Monday, April 16, 2007

His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is incorrectly marketed as a trilogy for teenagers or young adults. I must have been thirteen the first time I tried to read this series, and I broke my teeth on it. I was frustrated, irritated, dismissed the books as pointless and idiotic, but most of all, I knew that I did not understand them. I was missing something fundamental and it upset me. So I put the books away, as though not seeing them meant that they did not exist.
It was only recently, upon reading Milton's Paradise Lost in class, that Pullman's trilogy shot to the forefront of my mind. This was because I had just read the lines:

He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd [ 225 ]
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
(Book 7)

Can it be? I thought, and soon realized that the titles for The Amber Spyglass and the trilogy as a whole, His Dark Materials, were also taken from Paradise Lost. At this point, I figured that I ought to attempt to read the trilogy again.
I did this and was shocked by the utter grandeur, scope and magnificence of the trilogy Pullman created. This work is utterly original, very different from other types of fantasy, a mixture of science, religion, philosophy and fiction that is utterly incomprehensible to anyone who has not read Paradise Lost. Some children can read it, certainly, and perhaps they'll understand it on its most basic level, but there's quite a lot that will be lost on them, so they ought to read it again.
His Dark Materials focuses most particularly upon the discovery of certain subatomic particles throughout the parallel universes. The particles have been named Dust, Shadows and the like, but are most commonly referred to as Dust. Scientists and theologians have noticed that Dust congregates much more strongly around adults, while children do not appear to attract it until the onset of puberty. The Church has determined that Dust is actually the presence of Original Sin, and believes that the reason the particles do not congregate around children is because children remain pure and innocent until puberty, at which time they begin to lust and engage in other sins. In the world of one of the trilogy's protagonists, Lyra, this leads to the creation of the General Oblation Board (G.O.B.) whose members are termed Gobblers. Lyra's world allows for the physical manifestation of the soul, named daemon. During childhood, the daemon assumes many forms (animals/ birds) and settles into a specific form upon the onset of puberty. The Gobblers, hoping to save the children from the curse of Original Sin, perform a surgery in which they sever the bond between child and daemon, thus not allowing the daemon to influence the child's thoughts upon puberty. The child is then soulless and heartbroken, wounded, sometimes unto death. Needless to say, this is extremely cruel and utterly unwarranted. Mrs. Coulter, Lyra's mother, is a member of the General Oblation Board.
Lord Asriel, Lyra's father, claims to be disgusted by the idea that God (or The Authority, as he is termed throughout the books) showers Dust as Original Sin upon all beings. He believes God to be a tyrant, cruel and unfair. He decides to make war upon the Authority, telling Mrs. Coulter (his former wife) that he wishes to free the people and destroy Dust forever. In truth, however, he wishes to serve the Dust (he believes it to be a good thing) and destroy the Authority. He makes a portal to another world (a parallel universe) and begins to mount a very Tower of Babelesque campaign against God.

Lyra herself is in the unique position of being an exceptional liar who is blessed with the ability to read the altheiometer (the golden compass) which only tells the truth. She meets up with Will (from another world) who acquires the subtle knife (it is the only knife that can cut through the fabric of the other worlds/ parallel universes) and the two of them together aid in the revolt against God by freeing the spirits of the dead from the terrible place in which they reside- neither hell nor heaven, simply terrible nothingness. Lyra and Will have been assigned the parts of Eve and Adam. Lyra will be tempted and will fall, but this is a good thing. The Dust gathers around beings who have become aware of their consciousness; it is the process of thought, understanding and realizing one's true identity that attracts it. Far from being bad, Dust is actually good.

