Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS (spoilers likely)

In the thread about newer writers mocking older ones in their work, we’ve started talking about Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel trilogy His Dark Materials. Someone’s suggested we start an HDM thread to avoid a further hijack, and as I’ve been meaning to start a thread on Pullman for a while now, I guess I’m elected.

First let me give my overall reaction to the books. Volume I, The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), is pretty damn brilliant. Volume II, The Subtle Knife, is excellent but flawed. And Volume III, The Amber Spyglass, is a confused rushed mishmash with flashes of genius. Overall Pullman would have benefited from four things:

  1. Spreading the story out over four volumes rather than three;
  2. A firmer editor reminding him who his protagonist was;
  3. That same editor to force him to do a major rewrite of TAS to eliminate continuity errors and plot holes; and
  4. A good therapist to get him over his Lewis-envy.

I’ll post more thoughts later; I just wanted to get the thread started to gauge the interest of the group.

Here’s a link to that other thread, since some good comments have already been made over there. (Anybody who hasn’t already done so should read at least posts #25–31.)

Count me among those who were impressed by the first two volumes and disappointed with the third. The series started out strong but didn’t live up to its promise. It’s been to long since I’ve read it for me to explain why. And even right after I finished it, I remember thinking I would have had to read it again in order to give a fair, complete, well-thought-out criticism of what I thought was wrong with it. Which I may still get around to doing some day, because I suspect it may be worth it.


It’s one of my favorite trilogies.

Yeah, it has some shoddy spots, and yeah, most of them hit you in Amber Spyglass.
• It’s a bad idea to simultaneously cast your adversary as the Personification of Evil and also as a Doddering Irrelevancy. I mean, I suppose it could be done well, but it seldom is, and Pullman didn’t. I’m fine with God being the evil force from which the world must be liberated, and the cause of much of its agonies and pain, but having a toothless demented old Divine Geezer falling out of his carriage just weakened the whole damn series. Deflecting current-era antagonism off towards the Lieutenant-Personification and Acting Representative of Divine Evil didn’t fix that in any appreciable way.

• Similarly, the buildup of Lyra as the return of Eve set the stage for something truly huge, and he either backed away from it or wasn’t up to the task. You do that, you cast her in the most decisive role of the most central confrontation between good and evil (whatever that might happen to be); and we already had it down that God is actually the bringer of evil suffering and pain, so there’s all kind of room in which to tease out what the original confrontation had been about — did it result in the (phony) establishment of God as the epitome of the good Authority? Will Lyra, in this rematch, upend that, and expose God throughout the land for what he is? Instead, we get this rather wimpy thing about invading the land of the dead and making it possible for the dead to actually die instead of being tortured for eternity, and no backstory. Bleah.

• Those nastly soul-sucker ghost-vampire things of Pullman’s and the dementors of Rowling’s Harry Potter universe must be twins separated at birth or something. Not pointing any fingers here one way or the other, but the odd thing is that in both cases they just seem to be here almost by accident, yet they dwarf the intentionally evil (or evil as a consequence of seeking power and authority) folks and all that they spawn. Maybe that was Pullman’s intent, or accurately reflects his true belief about evil in the world, but it adds to the cluttering-up and diffusion of message. Instead of being a compelling rendition of a different vision of good vs evil — clearer and more challenging than a nonfiction book of philosophical theory on the subject— the trilogy is made a much murkier tale of a bunch of interesting things that happened to some ordinary and fantastic characters in some ordinary and fantastic settings.

I read the entire trilogy about five years agon and I greatly enjoyed it, but with a series so dense in metaphor and literary reference, I’m sure that I missed most of the true meaning and insight. Now I have only a fairly vague memory of the plot and characters. I’ve been meaning to reread it, but every time I get the inclination, I start thinking that I should read Paradise Lost first so that I’ll be able to understand what Pullman is rebuking/modifying.

This is exactly what childrens’ fantasy doesn’t need. In the face of constant accusations by the fundies that fantasy encourages rejection of God, we have an author who writes books that encourage rejection of God. He’s giving the fundies just what they want, and that’s going to make it all the easier for them to attack Harry Potter, Narnia, Prydain, Middle-Earth, and all the other good fantasy out there.

