His Dark Materials
Phillip Pullman, 1995-2000
I don’t really have a sense of how popular His Dark Materials is, so perhaps I should start out by saying that it is an young adult fantasy trilogy in three volumes: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Its protagonists, as in all young adult fantasy, are children who find out that their parents are far more important than they thought, that they themselves possess strange powers, and that they must go on an epic journey to strange lands where they will encounter strange creatures and mortal perils, and who will find that the fate of the entire world(s) rests on their shoulders.
Aside from this basic skeleton, however, His Dark Materials goes way beyond replicating the conventions of its genre. For one thing, it handles the ecology, the interior logic, of a fantasy setting – in the first book, a vaguely steampunk alternative Earth created before anyone was using the word “steampunk” – about as well as I’ve seen it done. Rich local settings are established with closely observed details; the impression of a large and complex surrounding world is created by gesture – unadorned references to places, events, and entities that, for the characters, are too familiar to need elaboration. For another, Pullman rounds out his secondary characters very nicely with dialog. He doesn’t need to explain their personalities or motives to us; we can tell who they are from what they say. In other words, he’s a very good writer.
Beyond this, Pullman has the audacity to assume that young adults might have intellectual leanings. The whole trilogy is interwoven with Paradise Lost; I would tell you more about this if I had actually read Paradise Lost. I haven’t, but I like that Pullman thinks that I, or the young adults of my acquaintance, might want to consider doing so. I like that the fantasy aspects of his plot are linked to concepts of theoretical physics, with the assumption that we readers might have heard of these ideas and found them interesting. I’m frankly a little amazed that the staunch critique of religious culture implied in the books, along with its fairly radical theological notions – God (yes, that God) makes a deeply unflattering cameo appearance in the third book – ever found an American publisher.
And, it has sentient armored polar bears, which is awesome.
So there is no point dancing around the obvious question. And yes, His Dark Materials is far more sophisticated, better written, more literary, and all-around a superior creative achievement than the best-selling multi-volume young adult fantasy series of our times. It is, though, something of an unfair comparison – Dark Materials [note: I just typed “Dork Materials,” aptly enough] is written for an older young adult from the get-go, and does not have to deal with a legacy of children’s literature into its second and third volumes. Too, it achieves more because it aims higher and asks more from its readers. I love this about it.
So, with all this behind it, it’s a pity I don’t find the series as a whole just a bit more satisfying. The real culprit is The Amber Spyglass, the third volume. As events culminate, Pullman gets up a terrific head of steam, adding more and more elements to an intricate crisis. At about the point where you might expect some move towards reconciliation of the plot elements and the onset of some sort of resolution, though, he keeps throwing more balls into the air. I’m no young adult, alas! …and I have the gall to consider myself a fairly able reader, but halfway through The Amber Spyglass, I was becoming very challenged in my ability to keep track of what the hell all was going on.
And then – at the end of this deeply smart creation, steeped in history, literature, science, and anthropology – something brazenly banal happens, and as a result, the problems of the universe are solved. It feels like an extravagantly arbitrary stress on the structure of the narrative. It’s as if All Quiet on the Western Front ended with a little girl asking why people have wars, and none of the grown-ups being able to explain it to her, and this made everyone realize that war is bad, so it disappeared forever. I don’t exaggerate by much, and the only thing I can think of is that the finale would make more sense if I had Paradise Lost under my belt. From where I stand now, however, His Dark Materials is a beautifully woven fictional tapestry that gets mangled by internal stresses in the final act.
Nevertheless, this is a highly worthwhile reading both for its ambition and for many excellent vignettes, explorations, and episodes to be savored en route to the ultimate train wreck. I would highly recommend it to the young people and their natural allies in my life, if it hadn’t been them that recommended it to me.