Series review: His Dark Materials

I remember my first encounter with this series. I’d just finished my summer reading journal for the library and I pulled The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman as my free book. I read it a little while later, when we headed off on our houseboat trip in Canada. So… 2004?

Years later, when the movie came out, my mom asked me about it. She wanted to know if they really killed God in the end of the series. I couldn’t really remember, but there was controversy in the Christian community about whether the series was OK to read or not. Now, with HBO making a tv series out of it, I decided to come back and give it another read.

The series starts with The Golden Compass and follows Lyra, a young girl living in an alternate London. Her life has always been full of adventure and capers with her friend, Roger, and her daemon, Pan. But then the adults around her start getting interested in this elusive “dust,” and children are going missing. Lyra finds herself joining with unlikely allies as she dodges from one danger to another, trying to rescue Roger, save the children, and figure out what’s got everyone so upset.

In the Subtle Knife, Lyra has accomplished what she set out to do, but now she’s alone in another world. Until she runs into Will, a boy her own age who escaped his own London, and wants nothing more than to uncover the mystery of his father’s disappearance. Together, they have to navigate new worlds, overcome new obstacles, and find ways to reunite with their friends who can help them.

The Amber Spyglass wraps up the story with everyone coming together for one great battle in an attempt to bring freedom to all the worlds. But first, they have to visit the world of the dead, and try to escape with their lives. Will and Lyra have some final allies to meet, and one final challenge, which proves to be the hardest of all.

I can’t lie, after reading the series again, I’d be find if The Golden Compass was simply a stand-alone novel (though, it would need a better ending. You can’t end a stand-alone with a gaping hole at the end). The series dabbles with some interesting ideas, but even as an adult, I found myself struggling to piece it all together and grasp the overarching theme. Dust is such a driving force in the first book, but then sort of takes a backseat until the very end, when it has a role to play in the story wrap up. Maybe I’d just need to read the series again, slower, in order to get all the allegory. But, then, the kids reading the series are sure to miss all that, too.

As far as the question of killing God in the end, while the series does suggest that it’s the Christian and/or Catholic religion they are after, it is still a work of fiction. In Pullman’s series, his version of god is an angel who took over and raised himself above the rest, and has since been intervening in the material world, setting rules for morality and passing judgment. As he weakened, he set his right hand in charge. In the end (forgive the spoiler), no one actually kills the Authority, as they call him. He just floats away, as all Pullman’s angels do when they die. The right hand, who is never referred to as god, is cast into a void. So, while parents will have to make choices as their convictions lead, I really don’t see it as problematic. I never thought of it as commentary on my Christian faith as a kid, and I don’t think of it that way now. I’m inclined more to suggest that it’s an opportunity to discuss the idea of fiction versus truth, and how fiction is different than lies. This is a fantasy series, no one is supposed to believe it’s speaking truth or reality.

Anyway, as far as the series goes, it’s a fun read, though as I said, it gets a little muddy on what the important themes are. The characters have depth, though, and it forces you to consider, what does repentance (for lack of a better word) mean, and does a life time of bad choices make it impossible for someone to change or make a good choice?

All in all, not a series I feel the need to have on my shelf, but not one I feel the need to blacklist, either.

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