Friday, April 29, 2011

His Dark Materials

"His Dark Materials" is a fantasy trilogy of young fiction novels by Philip Pullman.  These books have been on my reading list for about four years now ever since I saw the film adaptation the first novel, "the Golden Compass".  You can probably get an accurate guess as to how good of a movie "Golden Compass" was simply by noting that they never even tried to adapt the other two.  After I see a really lousy movie based on a book, I make sure to read the source material.  Because typically awful movies represent really good books.  Take for example the 2006 Jude Law film "All the Kings' Men", a hideous disaster of a movie based on what is my favorite American novel.

Unfortunately with "Dark Materials" I'm some ten years too late to be of the age group these books were marketed to.  Last young adult novel I tried to read was "Eragon" - my personal copy of that book has now most likely become part of the the Staten Island landfills with the rest of the trash.  So "Golden Compass" remained unread until I saw it on my ex-roommate's shelf.  Why buy a book when you can read some for free?  With little else to do in my academic freetime, I proceeded to devour all three novels with my typical literary insatiability*.  So now, just little more than a month after I began, I have a post to write.

I was more than aware of the various controversy around these books.  Philip Pullman is an unapologetic atheist, and when he isn't writing a preteen adventure story, he's railing against organized religion.  "The Dark Materials" has outright been admitted to be an attempt by Pullman to kill Christianity in the hearts of young readers.  Of course, there's nothing I like more than some controversy.  That at least gives me something to talk about.  Naturally Pullman's anti-Christian views in "Dark Materials" are things I completely disagree with.  We'll get to that eventually.  But worse "His Dark Materials" the story just isn't all that good.  Its miles ahead of that godawful movie, but ultimately Pullman's story has some serious characterization flaws and has far worse structural problems.  This is not something I'd ever recommend to another person.  Maybe for a ten year old this is good enough, not for me.  These books, especially the last, could have used a lot more work.

The first book, "The Golden Compass" is a pure children's novel.  Its entirely a single POV of its main character, an independent scheming little girl with a talent for lying by the name of "Lyra" (soon to take the title of "Silvertongue").  Of course she's the Chosen One with a prophesy to "end fate" and "end death".  You don't quite know this at first, but she lives in a fantasy parallel universe where all people have talking animal companions called Daemons which represent their souls.  In Pullman's fantasy world, the Catholic Church rules everything.  There is also a mysterious force called "Dust" which seems to be coming from another universe.  The Church is stealing children to sever them from their Daemons, an awful crime in this universe akin to cutting out a person's very soul.  When Lyra's best friend Roger is kidnapped, she begins a magical adventure to the far north to save him.  Armed only with her wits a magical Plot Coupon called the Alethiometer that can read the truth in all things, Lyra must overcome terrible odds, befriend various allies, and come face to face with her the dark truth of who her parents are.  One of those allies is a talking Armored Bear, an incredibly awesome idea which is awesome.  Armored Bears are like the literary equivalent of Kenpachi Zarachi, they don't make sense, they're silly, but you cannot deny you want to be best friends with one of them.

At the end of "Golden Compass", Lyra's estranged father, an outlaw scientist by the name of "Lord Asriel**" kills Roger to tear a whole open in the fabric of the universe.  Asriel then gathers armies from every parallel world to fight against, the Authority (read:  God).  He builds a doom fortress and stands ready for war.  Exactly how he managed to do this in the course of a few days is never explained.  Indeed, Pullman never quite figures out who Lord Asriel is, or how to characterize him, he's just basically represented as a one-dimensional genius.  Apparently he's very intimidating, the most brilliant man ever, and totally dreamy, but... we're told these things, not really shown them.  Since Pullman never knows what to do with this character, he ultimately decides to make him a good guy and conveniently kills him off with a sacrifice.  By tearing a whole in the universe by murdering Roger, Asriel does allow Lyra to meet the other protagonist of this series, Will.  So ultimately everything good that happens in these books are all because Asriel murders a little boy.  Nobody ever really judges him for that, I should mention.