Pullman's trilogy is far more sophisticated than my quick synopsis implies. There are witches, armored bears, daemons, shamans, physicists and all manner of beings who come into play. No one is wholly good or bad but human, utterly human. Mrs. Coulter, one of the most evil characters in fantasy, still feels a deep measure of affection and love for her daughter. Lord Asriel, on the other side of things, kills a young boy (severing his connection with his daemon) in order to acquire the power to create a portal between worlds. Although he wishes to do something good (kill the Authority, that is, God), do the ends justify the means?
Also, biblical theology has been changed in this new conception of the worlds. God is actually an Angel who has lied and claimed that he created all beings, when in truth he did not. Eve's fall does not lie so much in the fact that she disobeys the explicit command of God not to eat the fruit, but what eating that fruit implies (for the Church, at least)- the fulfillment of sexual desire, lust and pleasure. When Lyra reenacts Eve's choice, she is choosing a deep, committed and pure love (with sexual undertones.) That is her "sin."
The most fascinating and subtle aspect of Pullman's work is the way in which he utilizes the Bible while simultaneously critiquing it (or at least, any authoritarian and overly ascetic approach towards it.) Lord Asriel's campaign against the Authority begins with his building a tower against God, very Babelesque. Angels are described as lusting after flesh, and Pullman makes specific reference to the nephilim, the fallen angels who lay with the daughters of men. Taking that idea further, he offers the tremendous idea that angels are actually jealous of humans because humans possess a beautiful, firm flesh while angels are transluscent, beings of light. This, of course, suggests that humans are superior to angels.
One scene in particular that amply illustrates what I mean when I refer to Biblical references:
    There was a sudden lull, and everyone stood still, astonished at this crazy behaviour. The bear himself, who had been gathering his strength to charge the gunners, stayed where he was, but every line of his body trembled with ferocity. His great claws dug into the ground, and his black eyes glowed with rage under the iron helmet.
    "What are you? What do you want?" he roared in English, since Will had spoken in that language.
    The people watching looked at one another in bewilderment, and those who could understand translated for the others.
    "I’ll fight you, in single combat," cried Will, "and if you give way, then the fighting has to stop."
    The bear didn’t move. As for the people, as soon as they understood what Will was saying, they shouted and jeered and hooted with mocking laughter. But not for long, because Will turned to face the crowd, and stood cold-eyed, contained, and perfectly still, until the laughter stopped. He could feel the blackbird-Balthamos trembling on his shoulder.
    When the people were silent, he called out, "If I make the bear give way, you must agree to sell them fuel. Then they’ll go on along the river and leave you alone. You must agree. If you don’t, they’ll destroy all of you."
    He knew that the huge bear was only a few yards behind him, but he didn’t turn; he watched the townspeople talking, gesticulating, arguing, and after a minute, a voice called, "Boy! Make the bear agree!"
    Will turned back. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath and called:
    "Bear! You must agree. If you give way to me, the fighting has to stop, and you can buy fuel and go peacefully up the river."
    "Impossible," roared the bear. "It would be shameful to fight you. You are as weak as an oyster out of its shell. I cannot fight you."
    "I agree," said Will, and every scrap of his attention was now focused on this great ferocious being in front of him. "It’s not a fair contest at all. You have all that armour, and I have none. You could take off my head with one sweep of your paw. Make it fairer, then. Give me one piece of your armour, any one you like. Your helmet, for example. Then we’ll be better matched, and it’ll be no shame to fight me."
    With a snarl that expressed hatred, rage, scorn, the bear reached up with a great claw and unhooked the chain that held his helmet in place.
    And now there was a deep hush over the whole waterfront. No one spoke — no one moved. They could tell that something was happening such as they’d never seen before, and they couldn’t tell what it was. The only sound now was the splashing of the river against the wooden pilings, the beat of the ship’s engine, and the restless crying of seagulls overhead; and then the great clang as the bear hurled his helmet down at Will’s feet.
    Will put his rucksack down, and hoisted the helmet up on its end. He could barely lift it. It consisted of a single sheet of iron, dark and dented, with eye-holes on top and a massive chain underneath. It was as long as Will’s forearm, and as thick as his thumb.
    "So this is your armour," he said. "Well, it doesn’t look very strong to me. I don’t know if I can trust it. Let me see."
    And he took the knife from the rucksack and rested the edge against the front of the helmet, and sliced off a corner as if he were cutting butter.
    "That’s what I thought," he said, and cut another and another, reducing the massive thing to a pile of fragments in less than a minute. He stood up and held out a handful.
    "That was your armour," he said, and dropped the pieces with a clatter on to the rest at his feet, "and this is my knife. And since your helmet was no good to me, I’ll have to fight without it. Are you ready, bear? I think we’re well matched. I could take off your head with one sweep of my knife, after all."
    Utter stillness. The bear’s black eyes glowed like pitch, and Will felt a drop of sweat trickle down his spine.
    Then the bear’s head moved. He shook it and took a step backwards.
    "Too strong a weapon," he said. "I can’t fight that. Boy, you win."
That, of course, is a reworking of the famous David and Goliath encounter, with the one difference that rather than killing Goliath, Will ensures his victory by a practical demonstration (and later ends up befriending the bear.) Even the idea of Will's theoretically needing armor is biblically expressed (Saul offers David armor, after all.)
There's a lot of this kind of thing in the books- reworked biblical scenes, ideas or references. Those are utterly fascinating and highly ironic given the idea behind the work- throwing down the unlawful, totalitarian regime of the Authority, and most specifically his regent, Metatron. Pullman's main idea, especially in the reenactment of the Adam and Eve scene, is that life is meant to be lived with delight and joy, which allows for passion as well, and making these feelings into a sin (as apparently the Church does) is very wrong.
The trilogy ends on an incredible, tragic note, the kind of ending that leaves the reader with a poignant sort of ache. So as not to ruin it for you I won't tell you exactly what happens; I'll only explain that it fulfills the Tolkien ideal of sacrifice as expressed by Frodo:
    So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. (The Return of the King)

