Reading challenge books 9, 10, & 11, a trilogy, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I first heard about this trilogy back in 2007 when the film version of The Golden Compass hit theaters. I remember going to watch the film and feeling confused–something about Polar Bears and dust? I fully intended to read the series and watch the remaining films as they emerged, but since no more films came out, I lost sight of the series and it went back into the dark corners of my mind. However, after completing my graduate thesis on the Harry Potter series and comparing it to other fantasy “heavy hitters” like LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia, it seemed like I needed to visit this trilogy as it is often ranked alongside these other titles.
As I read through the series, I will come back and update the review post. Be warned that there may be some spoilers below.
Eleven year old Lyra is the protagonist of our story. Orphaned as a baby, Lyra has spent her young life amongst the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College at the behest of her terrifying yet interesting Uncle Asriel. She spends her days manipulating her way out of lessons and playing with local gyptian children. Everything changes the day Lyra breaks the rules to explore a forbidden room, and to avoid being caught, she hides herself in a closet. She witnesses the head of the college poisoning her Uncle’s drink. When her Uncle comes in and begins drinking from the poisoned cup, she reveals herself and to keep him from dying. Asriel then hides her back in the closet, pretends to have knocked over his glass, and carries on with his presentation when the scholars arrive into the room. Lyra is introduced to this interesting concept called Dust during the presentation, which sets her fate into motion.
In Lyra’s world, human beings are constantly accompanied by a corporeal figure known as a daemon. Most readers interpret this creature to be the person’s soul. With very few exceptions, the daemon cannot linger more than a few feet from its human. When a human dies, the daemon vanishes, and vice versa. Daemons are shape shifters throughout childhood, and during puberty they become a set form. The animal form that settles usually indicates the personality of the human (i.e. people who have cat daemons are very independent, dog daemons are very loyal, etc.).
As Uncle Asriel points out in his presentation to the scholars, there is a substance known as Dust that begins to accumulate upon a human being around the time their daemon settles its shape. Once the dust begins to accumulate, the human being begins to have “dangerous thoughts.” Unbeknownst to most of the world, there are two factions racing to uncover the mysterious qualities and power of Dust–the Magisterium, or the Church, and the scholars (as represented by Lord Asriel). Throughout the story, we learn more about this mysterious Dust and why both factions wish to control it–it all comes down to humanity’s Free Will–in this world and in the countless other parallel worlds surrounding it. The Magisterium wishes to control all people in all worlds and bend them to the will of the Church. The Scholars have a much darker, deeper wish that will unfold over the rest of the books in the series.
As the warring factions become more violent in the race to conquer Dust, Asriel is imprisoned for heresy against the Magisterium and a mysterious woman named Mrs. Coulter comes to take Lyra away. She couches her arrival under the pretense of using Lyra as her assistant, but the real motivation behind her actions is a deeply guarded secret. On the morning of her departure, the head of the College entrusts a Golden Compass to Lyra, telling her she must keep it a secret from Mrs. Coulter. The instrument is actually a device called an Alethiometer–a truth telling device–and typically it can only be read after years of study. However, Lyra has an uncanny connection to the device and masters it after only a few weeks. As Lyra spends more time with Mrs. Coulter, she uncovers a disturbing plot that Mrs. Coulter is the driving force behind–it connects the mysterious Dust to the growing number of children that have gone missing. Legend has it that the “Gobblers” take these children away and eat them, but Lyra uncovers and the even more hideous truth.
The second book in this series picks up where the first left off. Our protagonist Lyra follows her father through the “crack” between worlds and after wandering through a fog, finds herself in a new world where she encounters the protagonist in this novel, a young boy named Will. Will is also traveling to this world from his own (which is our world) where he grew up with a slightly batty mother who increasingly shows signs of advance schizophrenia–she sees things that aren’t there, and she exhibits obsessive-compulsive behavior. Only recently does Will discover that she might not be as off-kilter as he thought; several men keep following them around and showing up at their home looking for papers belonging to his late father. Will’s father was an explorer and scientist who disappeared shortly after Will was born. Though most presume him dead, Will firmly believes his father is out there somewhere waiting to be rescued. At the open of this novel, Will has placed his mother in protective care, stolen the dubious papers these men are after, and finds a ‘window’ into another world, into which he escapes from these men, and bumps into Lyra.
This world appears abandoned at first glance. Shortly after they arrive, however, Will and Lyra bump into other children and realize this is a world without adults. There are invisible creatures that haunt this world, known to the children as Specters. They got into the world when scientists invented a knife that could cut through anything–even the smallest of atoms. Unknowingly, they somehow released these creatures into their world from another when using this knife. The Specters act much like dust–they only harm adults. They suck out the “essence” of the adult, leaving them alive but completely devoid of personality or thought. This is basically the same process as intercision that we see in the first book, only the humans in this world do not have daemons, but their soul is inside of their bodies and is affected the same way.
Lyra has joined Will on his quest to help him find his father, as this is what the alethiometer instructs her to do. She travels to his world through the window to visit the Scholars of his world, studying Dust but calling it something else (Dark Matter). There she learns more about Dust and finds this world’s way of communicating with Dust (much like the alethiometer). She also loses the alethiometer after a man from her own world travels to Will’s and hoodwinks her. This leads them both to find the Subtle Knife–the price they must pay to get the alethiometer back–and discover that Will is the new bearer of the knife–his destiny.
The Subtle Knife allows Will to open and close portals into other worlds at will–a very valuable tool but only the bearer can master it (similar to the aletheiometer). This book is very fast-paced with action as familiar characters from the first book race to find Lyra and help her (or, for some of our antagonists, harm her) in her quest. We uncover more of the prophecy from the witches–Lyra will be the next Eve only this time, avoid the fall of mankind. At the end of the novel, Will finally meets his father, only to lose him again, as well as Lyra. Book III will bring a conclusion to the adventure and will begin with Will’s search for the missing Lyra.
Book III The Amber Spyglass
I’m still reeling from the conclusion of this epic series, so I’ll do my best to try and clarify my final thoughts. I think it was an extremely well-written, thought provoking series overall. I don’t necessarily think these are YA or children’s books. Even as an adult, there was a lot to deconstruct and most of it very abstract ideas. I was blown away by Pullman’s ability to create multiple worlds/peoples and base it in physics, religion, and constructs we are familiar with. It definitely deconstructs religion in a unique way. I wish that I had read these before writing my graduate thesis because I think a lot of this would have fit into my framework. Here is a brief synopsis of the final part of the story:
Dust is consciousness. The Authority wants to banish it from all worlds to make people easier to control. There is a chasm or void into which all Dust is flowing. If someone does not stem the flow, humanity will lose the “spark” that separates it from animals. What it really represents is fate verses free will. Dust is free will, or the ability to make our own decisions about our life. Removing dust represents fate, or man being tied to a single path based on what a higher power decides. Lyra is the agent of change–her destiny is to be the “destroyer of destiny.” Whatever she chooses will either result in conscious beings throughout all worlds maintaining their free will or becoming mere automatons.
God is the first Angel formed from Dust. He lied to the beings that came afterward, claiming he created them. He and his faction wish to remove Dust from the world so they can control the lives of all conscious beings. Lord Asriel’s faction seeks to destroy God, allowing humans to decide for themselves.
Lyra’s professor, Mary Malone, is the “tempter” or the “serpent” in this story. Mary has travelled to the world that ends up being where the Land of the dead opens up. She meets a conscious life form called the mulefa and learns their ways. She is able to build the Amber Spyglass, which allows her to see Dust. She sees the torrent of Dust exiting the world and links it to the creation of the subtle knife–when the people in that world began cutting holes to other worlds, the Dust started leaking out of all worlds through the holes it left. Lyra and Will escape the battle that kills God (and Asriel and Mrs. Coulter) and find Mary’s world. When Mary describes her former life as a nun and tells Lyra why she left the church–love–Lyra realizes that she is in love with Will. Lyra “chooses” free will by falling in love with Will, and choosing to pursue adulthood and its thoughts/desires/choices rather than staying an innocent child for whom decisions are made. Her choice slows the process of Dust leaking through the abyss, as viewed by Mary’s spyglass, but it doesn’t stop it completely.
We learn that the subtle knife creates cracks that are too fine for anyone to notice, and through these cracks, Dust escapes. In small quantities it would be fine, but there are thousands of open “windows” leaking Dust. Also, we learn that each time a hole is cut, a Specter is created and unleashed in someone’s world. Will’s lifetime will be spent finding and closing ALL of the holes and eliminating the Specters, which feed on Dust. There is only one hole that can remain open–the hole Will and Lyra created to free ghosts from the Land of the Dead–and it can only remain open if people in all worlds continue to generate Dust by asserting their free will.
This causes a huge dilemma for Lyra and Will because they discover daemons can only survive in the world that they originate from. If Lyra goes to Will’s world, she will die within the next 10 years, and vice versa. They cannot be together. They cannot visit one another, either, or they will create Specters and contribute to the loss of dust. While they are deeply in love, they must sacrifice that love for the benefit of all conscious creatures. Lyra will go on to dedicate her life to reading the Alethiometer, which before she could read by “grace” and now cannot read at all since she is an adult and thus burdened with thoughts/feelings/etc that have taken the place of “grace” (i.e. destiny destroyed due to her free will). The story ends with the two of them leaving to pursue their individual roles in their unique worlds.