The Book of Dust hits shelves today. What is it like reading Philip Pullman in 2017? Take a look back at His Dark Materials through one writer’s reread.
I’ve reread the Harry Potter series more times than I can recall. It’s somewhat of an annual tradition. With new content coming out every few months (be it Pottermore excerpts, Fantastic Beasts news, or theme park additions) the Wizarding World is never far from my mind.
But this is not the only series that had a profound influence on my childhood. In fact, I’d say, it may even have a bit of competition for the top book series my 13-year-old self would recommend. His Dark Materials is a trilogy that I have not reread in easily 15 years, but I can recall names, locations, daemons, and details about this world as well as any Potter book.
My best friend and I had developed an unofficial reading club. Trying to out-read the other, we’d sneak chapters in breaks in English class, after math worksheets, and when we convinced teachers that “No, we are really not interested in getting fresh air” at recess.
Philip Pullman’s books are what come to mind when I think of the early days of elementary school. But as I grew older, Harry Potter grew larger than life. The film adaptations and midnight releases consumed me. As a result, Pullman and Lyra’s adventures took up residence on my shelf.
This summer, after the news of The Book of Dust struck something in my soul, I reordered the collection. My editions long gone, tucked away in some box, in my parents’ attic or closet. They arrived, wrapped in plastic wrap, with their metallic covers, like no time had passed at all. It was as if they’d waited, patiently, for me to find my way back.
The paperbacks were small enough to keep in my purse, and just like elementary school, Pullman traveled with me. To the beach, to New York, on buses, in back seats, and to several coffee shops.
There was nothing like reading The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass in 2017.
While Pullman’s novels are found in the children’s section of most bookstores, I’d argue over a decade after my first read that His Dark Materials suits an adult audience as well as, if not better than, an adolescent crowd.
One item in particular that struck me this time around was the concept of our connection to the universe. The bridging of worlds, the sacrifices and concessions people make in their lives to stick to their ideals, and the limits of optimism.
Lyra, for example, is never happy-go-lucky. Nor does she have any reason to be. The universe, the bubble of a world she grew up in, is shattered in the first few chapters of The Golden Compass. She recognizes the shortcomings of her fellow humans and the loyalty of their daemons. Their souls are hardened, steadfast, and devoted, willing to protect them from the slightest intrusion on their ideals.
But in book one we have a young girl with a shape-shifting daemon, a soul open to skepticism and judgement. Her choices are bold, they are dangerous, and sometimes pushy just for the sake of being the one in control of her own destiny.
While the adults in the novel are not people you want to side with as a child, Lyra and Will have their own significant flaws. The reader is challenged to explore complicated relationships with their characters. Can we get behind Lyra’s lies? Can we look past Will’s murders? Is Mrs. Coulter irredeemable? How much can we really trust in Lord Asriel’s view of the world?
And that is where The Amber Spyglass pumps the breaks. It slows down, rather than ramps up to an explosive conclusion.
The Golden Compass kicks the door down into the world of exploration, mystery, and a substance called Dust. The Subtle Knife expands the characters, giving Will more time in the spotlight, and bringing the mechanics into sharper focus.
The Amber Spyglass cuts the pace in half, sending Lyra and Will on a journey where reflection serves the characters greater than progress. And that is where I found the most reward. Coming to the end is hard; it severs and leaves us with a choice — move on or fall behind. Be your own guiding light, your own guardian.
All adventures do not result in sustainable bliss. We may lose our connection to what we thought made us special — Lyra reading the alethiometer — but we can hold onto those things that made us feel good.
This was not a “challenging” reread by any means. The magic and world-building were as fantastic as ever. But the larger, philosophical questions felt deeper. They unpacked a lot for an adult reader, while leaving the wonder for a child untarnished.
I will continue to read and reread Harry Potter 20 years later. And I am going to read The Book of Dust and the rest of the sequel novels.
Why? Because I still feel there is more to learn.
Continue His Dark Materials with ‘The Book of Dust’ Audiobook
Interested in diving into Book of Dust as an audiobook? Check out Michael Sheen in the recording studio as he reads from the latest in Pullman’s library.
The Book of Dust is on sale now.