His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials


I've just finished re-reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). These are young adult fantasy novels following two children on a perilous journey through several worlds blah blah blah talking polar bears. I love them.

The books' central theme is the war between innocence and experience, authority and free will, the Church and humanity, and Pullman comes down on the side of experienced, willful humanity every time. Many religious groups were up in arms over Pullman's blatant condemnation of religion as something that suppresses experience and sucks all the joy out of life. I can't blame them for their outrage. Pullman is relentless in his depiction of religious-minded people as humorless, pitiless, clueless and dull, and nobody wants to be depicted as the hall monitor in a world of happy clowns.

It kind of reminds me of how people got all het up over The Matrix when it came out. Everyone was very excited to argue about the underlying philosophy, but as a friend of mine pointed out, you shouldn't take a movie very seriously when it's billing itself as thoughtful and deep and yet the hero, when asked what he needs, responds "Guns. Lots of guns."

Likewise, Pullman is a very entertaining writer but he's not Clement of Alexandria. (Incidentally, how cool is it that Clement of Alexandria has his own Wiki page? Do you think he'd be happy about this?) Let's not forget that the climax of the story, a new version of the temptation of Eve, has the "snake" character (this time played by a middle-aged physicist from the U.K.) tempting the "Eve" character with stories. So...a novelist is claiming that it is storytelling that brings us to our fullest and best selves, eh? This is not scary, people, it's charming, like Hitchcock giving himself a cameo in every film.

I do understand that the big upset for uber-religious types is the insistence that it's better to be in the world, free willed and open to sensation, than to be in the Garden of Eden, watched over by an authoritative father figure. As for the mellower religious types, if I were them I might be wishing for a more nuanced portrayal of Christianity, one that includes the immense comfort so many people derive from it as well as the stifling nature of some of its more heavy-handed doctrines. But if I were them, I probably just wouldn't both to read it. As I say, these are sweet, entertaining young adult fantasy novels. They're not the greatest books of our time, required reading for everyone. Because, as you know, that honor belongs to the Harry Potter books.

Read the His Dark Materials series if you are looking for a ripping good story, a thickly detailed, original world, and characters who will stay with you long after you finish the books.