So what? Sure, the idiots will attack, but those people haven’t read Pullman. They have never heard of him.

One gripe I had was that Metatron as the main villain behind the Authority was introduced far too late, barely featured, and then was killed off too easily: this guy is supposed to be all-powerful, God’s Regent, the motivating force behind every repressive church on every world, able to see into people’s souls and strip them bare, and yet falls for a hot chick and allows himself to be lured to the edge of a convenient precipice. C’mon, that’s the oldest trick in the book.

I think Asriel’s characterisation was rather flawed, too: I mentioned his murder of Roger in the other thread, but at the end of The Northern Lights he tells Mrs Coulter he’s off to destroy Dust rather than preserve it: it’s fudged a little later by his telling Mrs Coulter that he wanted to persuade her to come with him, yet that seems inconsistent considering that at the time he didn’t seem to give a rat’s arse whether she came or not.

And why his constant hostility towards Lyra? OK, all he knew at the outset was that she was both his daughter and a stroppy lying brat, but surely by the time she’d busted up the operation at Bolvangar and then tricked Iorek Byrnison back on to his throne he’d have had more respect for her.

I get the feeling that Pullman himself didn’t know where he was going with this Dust thing, or who Lord Asriel was: probably the series biggest weakness is that the books feel as if they were written one at a time rather than as a whole series, with him developing his ideas as he went. Which is all well and good, but the final trilogy reads like a first draft of a series: I think that he really needed to go back and rewrite the series just to clarify such points and iron out the inconsistencies.

As I said in the earlier thread, The Amber Spyglass needed to be split into at least two books - perhaps end the first one with Mrs Coulter sneaking off to Metatron and promising to betray Asriel, if Pullman wanted to go that way. That way the fourth volume could begin with her double-cross and Metatron’s defeat, and still leave the rest of the book to resolve the whole Eve deal with Lyra and Dust: kill off Father Gomez, get Will and Lyra together, save the world{s}, then bust them up again.

Sorry, but I can’t agree. For one thing, I don’t think HDM is truly a children’s fantasy series; it’s a series that happens to have child protagonists. Its tone, its diction, its themes, its subtext – all are significantly more sophisticated than Narnia (though not Lewis’ best work) or the Potter novels. For density of language and thought, HDM is more comparable to Lord of the Rings, which is also mis-identified as a children’s book. (Not being familiar with Prydain, I won’t comment on it.)

Second, despite my arch words in the OP, I think HDM has a lot to recommend it, both in terms of its writing and its themes. It isn’t an anti-spiritual tome; it’s anti-establishment, anti-church. Though I can’t agree with his atheism, I can agree with some of his criticism of the attitudes of many strains of theology (even though he creates a straw-man by his alternate history of the western european xtian church).

Third, you’re right that many fundamentalists will seize upon Pullman’s work on as proof of the irreligiousity of children’s fantasy – but so what? As this link by a Lewis-hater shows,, persons seeking an enemy or a threat assiduously enough will find one even if they must manufacture ghosts. Persons antagonistic to any remotely heterodox view of Christianity or spirituality are going to be hostile to fantasy literature, whether it’s as innocuous as the Narnia books or as provocative as HDM.

A major problem with Asriel is that Pullman can’t decide what sort of bastard he is. By making Lyra very likeable (and he does accomplish that; the characterizations of Lyra, Will, and Iorek are his best work), he automatically arouses the reader’s ire toward Asriel; the murder of Roger is bad enough, but Asriel’s constant belittling of her, his constant mocking of her abilities, his downright cruelty, make him a bad thematic choice to lead the supposedly heroic rebellion against the Authority. I cheered inside when Lyra told Asriel off near the end of Golden Compass; and every time Asriel belittled her in Spyglass, I couldn’t help thinking, “Try saying that in front of Iorek Byrnison, cocksucker. You’ll get to do it once. Once. And the only reason you’ll survive saying it the first time is that Iorek will want to explain to you why he’s killing you so you realize just what a jackass you are.”

