Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 9: His Dark Materials (October 26, 2012)

While technically Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is classed as a children’s or young adult series, it has some very adult themes, features large and complex fantastical and alternate worlds, and has been issued with adult covers, since apparently adults can’t bear the thought of another adult seeing them reading a book with a kid on the cover.

The trilogy has been loved and read by many, continues to be a bestseller even though the first book in the series was published in Great Britain under the original title of Northern Lights in 1995.

And at the same time it has gotten a lot of flack and received a lot of criticism from various groups for its content and what it’s supposedly putting in the minds of children reading it.

Regardless of which side one may fall on this series, it still remains one of the most developed and interesting children’s epic fantasy trilogies that goes beyond just telling a good story and leaves the reader thinking on many matters.

The Golden Compass (Northern Lights)

This is the story of a young girl who doesn’t know what to do or what is going to happen with her life, but soon discovers that she is on a specific course of destiny that she is unable to avoid.

While The Golden Compass is considered a children’s book, like the Harry Potter series, it is written with an adult voice in an adult language, with adult themes.  It seems that British authors give their young readers a lot more credit that American authors.  The result is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy that is by no means “just a kid’s book.”

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who spends her days roaming the many hallways and rooms of Jordan College, Oxford, where she makes friends with everyone regardless of class or status.  She’s just looking to have a good time and loves taking risks, whether it be climbing the roof of the college, or chasing and attacking the gyptians who show up every once in a while on the river.

This is a different world to ours, where everyday electricity doesn’t exist.  This is a world of zeppelins, steam and air powered machinery, gyroscopes and wheels and cogs, essentially a steam punk world.  Also in this world every person has what is known as a dæmon, essentially the embodiment of a person’s soul in the form of an animal.  When young, children’s dæmons can change form, but when they reach puberty the dæmon settles on a single form for the rest of their lives, giving one an insight into the person’s nature.

But Lyra’s world changes when first she saves her father, Lord Asriel, from being poisoned, and then learns of his work in the distant icy north where work is being done with something called Dust, the northern lights, and something about another world in the sky.  Lyra then meets Mrs. Coulter, who she immediately takes a liking to for she is so strong and impressive and knowledgeable, that is until Lyra discovers that she is the one who has been kidnapping children and taking them to the north for experimentation.  Managing to escape, Lyra joins with the gyptians who head north to find out what is going on with all this business about kidnapped children and Dust.  The rumors are terrible.  It is said that experimentation is being on separating children from their dæmons which, considering it is taboo for a person to even touch another’s dæmon, does not bode well for Lyra and the gyptians.
It is in the North that Lyra finally discovers everything that is going and more importantly, why it is happening, as well as a giant armored warrior polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, known as panserbjørne; and a Texan balloon-fighting man called Lee Scoresby.

His Dark Materials, in my opinion, is even better than the Harry Potter series for the subject matter is far more complex with truths that relate to every reader.

The Subtle Knife 

The golden compass of the first book was a special future-telling instrument which, when used correctly, can answer any question you ask it.

Lyra happens to be of the chosen variety that has the natural skill to read it.  In this book we meet our next hero, Will Parry, who is from our world.  He finds and becomes the beholder of the subtle knife, a special knife with one side so sharp it can cut any material object, and the other side so sharp it can cut through the fabric of reality and open a doorway into another world.  And so the reader realizes the great complexity of this universe with its many worlds.

Lyra and Will now continue their journey, both in search of their fathers with the help of many unusual characters like giant bears and witches.

The Amber Spyglass

In the final and lengthier conclusion to the trilogy, the full realization of this story is brought to light to such an extent that everything now becomes symbolic in some way, literature quotes begin each chapter, and the depth and complexity of the novel passes far beyond any childhood or young adult fantasy, presenting a complicated plot and moral for even adults to handle.

It is in this final book that the strengths and beliefs of our heroes will be tested to their extent, while our own beliefs will be in danger, when the basis for all religion and faith in all worlds is brought into question and threatened.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

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