Book Thoughts: His Dark Materials Trilogy

His Dark Materials was a trilogy of fantasy books by Philip Pullman. The first two books came out quickly, The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK) in 1996, and the Subtle Knife came out in 1997. The Amber Spyglass, the last book, took a few years, releasing in 2000. I got The Golden Compass right before a two week fishing trip with my grandpa and uncle. I was pretty nervous because I had rarely been anywhere without my parents longer than a day or two. My mom saw the book on a list of children’s fiction either at the library or from my school. I needed a book to pass the time in the long car ride. The trip was two weeks, but a full week was probably just travelling. It was good that I was a slow reader because the book kept me occupied the whole time.

The Golden Compass was surprising as a children’s book because my mom was interested in reading it. I don’t know of any other children’s books I had that she read other than the later Harry Potter books. I don’t remember how I got the second book, The Subtle Knife. I probably asked for it for Christmas, but my mom may have bought it outside of Christmas because I know she read the books at some point.

I received The Amber Spyglass, the third book, as a gift for my birthday from one of my best friends. It was kind of bittersweet because he was moving across the whole country. I knew I wouldn’t see him much after that and would probably lose touch eventually. That did end up happening. After four years or so, I lost contact and don’t know what happened to him. He gave me a pretty good gift. Somehow it had come up in conversation earlier in the year that I had read the first two books. He had also read it, so we talked about the story. That got him the idea to get me the third book. The author had said it would be out by the end of 1999, but the book was delayed. It didn’t come out until early 2000. By that time my friend had already moved away. I think he was able to ship it to me, or maybe their moving was delayed a few months. Because of how I got The Amber Spyglass, it reminds of that friend.

When I first read them I found these books hard to follow because they were so detailed. Unlike Harry Potter, the writing was quite a bit more complex. These were children’s books, but the writing was much closer to the adult level. I read all three books but only really understood bits and pieces of the story the first time. The details were lost on me. I didn’t have the patience then to make sure I understood everything. I just wanted to finish the books.

The story was so confusing because most of the time they took place in fantasy worlds that were only slightly different from our real world or history. There could be references to many things I heard in real life with just enough changes to cause confusion. For example, one fantasy world was going through the age of the steam engine. In that world, there was no United States. Texas was a country of its own. I had a hard enough trouble keeping the real world straight, let alone these fantasy worlds.

Overall, I didn’t get much out of His Dark Materials the first time I read them. They collected dust on my bookshelf for years. However, this past year, I wanted to write my thoughts on them and realized I barely remembered anything from the books. I needed to read them again. It was nice being able to understand things. I took my time to re-read any passages that didn’t make sense the first time. I wanted to get everything out of these books. I’m glad I did because I found a deep story here.

The story was about a pair of child heroes Lyra and Will. The Golden Compass was entirely about Lyra and her world. She took on the selfless task of rescuing several children that had been kidnapped. I really wished the author had drawn a map for Lyra’s world because many names of real world countries and people were changed in her world. Her world had a steampunk setting, with flying zeppelins and trains. The book’s namesake came from the “alethiometer” (golden compass) that Lyra found on her journey. It was a special device that could give her answers to any question she presented it with.

The Subtle Knife introduced the character of Will, the second hero. He was from a world pretty much the same as the real world, with modern day countries and technologies. Both Lyra and Will found a entrances from their own unique worlds into another, mostly abandoned world, where they met. Just like The Golden Compass, the name of the book came from a special item, a knife that could cut through anything on one half of the blade or open portals to new worlds with the other half. Only Will could use it, just as only Lyra could use the golden compass (alethiometer). I found the story wandered a bit too much in this second book. For the most part, it was just about Lyra and Will trying to survive on their own while finding their purpose in life. While many of their adventures were interesting, many of them didn’t play a big part in the overall story.

The Amber Spyglass was quite a bit longer than the first two books, perhaps too long. There was enough in there to split it into two books. That would have required four books though. Perhaps the publisher and author liked the idea of a trilogy more. A fourth book may have been a hard sell. Another thing I disliked was how much time was spent on romance. It was just a little too thick in the last few chapters. The Amber Spyglass itself was a special item a new character had created that allowed her to see the life force that surrounded all conscious (intelligent) beings. There was something wrong with the life force that if not fixed would result in all intelligent life becoming unintelligent, just like regular animals. Lyra and Will, being the heroes, were the key to solving this problem.

I didn’t know it when I read these books back when they were new, but there was some controversy in the story. I barely understood the story, let alone had the ability to see controversy in the text. However, after reading it these last few weeks, I was able to see. A huge part of the story was about a corrupt Christian Church. In the story, God was actually false. He was the first being that became conscious. When others became conscious, he told them he was their creator, but he was just a normal being. Again according to the story, all that the Church taught on restraint and abstinence had the only purpose to keep people down, to not threaten God, who was actually no god at all.

Now the story in these books was all fictional, but enough words and concepts were taken from the real Christian Church, especially the Catholic Church, that it was clear the author, Philip Pullman, was trying to teach readers to question authority. After a little research, I found out Philip Pullman is an active atheist. It’s no surprise he would express his views in his writing. It’s concerning that he would do this in children’s books though because children are easily swayed. I never saw this when I first read the books, but I don’t remember my mom talking to me about it either. In most cases, I don’t think books will influence kids, but they can reinforce what kids are seeing elsewhere.

As an adult, I saw the story’s anti-Christian sentiment as an interesting exercise to think about. I fully believe in the Catholic faith and would never turn from it, so there was no threat in reading it. I found it interesting how the author constructed this conspiracy of a false god that had misled people to restrict their actions. If it was true that there was no god, I would definitely agree that many rules we follow would be of no use, but I do believe God exists. Unfortunately, so many people these days do not believe in God, and the world seems to be getting worse.

As far as kids reading these books, I think it would be okay, but the parents would need to be involved to make sure their children didn’t get confused or misled. Parents and children could take turns reading a chapter and then discussing it each week. They could do an exercise to compare the Christian Church and religious beliefs in the book with what the Catholic Church stands for in real life. This all would require a lot of time spent by the parents though. I think it would be bad for Catholic parents to just give these books to their children and expect them to understand everything. The age to read these books would also need to be higher than for a series like Harry Potter. Instead of age 8 or so, somewhere around age 13 or 14 would be best, again with parental supervision.

I had seen it here and there, but the title of this trilogy, His Dark Materials, was kind of disconcerting. This ties back into the atheist views of Philip Pullman. I think this name was an in-universe title of what the Church in the story would call these writings. Since these materials defied the Church’s teachings, they would have considered them heresy. His Dark Materials would be a fitting name because they were written by Satan (His), dark because they persuaded the reader to abandon their beliefs and commit sin. This is just my theory though. Maybe the author has said why it’s called this, but I haven’t read anything about that.

Overall, I really liked the adventure in this story, but I would have made it more positive. God would not be a sham but the truth. It would be fine to show corruption in the Church, but the children would be finding the truth of God and then spreading that truth to correct the Church and all other misguided people. There was nothing wrong with all the fantasy stuff, like multiple dimensions (worlds), talking bears, witches, and more. It was only the religious stuff that was too close to reality, giving the wrong sort of message.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind the story as is if the author just changed the words to not be the same as real life entities. Instead of saying God, the false god could have had some other name. The book could have been about looking at the evidence to see for yourself what’s real. I have done that myself in the real world and it has confirmed that God exists. Like the life force in the story, it is just a feeling that I know despite not being able to point to it or show proof to anyone. These books weren’t perfect, but I still enjoyed them quite a bit.


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