(What Amber Spyglass needs, actually, is more Iorek. I agree that it should have been split into two volumes, and that would have created more space for Iorek as a better adult figure for Lyra. Not a father figure; he’s too wise to try to be that for her, not because he doesn’t love her, but because he knows that Lyra must grow up as a human, not a bear, and he could not permit her passionate but inexperienced love for him to stunt her maturity.)

Anyway…Asriel. And Mrs. Coulter, for that matter. Pullman’s problem was that he made them both far too unsympathetic, as that undercuts them as heroes in their battle against the Authority. I didn’t believe for a moment that Mrs. Coulter had truly changed–by which I mean that I accept that it’s true for purposes of the story, but it’s impossible to reconcile the vision of Mrs. Coulter from Compass and the first half of Spyglass with the one suddenly in love with her daughter in the latter half of AS. I have to fanwank it; the Mrs. Coulter from the latter half of of AS is a counterpart from another reality who has gotten lost in between worlds. And I don’t like this fanwank; it’sfar too arbitrary. As we’ve said a few times already, AS needs a major rewrite and probably a splitting in two and extension.

Another thing that would have been nice would have been someone acknowledging that Lord Asriel’s rebellion was, in essence, no better than the Authority’s tyranny. Asriel’s escape starts with the completely unjust murder of an innocent, and I don’t believe that any enterprise that begins so can remain uncorrupted. (And, of course, Asriel and Coulter are corrupt from the get-go. Did Pullman expect us to forget that Mrs. Coulter was behind the excision process, and ultimately responsible for the heartbreaking suffering of Tony Makairos? That she tortured Serafina Pekkala’s sister witch? Or did HE forget?)

Like I said in the OP: the third book is rushed. It needed a better editor.

I never forgot it. I had nightmares about that scene. Ack.

The bit where it turns out the gypsies have thrown his fish to the dogs made me cry.

Ah, yes. What a happily-named website for a guy talking through his ass.

I think it’s a woman, but yeah.

That’s a silly criticism - atheists shouldn’t make atheism a theme of their books because it will encourage theists to believe that the atheists are atheist? I thought that was the point…

She lost me at World piano covers II…

You live and learn.

I also saw her mentioned on a Gor website I occasional. (Hey, if “frequent” can be a verb then I think “occasional” should be as well.) I was amazed by the complete and utter lack of accuracy she managed to cram in to a page or two about Gor, both about the fiction and the lifestyle. That takes talent.

I guess wouldn’t have flown as a website, though.


Totally agree with your analysis here. The Golden Compass floored me when I read it. Just a harrowing book. Subtle Knife developed the story in IMO intriguing directions (I know a lot of people don’t like when fantasy stories cross over into “our” world, but I thought this series could have really made something of it) but also seemed to be spiraling beyond the author’s control as he constantly introduced new ideas and characters but didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Amber Spyglass was a total comedown that practically tanks the entire series for me. It reads like a rough draft, rife with plot inconsistencies and character motivations that make no sense given the preceding books. Metatron as a villain is just a nonentity. And Pullman doesn’t even seem to care that the story is deteriorating, as long he can get in his jabs at religious people.

Honestly, I tell people to pick up The Golden Compass, pretend the other books don’t exist, and just imagine their own continuation of the story.

What’s with all the random blips dotted in the middle of words and other places? Ofblipally? What the hell? That is a very confused woman.

As far as the actual topic goes, I enjoyed HDM, but the last book was really strange. The part with Father Gomez was so brief, I felt like it should either have not been there or expanded.
I didn’t think that Lyra and Will got it on, so to say. But maybe that’s because I think they were only like 11 or 12, so it’s kind of an uncomfortable thought.

I only read the first - and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go on. Even during that book, there were things that were picked up, kind of half developed and then dropped or contradicted by the end of the book. (The golden compass itself being an example of that) The book ended up not feeling internally consistent and I assumed the same would hold even more true over the course of the series.

That, and I found Lyra entirely unlikeable, not in a “love to hate” way but in an annoying gnat kind of way. Her flaws were too great for me to want to read another book about her. Does she get better over the course of the series?