a heresy, the Church in Lyra's world is actively working to eliminate its effects upon the world. A branch of the Church has figured out that a child's daemon doesn't settle on a single form because awareness is still developing. The daemon is a manifestation of a person's awareness and once it settles, that means its person has passed from the state of innocence of childhood into the full awareness of adulthood.

Like I said, quite a heavy topic for a work supposedly geared towards a young audience, and one that you'd think would be nearly impossible for an author to make enjoyable to audiences of any age. Sounds dry as, forgive me, dust doesn't it? Yet, Philip Pullman managed to make His Dark Materials an intelligent and exciting fantasy/adventure story that's loved by millions of readers. How he did so was by the simple expedient of keeping in mind what goes into making a great story: memorable characters, exciting action, and a plot that manages to be intricate without ever becoming convoluted.

Lyra is bright, daring, and fiercely independent. Left in the care of the Scholars of her world's Oxford University in England, she's allowed to run wild. She doesn't attend school, and roams the streets of her town getting in and out of scrapes all the time. She has no compunctions about telling lies, especially if it keeps her out of trouble, and is only really scared of one person – the man she knows as her Uncle Asriel.

The two adults who figure most prominently in Lyra's life, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, are both powerful and ambitious people. They also represent the two sides in the fight between the church and science. Mrs. Coulter is in charge of the Church's attempts to isolate "Dust" and successfully remove its influence on people, while Lord Asriel is leading the fight to ensure its continued existence. While neither character is presented in the most sympathetic of lights, they both are far more complex than we originally think. In the end, they are able to set aside their differences to fight for something they both believe in – Lyra.

It's not until the second book, The Subtle Knife that we meet Will, who is the counterpart to Lyra in more than just gender. Roughly the same age, their experiences growing up couldn't be more different. First of all Will is from our world so he doesn't have a daemon companion to act as his confident. Second, unlike Lyra, he has been forced to be responsible from the time he was old enough to understand what that meant. Will's father had vanished in the Arctic leading an expedition when he was newly born, and his mother became emotionally unwell as a result. In order to prevent his mother from being institutionalized, and him being placed in a foster care, Will had to learn how to manage everything a parent normally would.

Each of the children, Lyra and Will, end up with the gift of an object that forces them to learn how to enter a heightened state of awareness. Lyra is gifted with the Golden Compass of the first book's title. The alethiometer is a strange instrument that allows the reader to know the future and find the truth of things through interpreting the symbols around the edges of its dial. Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife that the second book takes it's title from. With it he is able to cut openings in the fabric that separates the worlds and open doors between them. The two children use their gifts to help them overcome the horrible odds they face on their quest to save "Dust", but its the shared gift of heightened awareness needed to work them that matters most in the end.

Philip Pullman says that he drew heavily upon John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost for inspiration for the His Dark Materials trilogy. However, instead of depicting the obtaining of awareness as a fall from grace, or something bad that we need to atone for, he has made it into a goal that we should all be striving to realize. The innocence we shed as we enter adulthood is in reality ignorance and there is nothing blissful about it. Finding one's true place in the universe is not an easy task – just ask Will and Lyra – as it involves sacrifices and a great deal of soul searching, but the end result is worth the struggle.

Pullman takes us on a wild and woolly trip around an imaginary universe with worlds inhabited by talking bears with prehensile thumbs who are fierce warriors, celestial beings like angels, species who've evolved into sentient beings in spite of looking nothing like us, and all sorts of other strange and mysterious creatures and wonderful people. The His Dark Materials trilogy does what all great stories should do; entertain and inform without letting one interfere with the other. This is not an easy read, nor is it as light hearted as the movie version has proven to be so far, yet they are probably the most rewarding and intelligent books of their kind that I've ever read.

This special omnibus edition of His Dark Materials can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or any online retailer.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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