His Dark Materials

imagesI recently finished the trilogy by Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials.” It is a set of books aimed at young adults, but when I saw the film of “The Golden Compass,” I found the ideas appealing enough to give the books a try. I was not disappointed.

Most of the action takes place in a parallel universe, in which people’s souls (or daemons) walk around outside them in animal form. The relationship between a human and its daemon is complex: they need to be in close spatial proximity in order for both to survive, and they sense one another’s emotions, but they have separate consciousnesses and have conversations with one another. If the psychic link between the two is severed, the daemon dies and the human becomes listless. We learn later that when a human is killed, its daemon turns evaporates into the cosmos while the human’s own spirit is sent to the land of the dead.

We also learn that some stuff called “Dust” permeates this world, and is somehow linked to consciousness, intelligence, and creativity. Humans produce it when they think, create, and initiate. An organization known as the Church is convinced that Dust is in fact Original Sin, and is reacting against it with fear and rage. Dust dates back to the first fall in Eden, it seems, or the emergence of consciousness in early hominids. Also around that time there was a rebellion of angels against God (or the Authority), and it seems that at least some angels are plotting a second revolution.

The Authority was once an angel, but somehow ascended to greater power and ruled the universe. But he grew old, and delegated most of his authority to a mean angel, known as Metatron. By the time we meet the Authority, he’s a benign, senile old fool, and he dies without much fanfare.

(Side note: I now understand why Zarathustra claims “God is dead” rather than that God doesn’t exist. Look at history: in the early days, if you read the Bible, God is active and effective. Later, he acts only through prophets and angels. By the time of the Reformation, he’s well-nigh invisible. Zarathustra is simply confirming what everybody should have suspected: by now, surely, the old man must be dead. We haven’t heard from him in millennia.)

Our world, and a few other worlds, get caught up in the drama as well, because a boy named Will (from our own world) comes into possession of the Subtle Knife, which allows its wielder to cut passage from one world to another. The problem is that whenever this happens, some Dust (known in our world as “dark matter”) starts spilling out through the cut. So Dust, overall, is declining in quantity, and worlds start falling apart, since somehow they need intelligence, perhaps as a human in Lyra’s world needs a daemon. Lyra and Will become second-generation Adam and Eve, though it is their job to preserve the Dust and frustrate the Church’s objectives.

There is fantastic imagery throughout: iron-clad polar bears, zeppelins, witches, tiny warriors riding dragonflies, and so on. It’s a very compelling story, and I’d love to be in a group exploring its many layers of metaphor.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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9 Responses to His Dark Materials

  1. Rob says:

    It’s striking to me that in Book 4 of TSZ Nietzsche has the Pope (in “Retired from Service” and “The Ass Festival”) articulate the particular points of your parenthetical side note, and I wonder if in your book on Spinoza’s theology you’ll be taking up Nietzsche humorously rendered point, at the end of AC 17, that Spinoza represents among thinkers the terminal phase in the “diminution of the divine”…


  2. Tami says:

    I was thinking about having the ducts and furnace blower cleaned. Shall I save the dust for you?


  3. Huenemann says:

    Yes, those sections of TSZ 4 do play out more of the themes of God hiding himself, acting sneakily, dying, disappearing. I just hadn’t thought of it in terms of judging God’s death by not having heard anything from him recently, like some distant grand uncle. Nice connection to Spinoza (I admire the rhetoric Nz uses toward him). I’;ll have to post later about my overall aim for the Spinoza book — the basic theme is that I think he has to be read as a religious reformer, not as someone who rejects his religious tradition.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Tami – yes, please do!


  5. rick says:

    I see the His Dark Materials as an equal to the first 3 Dune books, the Lord of the Rings and also the Chronicles of Narnia.

    I was very amazed at how well the movies were done. Sure they didn’t entirely adhere to the books, but the acting was believable and the polar bears were absolutely amazing.

    My first reading didn’t get any of the biblical or god connections. I am sickened to hear that some fundamental delusionists were criticizing it as an atheist Narnia. Well, that just spurned me on to buy the books for cousins and also to tell more people about them. I read the books sometime in 2001 and no one had heard of them. I passed my copies around to the point that they now look very withered with broken spines and all.

    The bottom line is that today there exists brilliant writers who are able to flourish in their lifetime via the quick path to press. They are able to volley back at critics and further the brilliant stories that have so quickly come into focus.


  6. Huenemann says:

    “Movies”? Is there more than “The Golden Compass”?


  7. Richard Greene says:

    Hey Charlie,
    Glad to hear that you are a fan of HDM. My former student, Rachel Robison, and I are editing a collection of articles on HDM for Open Court’s PCP series. If you would like to contribute a paper, we’d LOVE to have something from you.

    FYI, The Golden Compass is the only movie so far. There is ongoing discussion of completing the trilogy, but nothing official. A good source of HDM info can be found at http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/

    If you do start a group to discuss the books, I’d love to participate.



  8. Nancy says:

    i’m interested to hear your opinion of these books.
    i initially read them several (maybe 7-10 ) years ago when they were first getting big, and though i found the imagrey and intellecutal/religious subtext interesting, i found the writing somewhat dull and quite confusing, and the protagonist completely unsympathetic. i read all three, and liked the last one best, which apparently is not the norm.
    benny convinced me to try them again when the movie came out, and i couldn’t even make it through the first. i just can’t get past lyra, who irritates me deeply, and the totally obscure and incompetent adults who surround her. if i were a kid lyra’s age, i’d want to punch her, just like everyone else seems to want to do.
    the only redeeming character for me was the polar bear, who is sadly absent for almost all of the second book.


  9. Huenemann says:

    To each his/her own, I guess! I really fell for Lyra and Will, and indeed all the characters. The writing wasn’t noteworthy, but certainly competent, and the storyline compelling enough to get me to turn pages. The only complaint I had was the author has absolutely no ear for how cowboys talk, so nearly everything Lee Scoresby said sounded awkward. (Sam Elliot made up for it in the film, though.)

    Then again, I do realize that I am very poorly read, so I’m probably easy to please.


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