A Close Look at Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy

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In honor of the upcoming Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 1), I present for your reading pleasure one of my favorite children’s/young adult series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

This series bears the dubious distinction of appearing 8th on the most frequently challenged or banned books from the years 2000 to 2009. This has been attributed to Pullman’s attitudes toward religion and to the violence that occurs throughout the series. But not to worry: This series is no worse than The Hunger Games or Harry Potter (to which it is often compared).

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The trilogy consists of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. There’s something for everyone in these books—elements of mythology, science, fantasy, magic, philosophy, theology and cosmology are reflected upon, with Oxford serving as the backdrop throughout more than 1,200 pages.

The main characters are ordinary in every way and, like many people, are able to do extraordinary things when the need arises. Lyra, an energetic and silver-tongued young girl, lives in a world parallel to ours. It is a universe in which a human being’s soul or “daemon” (embodied by an animal) lives outside their body.

The intricate and inescapable bond between human and daemon is emphasized and explored through the series by the observations of others (mainly Will, a resourceful and clever boy we meet in the second book).

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Lyra and Will serve as the focal point through whose eyes we see everything in the novels.  As they try to change the world and unravel the mystery of “dust,” they rely both on each other and on the help of a group of rebel angels, an aviator and gunslinger who flies a hot air balloon, an armored bear, tiny creatures whose warriors ride Dragonflies into battle and many witches who have a presence in this universe.

Throughout this story those whom you thought had no saving graces redeem themselves through acts of selflessness, further illustrating Pullman’s point that we all are capable of fantastic and wonderful things. And what is Lyra and Will’s quest?

One: To ensure that the manipulative and controlling “Magesterium,” widely thought to be symbolic of the Catholic Church, could no longer exert its considerable power over the citizens of any universe. Two: To guarantee that the dead will have a far different path than the tortuous one mentioned in the books.

With such lofty ideals, this series could have turned into a dense and chaotic jumble, but in fact it is highly entertaining and readable. This trilogy is Pullman’s most widely known and most controversial series of books in a career that spans over twenty years.

Citing Pullman’s love of and admiration for the writings of William Blake and particularly of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, critics have called it a radical retelling of that epic poem.

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In Paradise Lost, humankind’s Fall was directly attributable to “original sin” (the biblical doctrine of humanity’s state of sin caused by its disobedience to God). It was Pullman’s stated intention to find a way to upend Milton’s theist view with his own humanistic interpretation in which the Fall is a positive step for mankind. Pullman’s view envisions a fall not out of grace, but into the wisdom and maturity necessary to awaken to another level of love – a love that is pure and unconditional. This is what it takes to be truly human.

The Catholic Herald has described this trilogy as “truly the stuff of nightmares, worthy of the bonfire.” The Church has criticized it further, calling it “atheism for kids.” However, Pullman believes they are missing the point of this story, which is simply that you don’t need religion to have a good ethical and moral compass.

In his opinion as a Humanist (he’s a member of the British Humanist Association), you should live your life as though this is all you have. Nothing is stopping you from making your own heaven in the here and now. And that is something, regardless of your religious views, that we can all take to heart.

-Whitney Z.

Explore A Parallel Universe

Check Out the His Dark Materials Trilogy

Whitney Z. is a native Pittsburgher. She is currently a substitute Library Assistant who loves audiobooks, music and movies. She believes firmly that NASA made a mistake in demoting Pluto and would sincerely like for said decision to be reversed.