I finished up reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy during the Christmas holidays. It was a heavy tome, so I’m glad I’m not carrying it around anymore. I was essentially carrying a bag with me everywhere just to accommodate it. But I liked it, I really liked it… then I loved it.
Without doubt it’s one of the most stirring, imaginative and engaging series I have ever read. Its reputation, for the longest time, is what put me off reading it. Its reputation was so good that I had no interest in jumping on the bandwagon. I didn’t want to read it because it was so widely read. That and the abysmal film effort.
It’s a series that can be, and is, read by teens, as well as a more mature audience. After reading it I honestly don’t know how any teen would adequately absorb its many nuances, and many there certainly are. I have often heard the argument that you had to have read it/seen it/played it as a child, with an open imagination, to fully appreciate a work of art. That’s a load of b*llocks. It’s the authors job to make sure it’s as engaging to older readers as to the younger crew. Pullman does this very well. The only thing that anyone who hasn’t read it before could possibly be missing out on is a sense of nostalgia on a second perusal. I do, however, plan to read this again at some stage of my life, so I might be treated to a dose of nostalgia yet.
In short, it’s almost the perfect story. Childhood, growing up, relationships, love and death are all constant companions in this epic. It manages a perfect blend of new-age religion, spirituality and theoretical science, and the challenges that face each.
It might be unfair to discuss or criticise the series as a whole as it’s comprised of three separate titles: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
And no, the books are not equally great. The Amber Spyglass is better than the others in many ways, but lacks a lot of the imaginative character of the previous two. Northern Lights is the most typically straight-forward, being the foundation of it all, with a feeling that Pullman hadn’t exactly decided where he was going with his story either when he started or finished it. The Subtle Knife, however, puts you on the deliberate course you wanted with a lot of “Ah! It all makes sense now!” moments, and The Amber Spyglass takes you home neatly. Pullman feeds you the right amount of these revelations at the right times throughout the series. And lots of action.
Now, after saying all that, yet not discussing any part of the story (intentionally; it’s so good you shouldn’t need a blurb) it must be said that the series directly speaks to a part of our condition, our mortality, yada yada yada, and the lonely burden of it all. It’s all very Robert Frost and his Mending Wall. If you aren’t up for feeling a little less impressed with your reality, then maybe give it a miss. If you do persevere, I can tell you when you close the covers you will feel infinite sadness, dejection and then slowly, but surely, transcendant optimism creeps in.
One last tip if you’re going to take the plunge, maybe buy one volume at a time so it’s easier to carry rather than getting the hefty compiled trilogy!