Will is a boy from our world.  Throughout the second book he actively kills something like three people, but usually in self-defense.  He finds the Subtle Knife, a Knife that can cut through anything and is apparently the only weapon that can kill the Authority (not that they actually needed it).  Its around the time that Will appears taking a POV that "Dark Materials" loses its focus on Lyra.  Her daemon basically falls out of the plot forever after being a major character.  Lyra by the last book really has nothing to do but watch the events around her unfold, which is really a shame since she wasn't a bad protagonist.  By Book 3 Lyra is basically a damsel in distress and Will has to save her, then she's entirely dependent upon him for protection.  Will and Lyra also have sex at the end while being barely pubescent.  I really have nothing to say about that, I'm just pointing it out.  Thought you'd like to know.

A bigger problem with "Dark Materials" comes with the character of Lyra's mom, Mrs. Coulter.  Mrs. Coulter is a femme fatalle ex-lover of Lord Asriel who was in charge of the whole "kidnapping children" business.  Unlike Asriel, Mrs. Coulter's powers are very well explained:  she's hot.  Seriously hot.  Which means that she can usually get her way with a little seduction and a lot of lying.  In fact, Mrs. Coulter is very interesting because she's in many ways just a more evil older version of Lyra.  At one point she even uses her hotness to seduce the angel commanders.  At another point she commands an entire horde of evil soulless spirits that I'll just call "Heartless".  But Pullman screws Mrs. Coulter badly in the last book when he suddenly decides that she needs to turn good.  Yeah, she just kinda realizes that she loves Lyra after two whole books of being puppy-drowningly evil.  Its a hugely unnatural fit for this character, and it shows in the narrative.  One book she's a Church higher-up in command of an entire zombie army along with thousands of Heartless, then the next she's alone in a cave being a mother to Lyra.  This is a character shift so sudden and wild that I needed to check that I wasn't holding the book upsidedown.

The books manage to largely work for what they are right up until the last book.  In "The Amber Spyglass", Pullman has to answer all of the many mysteries he's been building up along with settle the huge war Lord Asriel is starting.  So what you have is a book where one chapter characters are digging through the underworld, while in the next chapter a character is playing with alien elephants with wheels.  The climax especially is cluttered beyond words.  The greatest battle of all time - a literal fight to kill God with armies of every universe standing against each other, a battle of airships, fairies, witches, angels, Armored Bears, Heartless, and the kitchen sink all at war - is set as a sideshow while Lyra and Will look for their daemons.  That's just inexcusable!  Give me my war, not this!  Damn you, Pullman.  Not to mention that the main villains are 1) a feeble old man who actually isn't God at all, and 2) a moronic character named Metatron who dies before he gets a chance to prove himself as a legitimate threat.  The rest of the book is just Lyra and Will falling in love and plotthreads getting lazily resolved.  Turns out that if the universe is about to fall apart, just have two twelve-year-olds have sex, all will be fine.

As for Pullman's antireligious feelings, they don't really have all that much substance when you get right down to it.  If Pullman was trying to prove that Christianity was corrupt, he definitely failed when he represented it with a bunch of cartoon villains.  He does seem determined to show that sexuality, prejudice, and the moral limitations that Christianity imposes on its believers is fundamentally unsound.  To him, religious denies independent though (which is why Dust, independent though incarnate is such a major plot point) and natural instinct.  So when a churchman sees the Wheel-Elephants, he decides that wheels are sinful... no particular reason, he just arbitrarily doesn't think God will like it.  Also his God is a silly old angel that didn't actually create the universe and is killed by a soft breeze.  Unfortunately I find it odd that even when his books are so littered with Christian characters, none of them seem to give much thought to Jesus.  You know, the guy the religion is named after.  Get it, Christian?  There's a lot of thought to the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, not all that much to Christ or "love thy neighbor" or feeding the sick and all that.  "The Dark Materials" are a treatise against monotheism, especially Old Testament rules, not really all that much about the New Testament.   A true Christian would not have much to say with the Church or the God that Philip Pullman depicts here.  His anti-religious attacks ultimately come off as false and little more than humorous asides.

