Pullman’s Dark Materials

*Warning: spoilers throughout.*

Tragic.  That is the one word that first comes to mind as I set aside the nearly 1,000-page collection containing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

The plot is compelling; the characters, alive and covered with skin and hair; the emotion, fierce. From a purely literary perspective, the only difficulty is one of perspective.  Like many other epics, the novels take the viewpoint of multiple characters.  However, Pullman’s novels also transition between omniscient and limited perspectives, alternately warning the reader against information the characters cannot see and sharing the characters’ deepest emotions or limiting description to what they see and do. 

If there are snags in the fabric of story and philosophy, it is because this book is, in many ways a refutation.  Pullman’s premise is that the Christian faith is “a very powerful and convincing mistake” (p. 871).  In one chapter Lyra and Will are battling a harpy in the world of the dead, and in another Pullman is alluding to the questions of grace and works that have occupied the Christian church.  For the reader, the plot has fallen into a crevice and is momentarily lost, but the philosophical treatise replacing it is only half-formed and simplified to a child’s level.

  • The metaphysics of His Dark Materials imagines a tri-part human, containing body, soul (daemon), and mind (ghost).  The properties of mind and soul are incompletely distinguished, but the body is declared the most important.
  • The epistemology stems from the idea that consciousness (Dust, Shadows, original sin) is a fundamental force in the universe and is the root of knowledge. Pullman paints the overarching narrative of human history as “a struggle between wisdom and stupidity” (p.899) rather than between good and evil. “The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed” (p. 899). 
  • The ethics of His Dark Materials are decidedly situational. Lyra, as the Eve figure, deals with a shifting sense of reality that is not simply caused by her growth and maturity, but related to the nature of reality itself. “I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them” (p. 875), says Mary Malone.
  • As a consequence, Pullman’s is a dismal, self-preservationalist political world. Despite closing instructions for Lyra and Will to “show [people] how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly,” other parts of the narrative invoke a Hobbesian view of reality that is parallel to rationales for the use of the atom bomb: “We never knew about [the subtle knife] when I first met you, Iorek,” Will says, “and nor did anyone, but now that we do, we got to use it ourselves—we can’t just not. That’d be feeble, and it’d be wrong, too, it’d be just like handing it over to ‘em and saying, ‘Go on, use it, we won’t stop you’” (p. 682).

Most (pre-postmodern) children’s novels carry the expectation that sacrifice will not go unrewarded and that beloved characters will be rescued from destruction because there is someone who can be trusted.  Pullman’s protagonists are forced to realize that no one is safe or trustworthy, and that life does not have happy endings.  Friends will let you down, as when Serafina Pekkala arrives too late to save Lee Scoresby in The Subtle Knife, or when Lyra unwittingly betrays Roger and fails to save him in The Golden Compass 

Other elements in Pullman’s novel strike at comparable fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and especially like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, of whom Pullman was an especially vitriolic critic.

There are specific elements, like the names of the heroines: Pullman’s Lyra and Lewis’s Lucy.  Motifs are echoed, like the beginning of Lyra’s and Lucy’s adventures with an escape from censure into a wardrobe.  Parallel worlds, initially reached through a neutral world (Citagazze in Pullman, the Wood between the Worlds in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew) are featured in Lewis and Pullman.   

The remaking of a weapon figures prominently into The Amber Spyglass, just as it does in The Lord of the Rings.  Like Tolkien’s, Pullman’s weapon can be rightfully wielded only by one, but this is a sword/knife that – more like the Ring – has a destructive will of its own.  Its passage from bearer to bearer is marked by damage and pain, not simply by right. 

Like Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fantasies, the battle is not the culmination of the story.  In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam’s quest is the small, subtle force that gives meaning to Helm’s Deep and the battle for Minas Tirith.  In The Hobbit, the main character, Bilbo, is unconscious during the final battle. Similarly, in Pullman’s novels, Lyra, Will, and the other characters join in battle, but the story never ends with large-scale battle. 


Even the dialogue mirrors other works of fantasy.  “I can feel war, Lyra Silvertongue; I can smell it; I can hear it” (p. 692), says Iorek at their parting.  In the film version of The Lord of the Rings, a voiceover by Galadriel phrases it this way: “The world is changing.  I feel it in the water; I feel it in the earth.”  The quote originates from The Return of the King, in which Treebeard says, “For the world is changing: I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.  I do not think we shall meet again” (p. 321).

Pullman readily admits the intertextuality of his books. “I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read,” he said honestly in the acknowledgements.  He cites Blake’s poetry and Milton’s Paradise Lost as central influences, but epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter also quote the Bible (angelic characters are drawn from the genealogies in Genesis), Emily Dickinson, Keats, and others.  An obscure mention of daemons taking the form of an owl and a nightingale in The Amber Spyglass is reminiscent of the early Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale” which contrasted the powers of sin and love. 

Beyond the similarities, though, it is impossible to dismiss the extreme differences.  The worldview in Narnia and Lord of the Rings is something pervasive and natural.  You can read the books without taking away a Christian message.  It is inherently intertwined with the stories, as if the stories were created for their own merits and the worldview simply flowed into them (with possible exceptions in a few of the Chronicles of Narnia).  By contrast, Pullman’s story and worldview are intertwined deliberately, as if the story was crafted to exhibit the philosophy.  It is almost impossible to miss, though I tried to do so.


Considering this concept in the terminology of literature, it is easy to conceptualize His Dark Materials as a metaphor.  The philosophy is the tenor (the meaning or word picture), and the story is the vehicle (the object or word).  To use Lacanian terms, the philosophy is what is signified, while the story is the signifier.  There is a greater gap between the two in the case of Pullman than in the case of Lewis or Tolkien.


Some have said that worldview is insignificant in works of fantasy.  I think they are right—to a certain degree, and in relation to certain works.  However, there is a significant difference between the works of Tolkien and Lewis and the works of Pullman, which has to do with the difference between positive and negative worldview (speaking in numerical, not ethical terms).


Pullman’s novels centrally seek to remove something: the certainty and persuasion of the church.  His attempts to set up an alternate worldview in its place are subtle and fragile in contrast to the crushing arguments he flings at Christian thought.  


In The Amber Spyglass, there is a moment of realization and regret that, for me, was one of the most poignant in the entire trilogy.  Mary Malone, who is called on by Dust (consciousness) to act as the serpent to Lyra’s Eve, pauses in relating the story of her downfall from faith.  She says, “And then had come the discovery of the Shadows and her journey into another world, and now this vivid night, and it was plain that everything was throbbing with purpose and meaning, but she was cut off from it” (p. 878). 

This is the emotion that Pullman’s His Dark Materials left with me.  The threads of human love, sacrifice, honor, duty, and compassion are prevalent throughout the trilogy, but they always pause just on the edge of purpose, continuity, and meaning.  It is as if their author, like Mary Malone, had come to that same edge and, turning away, were seeking desperately for an alternative way to find it.


2 Responses to Pullman’s Dark Materials

  1. Andrea says:

    I read these last year (before all the controversy over the movie really got going), and I completely agree with almost everything you’ve written here. I generally enjoyed reading the books (they really sucked me in, especially the parts I listened to as audiobooks), but decreasingly over the course of the series. And I agree with your idea of these stories as somehow less ‘organic’ in origin than Tolkien or Lewis, as though the stories merely exist to give voice to the philosophy.

  2. Scathe meic Beorh says:

    Typical of fools to set their philosophy before their craft–and this happens in Christianity as well. How sad that Pullman is even known. Yet, he leaves us with a challenge to bring back the spirits of Tolkien and Lewis. Anyone up for it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: