Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Book Review: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Warning: Contains spoilers

"His dark materials" is a quote from Milton. It is also the name of a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman. The books are written for children but like those of Tolkien or le Guin they are equally attractive to adult readers. I learned about Pullman on the net and only recently finished reading the trilogy. You can find a summary of the books on Wikipedia.

First the bad news: The books are uneven in quality and the writing can be a little pedestrian. Now all the fans of the books can shoot me.

Then the good news: I was fascinated by Pullman's ideas, fascinated by the multiple story lines and the weird cooked-up mixtures of familiar cultures into something that rung both true and novel, and most of all fascinated by the basic questions the books pose: What is religion? Is there a god? Can religion ever be anything but hierachical and oppressive? Can the created become cocreators themselves? Can religion be truly democratic?

Those are the basic questions of the trilogy on one level, and the questions which have provoked the most debate. On another level the books are about growing up, about children turning into adults, about them having to leave the paradise of innocence or not. The protagonists, Lyra and Will, come from different worlds but they share much in their backgrounds: they are alone, essentially orphaned, they are special because of the tasks they have and they are talented, yet imperfect. And they are children at the beginning of the story but adults by the end of it.

They are also the new Eve and Adam, and there is a new fall from grace. Or not. They fall in love and this saves the worlds from destruction but it destroys their love, leaving them eternally in two different realities. Is this the punishment for love that is too perfect? A statement about the impossibility of enduring love? A doubt about the compatibility of men and women?

Or is this about yet another story line, the one that asks when sacrifice is needed, when sacrifice is necessary and proper and how to sacrifice something one treasures in the right way? Lyra's parents sacrifice themselves for her, Lyra and Will sacrifice the chance of a life together, Will sacrifices his childhood to the care that his mother needs, Lyra is willing to sacrifice the connection to her own soul (or deamon) to atone for the death of a friend. But this plot is also linked to the plot of growing up, and to the plot of free will and religious oppression. And most likely to a hundred other plots I haven't singled out here.

All this is a way of saying that His Dark Materials is an enjoyable read on many levels. It is also a good antidote to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

I am still mulling over some details in the books, wondering what they mean and whether they really are just details. For example, consider the fact that both children have fathers who are absent but powerful. Will's mother is mentally ill and powerless to protect him, whereas Lyra's mother is powerful but evil and absent. What is Pullman saying by giving his protagonists such dysfunctional families? Is it something more general about families or about the society that affects them?