Pullman's trilogy is utterly magnificent, astonishing and brilliant.
And a sidenote- any author who writes something like this has to hold a place in my heart:
    I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read. My principle in researching for a novel is "Read like a butterfly, write like a bee," and if this story contains any honey, it is entirely because of the quality of the nectar I found in the work of better writers. But there are three debts that need acknowlegement above all the rest. One is to the essay "On the Marionette Theater," by Heinrich von Kleist, which I first read in translation by Idris Parry in The Time Literary Supplement in 1978. The second is to John Milton's Paradise Lost. The third is to the works of William Blake.
All glory to the man who admits whence his glory came.


Irina Tsukerman said...

Excellent analysis; I really enjoyed the books as well, and found them extremely thought-provoking. However, having never read Paradise Lost, I missed out on many of the references; so I guess I should re-read it! : )

Izgad said...

I love Pullman's books, but hate the man. His attacks on C.S Lewis range somewhere from the absurd to the dishonest.

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming you knew this when you wrote it, but just in case, Metatron is a name for Satan. In medrash and possibly in Christian sources as well (though I haven't really spent any time looking at those).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, are you sure it's a name for Satan? As far as I remember, Metatron was the Court Scribe in Heaven, taking note of different deeds done by different people and even defending the Jewish nation (See Tractate Hagigah 15a, where the Gemorah discusses Elisha ben Avuya and his supposed 'heresy' with regard to Metatron), not Satan.

I recall Metatron mentioned a couple more times in Shas, somewhere in Sandhedrin and in the beginning of Avodah Zarah, possibly 3a or 3b (don't quote me on this), but neither of those sources remotely suggest that Metatron is Satan.

Furthermore, in the Pseudepigraphical work Enoch, Metatron is the angelic form into which Enoch (Chanoch, from the book of Bereishis) evolves. Definitely not Satan.

So it's very possible that in Christian literature Metatron is equated with Satan, but I don't think this is the case in classic Jewish literature.

Of course, as always, I may be totally wrong.


Anonymous said...

Nope, you're completely right. Google is our friend:) (As is wikipedia.) And being the scribe makes more sense with being the regent described in Pullman. (The aggadot I recalled Metatron being mentioned in actually use ha'Satan.)

Silli said...

chana, you scared me hell out of me. You are so good in this analysis and english. I am so amazed by you and you still scared me of your genious, brilliant mind.

Anonymous said...

great review, maybe i will read milton

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M.R. said...

Also, when Acher entered the pardes, he saw Metatron. See Chagiga 15a.

Emily said...

I have to disagree with your statment that you can't truly understand the trilogy as a young child. I fell in love with these books in 5th grade, when I was 10 (before the second and third books were even written). What I loved was that they were books with a child protaganist who isn't treated as an idiot, who is intellegent, and capable, not only of protecting herself, but even of saving the universe. The choices Lyra and Will make, the sacrifices they make, those are all things that can be understood by children, since the characters are little more than children themselves. Do I get more out of the series now? For sure, but that doesn't mean that I didn't get it the first several times I read the books. I think the mark of good literature is that you can keep coming back to it and see new things every time.

Dust is also about far more than just original sin. It's the physical manifestation of human creativity. Again, in Lyra and Will's fall, it's not just about sex, or lust, it's about choosing to be fully human, and about the importance of our relationships with other people.
(I can go on and on about the comparisons between the two stories; I wrote my senior research paper comparing the two. I wrote a post on this subject a couple weeks ago, It is an interesting subject. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved Golden Compass when I read it in middle school. But I never liked the rest of the series very much. I thought that Lyra's well-developed character fell apart in the later books. But more than that, I remeber being very troubled by what I perceived to be Pullman's interest in affiliating God with evil.

But I really can't talk, because it's been years since I read it. I really agree with you that are more than kids' books. I don't know how an eleven or twelve-year-old would deal with the theme of sexuality in the scheme of good and evil. That would be a tough issue for most preteens to come to terms with, I think.

Chana said...


Perhaps I should modify my statement and simply say that there's no way I could have understood the works as a child, and I personally remember being rather disturbed by the sexual themes (as Anonymous after you discusses.)

I suppose, though, that it is possible to read the books and understand them on different levels, much like (albeit antithetical to) C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I personally see His Dark Materials as occupying a much higher, more difficult level, and I can't see a child enjoying it as much, but...that's just me, and my personal experience.

