Part One: The Dark Materials Trilogy
by Philip Pullman
• Sam Hawksmoor review
It isn’t a secret, for last time I looked a million or so copies of Northern Lights have been sold in paperback and I am sure there are similar figures for The Subtle Knife in paperback and if The Amber Spyglass isn’t still selling by the boat load , then the world is truly upside down and the devil is winning.
“Is it all coming on us now, Will? We can’t rely on anyone else now, can we...We’re too young...If poor Mr Scoresby’s dead and Iroek’s old...It’s all coming on to us, what’s got to be done.’ From The Amber Spyglass
Philip Pullman is without doubt one of the finest authors working anywhere in the world today. This is no exaggeration, no hyperbole. If you haven’t heard of him or his books, or that he won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award , the Smarties Award of the Carnegie Medal, you are in for a treat.
Lyra Silvertongue, Will Parry, King Iorek Byrnison, the cruel Mrs Coulter and ambitious Lord Asriel now take centre stage. (You can also see the movie The Golden Compass and delight in the fantastic Victoriana world they have created.)
When you begin a journey by reading the first of the trilogy, you are alarmed, then in rapture, then stunned that the publisher Scholastic has not done more to promote these works, that a copy of all three should be on every shelf in every home. I sincerely believe that every child of ten or more should be so exposed to these fantastic tales and absolute truths.
Every adult would benefit from reading about Lyra, every hypocrisy we hold so dear to our hearts, every religious belief we would question and the realisation that we are all living a lie would be the only conclusion. More than anything I’d like to see the pope read it just before he gets apoplexy from its conclusions.
Northern Lights is not just a challenge to the average reader (Quite how anyone thought these were for children is beyond me). The very text is controversial. Explain a world where the truth can be devined with the use of the alethiometer, where everyone has a daemon - a visible soul that takes the shape of an animal at will, where bears can speak, and some, secretly, can travel between parallel worlds. A world where a vindictive Church with a dedication that mirrors the worst of the Spanish Inquisition seeks to slice the souls out of their own children, turn a whole generation into zombies who will never challenge their authority.
Northern Lights is number one in the Dark Materials trilogy. It is obsessed with truth, above all with Dust, an invisible enemy to the Church, a source of enlightenment to others.
These books are so riveting, so necessary, so much about darkness, goodness and evil, so not ‘cute’. The principal heroine Lyra is famous for being a liar, her eventual friend Will, abandons his half crazed mother to search for his explorer father who disapeared mysteriously. Lyra’s own mother is a torturer, her father a disgraced grandee who seems bent on challenging the very authority of God.
Allies switch sides, trust is freely traded, and it as normal to meet a witch as it is to meet an Angel and in the skies fly Zeppelins and gyrocopters. It is one moment a late18th century England and the next our world, or another, populated by frightened children afraid to grow up because when they come of age the ghosts will suck out their souls.
If you say... well there is no way I am giving such a book to a child, it will terrify them, you are right. But say,unlike letting them watch videos of Hannibal Lecter or read Stephen King, which are banal and petty loveless exploitations of the worst of humanity, Northern Lights and the sequels are a celebration of the richness of life, a fantastic illumination on prejudice that is the heart of every religion, a harsh judgment on humanity and the most uplifting, harrowing, inspiring literature that has been written in decades. You don’t have to sneer at talking armoured bears, these are the most noble creatures you could hope to meet. You will know they are right to shun the venal plans and plots of the human race. You will recognise that if Philip Pullman had not written ‘bear’ but substitute Native American Indian and you would see that Pullman is a deeply spiritual writer who has set out to inform, educate, elaborate. He does not shy away from making the material a challenge, he does not seek to substitute difficult words for easy ones, there is absolutely nothing easy about this books, except this, once you start, you physically cannot do anything else, you have to read it through, you have to continue, you simply must buy the Subtle Knife and then the Amber Spyglass. Lyra Silvertongue will enter your psyche, the characters will become part of your dreams.
Buy Northern Lights now and begin a journey that will stay with you a lifetime.
Thoughts about Amber Spyglass and Subtle Knife
The idea of cutting from one world into the next with the world's sharpest knife is quite unique. But this isn't as far fetched as you would think. Imagine disappearing down a hole in a street in Birmingham and popping up in a street in Kabul two years ago. A country where there was no singing, no women allowed to be educated, working was frowned upon and the soccer stadium used for weekly executions of people who didn't agree with an oppressive system of government that was crushing the life out of a whole people. The people who were cheering the murder of their fellow citizens are still there.
This is one world, but you don't need a knife to peer into the horror of the next. A jet or TV will do.
Pullman, through his books, pulls us through these holes into other worlds, but he's also saying that this world where we read his books in is full of parallel worlds, if we care to look. And Lyra's father isn't crazy to want to argue with God himself, because so much mayhem is loosed in the world in his name, or the name of other gods. The madness that will soon engulf Iraq is entirely stoppable, but the slaughter will begin, right about the time George Bush needs votes in November. Cynical. I think not.
Sadly we lack talking bears and angels to gather forces to stop tyrants and evil. But we have words, and good words can connect with readers' eyes the world over. The forces that gather for the final battle in Amber Spyglass are dramatic and victory is by no means assured. What wins in the end is enough people coming together with a common will and determination to beat back evil. The Dark Materials are a window into our world, a knife that reveals the stupidy of crass ambitions of many 'leaders'. His books speak to us because aside from how beautifully they are crafted, they speak to our subconcious. He opens up our hearts and minds and precious few books are capable of that anymore.
Although many say, how sad it is we don't have daemons of our own, we do. Children feel it stronger. You can get back your daemon, but it requires strength, purity of thought and an admission that maybe you are not alone. (Of course start talking to yourself on the Tube and people will lock you up.) One of the reasons we look for a partner in life is because instinctively we know we are not complete without another soul beside us. Not all of us find the right daemon, some of just find demons, but if you are lucky and choose well, that partner will be the one who understands your thoughts, encourages you to be brave when you need to be and cautious too.
When Will and Lyra part, a little of yourself goes with them. You pray they can find a way to meet again - somehow.