Pullman's trilogy is attempt to prove the ultimate importance of human beings in the universe.  Pullman attempts to replace a worship of gods with a worship of humanity.  Dust is a literal manifestation of human thought, which to Pullman is the most important force in the universe, not some concept of good or evil.  Of course, the story does still seem to have a moral center.  The morally ambiguous characters of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are swept aside into oblivion along with the central villain.  I'm not going to tell Pullman that rationality isn't a good enough religion, its nice to see he has something to believe in.  And hey, if you want to worship independent thought, go ahead.  Just don't assume that religions are naturally the enemy of such ideas.  People ultimately need something to believe in, something greater than themselves.  If Pullman is saying that believing in a god is wrong, he's no better than the evil corrupt Church he writes about.

"His Dark Materials" is not without worth, I'd say.  The idea of Daemons is pretty good, it makes for a convenient characterization tool.  For one, it gives characters a way to essentially talk with themselves, because Daemons are just physical manifestations of parts of their personality.  Unfortunately with the case of Lyra's Daemon, he loses all importance when Will comes into play.  Now Lyra has Will as a companion, she doesn't need a Daemon anymore.  Another plotpoint I thought was pretty good was a moment when Lyra and Will essentially tear Hell open allowing for the souls trapped there (which is all of them) to escape and fade into the rest of existence, becoming one with all things like scattered dust.  In this way Pullman actually attempts to make a case for how a more esoteric afterlife is preferable to the monotheistic ideas of heaven and hell.  I guess endless life can get boring after awhile.  Then there are armored bears, which are friggin awesome!

Seriously Pullman.  Forget about Lyra and Will and all that, just write about armored bears from now on.

* Some people read books.  I swallow them.  If the book is under 200 pages, I can easily be done with it in a single sitting at Barnes & Nobles Nibbles.  If I could find the other two parts of the Earthsea trilogy I could finally write a post about them.  Too bad.

** When I picture Lord Asriel I see Lancelot Tartaros from "Tactics Ogre".  Mostly because they both have insane names that are dripping with evil.  Asriel is named from "Azriel" the Angel of DEATH.  There's plenty of other religious symbolism throughout the books, even with some very obscure references like to the Book of Enoch (don't try looking for it in your family Bible, it isn't there).


  1. After watching the Earthsea movie by Goro Miyazaki, I wanted to read the novels, but I found out they were unknown in my country and were impossible to find.
    At one time, I was a book devourer too. Now I play video games.

  2. @Eri: I only could find the fourth and first books myself. I'll have to order the others online in order to read them, I fear.

    But my next reading task is going to be the impossible monstrosity that is Ayn Rand's masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged.

  3. Ha! Good luck. I could never bring myself to finish it. Not liking Ayn Rand's objectivism doesn't help either.

  4. I had no idea you like Zeta Gundam.

  5. Of course he likes Zeta Gundam. It's Zeta Gundam.

  6. You'll just have to wait to see my opinion of Zeta Gundam. I'm watching it now, got to wait until the end to finalize my thoughts. So far they aren't all that good.

  7. apparently in this book series next in line from god is metatron. where have i heard that before.... oh yeah Good Omens! Blue if you haven;t read Good Omens do yourself a favor and get it from the local Barnes & Nobles. you will laugh.

  8. I agree that the third book was a mess, but I really did like the first two. I think they're a bit more complex then you found them. And even if you think that humanity needs a higher power to believe in, you really can't deny with any credibility that organized religions are restrictive to human thought. And on this point, Pullman handles religion (or antireligion) much better than, say, C.S. Lewis.


  9. Good Omens is awesome. Hell, anything by Terry Pratchett is awesome.