Philip Pullman’s trilogy Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and collectively known as His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels set in an alternate world to our own, where human souls are on the outside of the body and take the form of animals (daemons), where Dust (Dark Matter) is a substance that can be seen and experienced, a world so similar to our own yet so different… a world ruled by a tyrannical church.
The main character is Lyra Belacqua, a 12 year old girl who isn’t like normal 12 year old children in fiction. She is a liar, she is angry, violent, confrontational and rude. Despite all of these things, Lyra has a destiny to fulfill in some grand plan that she isn’t aware of for most of the first book. She lives at Jordan College in an alternate Oxford that is both familiar and alien to us.
Early on, there is talk of children going missing, being taken by a mysterious group called “The Gobblers”. When one of her friends is taken, Lyra decides to head north where it is rumoured the abducted children are taken. On the way she meets talking bears, Gyptians and Witches. Against this backdrop, Lord Asriel is assembling an army from across the worlds and across realities for the greatest battle of the cosmos.
The controversy lies in the nature of the trilogy, Lord Asriel of Jordan College wants to overthrow the tyrannical church, kill a figure known as “The Authority” and establish a Republic of Heaven that is free and just. Asriel will go to any length to win the war. Of course, the notion of killing God has upset a lot of people and it is a book that many religious groups have protested against. However, these people do the novels a disservice by not paying attention to the content of the books and the revelations at the end demonstrate once and for all Pullman’s real intent… but I’m not going to reveal it here. Pullman also has his supporters in religious circles, most notably Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who points to the dangers of dogma and people using religion for the power and personal gain.
This is a superb trilogy that captures the imagination and deals with some harsh realities of our own world by portraying people from another. It is a story about destiny, how we make our own and how we should be allowed to make our own. It is also a novel about standing up to tyranny and opposing the power hungry wherever and whomever they are.
Of course there is a hint of an anti-religious message here but it is in no way as large as has been portrayed by the right wing reactionary media. A former nun confesses that she realised she lost her faith, a witch with a grudge against the church will stop at nothing to bring down the church and an attempt to overthrow the angels provides enough material to feed the perpetually outraged for ten lifetimes. The real criticisms of religion are more subtle than that to me. In several instances, choices are given that religion would in the real world have taken away from us. This is true free will and it challenges the dogma we have been indoctrinated with.
The first novel was interesting but it didn’t captivate me in the way that I hoped. However by about 1/3 way through the second I was hooked.
Northern Lights 4/5
The Subtle Knife 4.5/5
The Amber Spyglass 5/5