The results were decidedly mixed. Some of His Dark Materials is excellent, bordering on brilliant, other aspects not so much.
There are a million and one summaries of these books floating around the internet so I won’t waste time writing another. That said, I have several thoughts on the series I’d like to share here. So in lieu of a traditional spoiler-free review, I’m weighing in with specific details on what I liked and did not like about the series.
A strong warning: Many spoilers follow after the book cover, as well as religious discussion.
First of all, do these books truly endorse atheism? Perhaps, but not what I would consider classic atheism, which argues against the existence of deities and the supernatural and posits that the universe is entirely explainable by science. While there apparently is no God in the universe of His Dark Materials, intelligent species like humans are inhabited by a substance called Dust, which apparently functions the same way as original sin in the Christian religion (it bestows knowledge of good and evil, etc). His Dark Materials includes elements beyond any physical explanation, such as angels, an compass-like item called an alethiometer that performs functions that can only be explained by magic, flying witches, incorporeal specters, and other monsters. Committed atheists believe that everything is physical and there is nothing beyond the grave; in The Amber Spyglass Lyra and Will travel to the underworld to visit spirits of the dead, and there are hints of some atomized afterlife of the spirit. In short, it’s is not a work of scientific rationalism. I’ve heard it described as gnosticism, which seems a far more apt comparison.
What Pullman’s books are is a rather damning indictment of organized religion, particularly the Catholic church. Now, I’m not a Catholic so I have no skin in the fire, but I found Pullman’s treatment rather unfair. He portrays the church as a caricature of evil, a uniformly monstrous, insidious, intolerant organization that mercilessly persecutes non-believers. So we get dialogue like this by one of the characters: “That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
Given that His Dark Materials is ostensibly set in a world with a timeline roughly equivalent to our own (not a time of 14-century witch-hunts and the like when some of this behavior was sadly practiced), it’s all faintly ridiculous. To describe the church as an evil comparable to Sauron is, well, childish in the extreme.
Pullman posits that there is no God as believers traditionally understand him, but only powerful angels. God is actually a decrepit old angelic figure called the Authority. Pullman inverts the story of Adam and Eve, making the Authority the bad guy and Satan the good. Original sin is all backwards; our bodies are wonderful and natural and the fruit of knowledge to be fully enjoyed. The heroine and hero of the story, Lyra and Will, become ciphers for the new Adam and Eve, ushering in a world free of the Christian God in exchange for a world of solid reality.
So what does the world of His Dark Materials offer for consolation? Perhaps that there are other worlds, parallel to our own, that science or the mind of mankind can open. Pullman’s constructed world is not amoral or about living only for life’s sake. It also includes a strong component of responsibility. When the armored bear Iorek tells Lyra not to put herself in harm’s way (“While you are alive, your business is with life”) she lectures him otherwise: “No, Iorek,” she said gently, “our business is to keep promises, no matter how difficult they are.” This is a fine lesson.
There are some great scenes in the books that alone make it worth reading for fantasy fans. Perhaps most memorable was Will and Lyra’s journey into the land of the dead, complete with an implacable boatman and foul harpies right out of Greek mythology. It’s terrifying and wonderful at once.
Will and Lyra’s journey into the land of the dead demonstrates what happens to the “souls” of the dead in a godless world. Freed from a purgatory-like underworld, they are atomized, entirely gone. Death itself (and all our fears and superstitions built up around it) dies too. In Pullman’s world, at death a person becomes a part of everything. “You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.” Life is fine and good, and death is simply the End. Pullman portrays death as tranquil, for example when the explorer Lee Scoresby dies. Unfortunately this explanation provides no solace for those left behind, as there is seemingly no possibility of reuniting in an afterlife. Heaven is a lie. Explains an ex-nun: “That’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.”
The Amber Spyglass packs an emotional and satisfying ending that I found quite moving and well-done. Some of the best writing in the series can be found here.
All that said…
There are problems with the series, both plot-wise and in its execution, and some are major. Not the least of which is the series’ tendency to tell rather than show as it progresses, and delivering its underlying messages with an iron-booted didacticism. The best book of the series is without question The Golden Compass, which is refreshingly agenda-free and so tells a pretty good imaginative story. I’ve read a lot of complaints over the years about C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, detractors of which point out (not unreasonably) that it’s too dogmatic, or black and white in its conclusions. The same can certainly be said for His Dark Materials, and then some.
There are other problems with the series, too. Some of these include:
- Characters that float in and out without adequate ends, or explanation. For example Ama, a serving girl that Pullman spends considerable time introducing at the outset of The Amber Spyglass, simply drops out of the story without explanation. I never figured out the purpose of the scientist Mary and her encounters on another planet with a sentient race of elephant-like creatures called the mulefa. This entire sub-plot could have been safely excised, in my opinion, and any point that Pullman was attempting to convey here (perhaps showing the mulefa as an ideal natural race, without the interference of organized religion) woven into the main story.
- Lyra’s mother and father fight a angel enforcer named Metatron, whose name sounds suspiciously like a transformer and acts like the worst of the Decepticons. Lame.
- The great and powerful Church, with centuries of experience of scheming and corruption and power wielded behind the scenes, decides to send one man with a rifle to kill Lyra and end the biggest threat it has ever known. Really?
- Dust is mumbo-jumbo and a wholly unsatisfying explanation for what invests us with our humanity. Pullman’s explanation for homo sapiens’ divergence from our ape ancestors some 30,000 years ago is an invisible, floating, sentient, substance from the cosmos. Got that? I don’t either. Pullman tries to invest Dust (in our fleeting, occasional glimpses of it) with a holiness or mystery, but I found it all rather uninspired.
In short, His Dark Materials is certainly worth reading, though you (literally and figuratively) shouldn’t expect a miracle. It doesn’t live up to the hype.