You could simply be more precocious than me, an easy solution. :D

Interesting that you say Lyra was one of the first intelligent child protagonists you encountered; that's the very reason that I've always loved the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Of the many fairy tales I read (obviously all the common ones, like The Little Match Girl, Cinderella, The Goosegirl), Hansel and Gretel was the only fairytale that stressed the resourcefulness and originality of its protagonists. Hansel and Gretel scatter stones, then breadcrumbs, then sucessfully deceive the witch with a chicken bone and finally thrust her into the oven. I loved them. :D I've been Gretel forever. (Cinderella, you will recall, simply sits and weeps in her cinders until her fairy godmother shows up, Snow White is cast out and has to be rescued by her prince, as does The Goosegirl. They're not proactive.)

Also, I completely agree with your analysis of Dust, and that was what I intended to convey near the end part of my post...apologies if it didn't come through.


I love The Subtle Knife, actually, and much prefer Will to Lyra. :D The sexual themes did disturb me when I first read the trilogy, but I knew that I wasn't understanding what I was reading, so disgusted and frustrated, I put it away.

About God as The Authority- interesting that you found it to be disturbing. Because Pullman ascribes such a different origination story to this God (that is, that he was an Angel who posed as Creator), I don't feel it to be a threat to my religion, and quite enjoy the Satanic undertones (or overtones.) :D

Emily said...

I think I must need to re-read these books, since I don't remember there being any really sexual themes, and I've been recommending them to everyone I know who's over the age of 10. Lyra and Will kiss (perhaps more, but I don't recall it being made explicit beyond that) and there's the (possibly) gay angels who help Will in Amber Spyglass, but that doesn't seem anywhere near the level of disturbing sexual themes. It's there if you look for it, but you could easily read over it and not notice. (I was 14 by the time the last book was released, but still)
As for child protaganists, it's not that I had never read about resourceful child characters, but Lyra was the first real child character, who wasn't an adult only smaller, or naively incompetent, the way adults think children are. She's struggling to find her place in the world, and to decide who to trust, and when to step out on her own and make a stand. She's trying to grow up. She was 10 in the way I was 10. She wasn't a child remembered through the lens of 30 years of experience being an adult, she was a child as children really are. (or at least as I wished I was, and saw myself :) ) Perhaps that's why I so strongly feel that it should be read by children, because I felt like it was a book that talked to me, without talking down (which is my complaint about the Narnia books. Although amazingly I missed the whole "Aslan is Jesus" allegory. Don't know how that one happened.)

Chana said...

Oh, it's not overly sexual, not really. They kiss and they say very sweet things to one another- it's all done very tastefully, but I recall that it still disturbed me because when I first read it I was thinking about it in terms of myself, and I didn't see it as the pure expression of love (as I now do, aided by Blake) but rather as a perversion- two children engaged in making love or stroking one another's daemons! I suppose the first time I read the book I was rather like the Church in my puritan view. :D

I missed all the Christian references in Chronicles of Narnia and only understood them much later, after I had read the Gospels.

It's interesting that you identify so much with Lyra; she was never really the character who capture my interest. Will, on the other hand, was everything I wanted to be- calm, resourceful, adult-like, clever, and able to make Lyra behave (she sometimes got on my nerves.) But I can see what you're saying and how you want to pass on the experience of what the book meant for you to other children, and I think that's a good thing so long as the parents know what the kids are reading. :D

Erachet said...

Wow, great post! I could just talk and talk about His Dark Materials, but I'll only say a few things.

So first of all, I definitely prefer Will to Lyra, but I also liked Lyra a lot better in The Golden Compass than in the other books.

Second of all, as a child reading them, I loved the first two but I was not a fan of the last one, mostly because of the oddness of Lyra being kept asleep and because of the really sad ending. It seemed so unnecessary to me to end the story that way, but then again, that was when I was little. Perhaps I'll think differently now. It's funny, I remember these feelings from years ago so recently I wanted to reread the trilogy, but I only reread the first two without bothering with the third.

Also, I, too, was thinking of this trilogy while doing Paradise Lost in class. So yay! Great minds think alike!

I think this trilogy has many levels (kind of like ogres and onions), so a child can certainly enjoy it but in a much different way, and I cannot see a child enjoying the third book as much as the first two. The Golden Compass and the Subtle Knife make good stories, though, even if one does not understand all the religious references. The Amber Spyglass is the more disturbing and befuddling one, especially for a young child.

Lastly, I hadn't thought about it until now but I don't know if you remember us discussing the animus and anima in class? I don't remember if it was that class or only in the Myth and Folklore class. In any case, in case we didn't discuss them, they are a theory by Jung who says that in every male, there is an anima, or a female soul, and in every female there is an animus, or a male soul. I have a slight suspicion that that's what Pullman was playing on with the Daemons. If you noticed, the girls have boy daemons and the boys have girl daemons. I think if a boy has a boy daemon, it might mean he is gay. I think there might have been someone like that in the books but I don't remember exactly. But it makes sense with what Jung said, seeing as the daemons are an external manifestation of the soul.