Friday, December 28, 2007

"His Dark Materials" Trilogy by Philip Pullman

A few weeks before "The Golden Compass" movie was released I saw a trailer for it on the television. The movie looked interesting from the trailers I saw so my wife and I went to see it one Sunday afternoon while our kid was at his Aunt's house. We went into the movie knowing nothing about it.

The movie, in and of itself, was a pretty decent one. It brought back memories of playing Final Fantasy years ago because of the airships and setting. I also enjoyed the references to the many worlds theory, being a fan of popular science books. When the ending of the movie came, we were very disappointed. It ended rather abruptly for us, since we had no idea it was the first of a trilogy. Never the less, my interest in finding out more was very high.

That very same day, after the movie, we were shopping for groceries. We ended up in the book isle as we were looking for a baby book as a gift for Christmas. My wife found the book... one gigantic 900+ page tome of all the books. She picked it up as a gift for me for Christmas but I snagged it to read immediately and for an up coming business trip before she had a chance to hide it. I started reading the book a few days later. I went into the book with very high expectations.

"The Golden Compass

Movies made from books are a tricky thing with me. If I read a book and then watch the movie I find myself very disappointed with the movie. There is just so much more movie makers could do but they don't. When I watch a movie and then read the book I feel as if I am cheating somehow... like I already know the details of the book. Most of this book I found myself this way. I'd read a chapter and know, with high certainty (movies usually don't follow the book 100%), what was coming up next. Never the less, the book was great!

The book is about Lyra, one of the two main characters of the trilogy. She is a young girl, growing up in the care of rather boring college professors. During a visit from her Uncle, Lord Asriel, she finds out about a mysterious substance know as Dust. After he secures funding from the college to find out more regarding Dust, he heads North to do so. This only increases her desire to leave the college, and she does. Using a tool she was given by a professor at the college, a golden compass (a Dust powered device than can answer questions), she heads North to find Lord Asriel. This book chronicles her journey northward.

I enjoyed finding references to quantum mechanics in this book. In fact, while Lyra is imprisoned by the bears, she meets a prisoner who makes direct reference to the wave function! Combine this with a story having truly epic overtones and you have a very fun book that keeps you coming back to find out more.

If you have seen the movie and are contemplating reading this book, you should. The movie leaves out the last few chapters of the book, which is really the best part. You also won't find a lot of the authors opinion on religion in the movie. I will get into this later

"The Subtle Knife"

Most of the time you will find book two of three the worst read of the lot. I don't think this is true here, at least not for me. I found this book my favorite of the three. There is a lot of mystery in the book, as well as exploration of other worlds. Add in even more popular science and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much.

The book starts out by introducing you to Will, the other main character of the series. He is a young boy, though a tad bit older than Lyra. For reasons out of his control, he is also a bit more mature and responsible than Lyra. Will finds his way into another universe by chance where he meets with Lyra. Together they find a tool and weapon called the subtle knife. The knife allows its possessor to carve openings into other worlds with one edge. The other edge is infinitely sharp and can cut through anything made of matter. The book details Lyra and Will's travels through different worlds as they learn more about Dust and discover details of Will's past.

"The Amber Spyglass"

In this book, the final of the trilogy, the story lines introduced in the prior books come to a close. The book follows Lord Asriel and his war against the Authority quite a bit. Lyra and Will travel to the universe of the dead to find out more about their past and more about what Dust is. We are introduced to yet another tool, the amber spyglass, which allows humans to see Dust in most everything humans do.

This book is probably the most controversial of the trilogy. The author is rather pointed in his opinions on religion, the universe, and even global warming.

I enjoyed this book, though probably the least of the trilogy. Not because of the frequency in which you will find the author's opinion in text (I do share his opinion on some things), but because the epic storyline was ending. I also detested the ending! I wanted so much more for the ending of the book, I was pretty disappointed in it. Looking back now, I see the ending was probably a good match... but I still wanted more and something better... something more epic.

Regarding Religion

After I had seen the movie I was talking to a friend of mine and his wife and they were telling me the book was quite controversial from the religious aspect. I must admit this peeked my curiosity and only made me want to read the book that much more. The movie didn't really have much in the way of religious tones. Learning about different religions and hearing other people's opinions regarding the subject is something I really enjoy doing.

The author is quite pointed in places with his opinion. Where he is more subtle with his points in the first two books he holds no punches in the third. The author seems to lie somewhere between Atheism and Agnosticism, but much closer to the Atheist side. In his books, he implies that God was no more powerful than anyone else, except he was in the right place at the right time and took advantage of his situation to become a ruler. Pullman also casts religion as an oppressive force, forcing its followers into dullness and devote all their time worshipping.

Personally I found some of the authors opinions a bit extreme. But I am happy to see controversy in books. Anything that attracts or creates a reader is a good thing! A "controversial" or banned book is an excellent way to do this.


I found this trilogy to be a wonderful story about two kids growing up with an epic overtone that kept me coming back for more. While I was very disappointed with the ending, I enjoyed the books immensely. In fact, I found them to be a better story than The Lord of the Rings (though Tolkien's works had a far, far greater impact). Perhaps its been too long since I've read them?

Also, I have so many questions left unanswered. Like how did Scoresby's mother's ring end up in Grumman's possesion? What of the intention craft? What was this machine truely capable of? They only seemed to touch upon this. Those who fell into the Abyss... is that a different universe? Is this the end of them? What happened in Asriel's kingdom after the book ended?

In the end though I think they are great books. There is popular science, controversy in the way of religion, an epic story line... what more could you want out of a book?


Catherine said...

Thanks for your comment and the link over here! I'm glad you enjoyed the books - I sure wish he'd hit a home run with the ending though!

Falkenherz said...

I did a comment on Catherine´s site, but I want to do another one here, because a very important aspect came into my mind:

I think, for Pullmann, Dust itself is God. After all: the Title of the trilogy itself implies that: "His Dark Materials" -> "His Lordship". Dust is attracted by love and understanding of one´s self and the world. That fits, since God is all about love and unterstanding his creation.
Pullman therefore consequently chastises every personification of God. He therefore is in contradiction to most churches, who do admit to God being a person or having a most mysterious personification (the trinity), but he is not in contradiction with theology and faith as such.

After coming to this conclusion, I do not find his reading so controversial to theology anymore. Still, the storyline could have profited from better conclusion. As a storyteller, he still fails imo.