Forwards and Backwards


Forwards because I've finally got to the end of Philip Pullman's trilogy His dark materials, backwards because never has it struck me so forcibly as at the end of The Amber Spyglass, how connected the best literature is to what has gone before it.

I enjoyed Northern Lights (although having completed Spyglass I've realised that the alternative North American title The Golden Compass is probably the better one). Adored the moving, beautifully written Subtle Knife, and if the final volume, The Amber Spyglass didn't move me in quite the same way, it was still a darned good read.

As the children, Lyra and Will, grow up, the novels become increasingly more adult. They still, of course, retain their fantasy elements, but are more serious reads than their predecessors. Amber Spyglass is as much about religion, philosophy and science, and the joys and pains of becoming an adult as it is about the fantastical worlds that Lyra and Will enter. There are some beautiful worlds too - I loved the parallel universe of the gentle Mulefa and their free-wheeling life.

As a novel for children, I don't think Amber Spyglass was as successful as the earlier volumes in the series. Will and Lyra falling in love, although very sweet and essential for the storyline, could be a bit saccharine for your average teenager. I think I would probably have found it a bit of a turn-off aged 14 or 15, although at a much more advanced age I can sigh quite happily about young love. And you would need to know a fair bit about religion, specifically Christianity and Judaism, whether or not you believe it, to catch the subtle nuances within the book.

It's in this volume that you become fully aware of Pullman's inspirations - a nod to Greek myth, especially Orpheus, Maeterlinck's The bluebird, the Bible - most notably some of the apocryphal works and the more mystical areas of the Old Testament, William Blake and the metaphysical poets, and of course Paradise Lost. His dark materials is almost a sort of re-imagining of Paradise Lost. A version for the post-modern world, where a new republic of the mind sans religion comes to pass. A world in which neither God nor Satan have a place, but where Heaven can be created in the hearts and minds of those who want the world to be a better place for everyone and everything in it. An ecological novel for the dawn of the twenty-first century.

All of these inspirations are knit tightly together to produce a novel that is recognisably itself, and yet is also part of a great tradition. Ironically much of that tradition has come out of the very religions (especially Christianity) that Pullman is opposed to, and sees as being intolerant, divisive, and often-times cruel. Pullman does, I think, have a point; but his inspirations also point to the wide diversity of religious belief from the Christian humanism of John Milton, brought up in the Calvinist tradition, to the mystical approach of Blake.

The church of Lyra's world is an authoritarian cruel body determined to impose its own narrow view of belief and morality on everyone. Lyra's independent spirit seeks to break free from this in a quest to find the truth behind the secret at the heart of the universe. You could interpret this in many ways - a search for spirituality, a search for the meaning of life, or a scientific search for enlightenment. His Dark Materials is certainly anti-institutional religion but Pullman, in my opinion, isn't saying that humans don't have a soul or a place for spirituality in their lives; he is saying, however, that you can't just take what you are told about religion for granted. Everyone has a mind, and they have to use it, and not just accept what the norms may be. In any universe goodness and kindness will have a place, however different in other aspects they may be. All important lessons not just for children on the cusp of adulthood, but for those of us who like to think we're more grown up.

His dark materials has received a lot of plaudits, and every one is richly deserved. A thought provoking read whatever your beliefs; and a great fantasy adventure story, a fine blend of imagination and quantum physics.


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