Philip Pullman’s devastatingly beautiful trilogy His Dark Materials has all the elements of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, except it is so not. And that’s why you need to read it.
Here’s why critics and fans of Narnia alike should read the anti-Narnia trilogy that includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.
It’s about children
The main protagonist of Pullman’s trilogy is Lyra Belacqua. Lyra is everything you don’t usually see in a young female protagonist. She is impulsive, cunning, rambunctious, and a compulsive liar. These words would never describe the female protagonists of C.S. Lewis, like Susan and Lucy.
Lyra has some redeeming qualities. She is fiercely loyal to her friends. This loyalty sets her on a quest to find and rescue her best friend Roger after he’s disappeared in the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass.
Lyra also has the rare ability to read the alethiometer, a magical object that can be used to predict the future and answer any questions by interpreting its symbols. This ability puts Lyra in danger as the same mysterious people who took Roger begin hunting her down.
Before you get too attached to Lyra, you need to meet the other protagonist of the trilogy, Will Parry. While Lyra aims to dazzle people as soon as she enters a room, Will wants nothing more than to be invisible, which is difficult when you unwittingly become the chosen guardian of a special knife that can cut windows between worlds.
It’s rare for your protagonists to meet in book two of a trilogy, but that’s what happens in The Subtle Knife. As they both run away from authorities in another world. And they get into a fist fight. It’s the perfect first meeting for a beautiful friendship, and one that eventually determines the fate of all worlds.
His Dark Materials isn’t only about children, but it’s for children, too. More specifically, it’s for children to read as they grow up.
The Golden Compass begins like any children’s fantasy novel, but as it progresses, it becomes clear it is anything but. In The Subtle Knife we begin to realize just how epic the story really is. By the time we get to the finale of The Amber Spyglass, the series evolves into a very adult allegory that examines the consequences of losing childhood innocence.
For fans of Narnia’s Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and company, there are talking animals a-plenty in His Dark Materials. Lyra comes from a world where people’s souls manifest themselves outside of their bodies as animals called dæmons. Lyra’s dæmon can change shape while she’s young, but once she reaches adulthood, her dæmon will choose an animal to represent her personality and soul permanently.
Lyra’s dæmon, Pantalaimon, is her lifelong companion and witness to everything that happens to her. He’s like the Jiminy Cricket to Lyra’s Pinnochio. Everybody in Lyra’s world has a dæmon, so it’s weird when she meets Will. He’s from our world, so he doesn’t have a dæmon. At least, his soul remains invisible inside himself.
Dæmons become the foundation for the overarching conflict of the trilogy. Eventually, it’s a war between those who view dæmons as good and those who view them as evil.
Although dæmons are fascinating enough, they might be topped by fighting polar bears like Iorek Byrnison. As king of the armored bears, he’s the equivalent of Narnia’s Aslan — a wise, powerful, regal creature, who’s capable of the greatest tenderness and also the greatest violence.
Unlike Aslan, Iorek succumbs to vice. The first time we meet him, he’s drunk and lost his precious armor. But when he gets it back and battles the bear who’s taken his throne, oh it’s a battle to behold. If nothing else, the lackluster 2007 movie version of The Golden Compass got the bear fight right.
It’s about religion
C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as a religious manifesto of sorts. All seven books in the series are allegories promoting and examining the Christian faith. Philip Pullman specifically set out to write His Dark Materials in opposition to The Chronicles of Narnia. With each element of the story, Pullman subverts religious tradition, deconstructing Christianity while building his incredibly layered fantasy worlds.
Before you stop reading this article and say, “How dare you tell me to read books that attack God!” let me clarify that while Pullman dismantles religious hierarchy and condemns the church’s abuse of power, his books do not lack spirituality.
Lyra comes from a world that’s essentially Narnia taken too far. It’s ruled by the Magisterium, what they call the church that controls every aspect of life. Their most important mission is to reverse original sin by taking away a person’s free will. I think we can all agree that’s problematic.
They way the Magisterium plans to do so is by destroying Dust, a mysterious particle inextricably linked to human beings and their dæmons. Getting rid of Dust means getting rid of the very thing that makes us human. And this is what Pullman is really trying to say. Religion can be misused to subjugate and manipulate individuals, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something out there that ties us all together.
There is too much to say about the trilogy in one Hypable article. For more, see staff writer Brittany Lovely’s Reading His Dark Materials 2017 article. I hope they intrigue you enough to give it a try.
I picked up The Golden Compass from the school library in junior high (a Catholic junior high I might add), and it rocked my world. I’ve read His Dark Materials multiple times over the past few years as I’ve grown into an adult, and I always find something new.
After you’ve finished reading, you can look forward to the BBC TV series adaptation that is currently in development. If you can’t wait that long, you can begin reading the first book in Philip Pullman’s continuation trilogy The Book of Dust.