Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dark Materials (at last)

I have been waiting to write this review for what seems like years. I was pointed to these books by a friend, back before the third book was published in 2000, and we read them aloud as a family (I say 'we' and for a change this did include my ex in the experience, I remember having to hand over the book when I was crying too much at the end to carry on reading). The books have been an ongoing passion for Creature, read and re-read to the point of memorisation, listening to the tapes on long journeys and then several years ago we went to Oxford and spent four hours queueing in the rain for an open casting for the part of Lyra when the films were planned. I sat in horror as we watched the closing scene of The Golden Compass as I realised to what extent they were going to butcher the story, so lets not go there (though to give due credit most of the actors were well chosen for the parts and the characters, if not the plot, were excellently executed). Over the last couple of weeks I have been listening to the tapes again while painting in my bedroom so have come back to a review I started a couple of years ago and decided to finish it.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy consists of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The first, Northern Lights, tells the tale of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, who live in a world like this one but different, their life at Jordan College and how political changes come to their world and take them away from everything they know. She is an ignorant wild child with a mysterious background who by simple childish curiosity finds herself caught up in monumental changes. Learning to use the alethiometer, which communicates with Dust, she travels with the gyptians to the far north, the land of the northern lights, and armoured bears and witches. And her father Lord Asriel, who blasts an opening into another world and leads Lyra into the second book. The Subtle Knife introduces Will, who lives in 'our world', but who's search for his missing father leads him quite by chance to find a window through which he enters another, where he encounters Lyra. Although they think they have their own tasks to pursue they find themselves inexplicably bound together. Will unintentionally finds himself in possession of the Subtle Knife, which cuts openings between worlds, and with the help of the witches they set off in search of his father. In the third book the story diverges on many paths: in one Lyra has been taken by Mrs Coulter and hidden in a far distant mountain cave, to protect her from the evil intentions of the church; in another we follow Will as he travels in search of her; in a third there is Mary Mallone, a research scientist from Will's world who learned from Lyra how to communicate with dark matter, and who travels to the world of the Mulefa and who has a vital role to play in the unfolding events; and finally we have the republic established by Lord Asriel in yet another world, from where a great army is gathering to fight the might of the established church. Oh yes, and then there's Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey, beautiful and wicked, a threatening presence throughout the story, until she redeems herself at the end.

Now that is a really brief summary of the story, go to Wiki if you want more details, and a full rundown of the cast of characters, because there is so much more to it than a fantasy story about two children. It is an exploration of philosophical, metaphysical and religious ideas. It is a challenge to the whole idea of religion, and the effect that it has had on humanity. And yet at the same time it creates the idea that religion is real, we meet 'God' and the angels and go to the land of the dead. He embraces the idea that there is more to life than we can know or understand, but seems to conclude with the idea that it is our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings that should be the defining feature of what makes life good and worthwhile. 

I think that what marks out good fantasy writing (if this can strictly be called fantasy, I am not so sure) is that the world that is created and the ideas within it are complete, logical and coherent. It is what is so good about the Discworld, and what is weak about the Harry Potter books. Things that happen have to be credible within the confines of the imaginary creation. This is something that Philip Pullman achieves spectacularly and on an impressive scale. Sometimes he waffles a bit and occasionally the story moves too slowly, but you can forgive him those things. He never talks down to his readers and does not shy away from being demanding or intellectual. Having said that two things remain unanswered questions for me: firstly the idea of daemons, and the nature of their physical presence. They seem to be real solid creatures, but how do they come into being, are they born with the person and yet on death they vanish into nothingness. And secondly I was left very disquieted by his idea of death, of the idea of a consciousness left trapped in the world of the dead. And his solution was the one thing that, when I thought about it further, was unsatisfying: if there are an infinite number of universes and thus an infinite number of dead souls, and only one exit, you could still wait an infinite time in the land of the dead. Or does the soul not have a sense of time passing. I am not sure, but it still sounds unbearable. It is essentially what makes me an atheist, that the concept of eternity is non sensical to a human being, and non existence is preferable to an eternity of anything, even paradise. This is what I like about the books, that they cause you to think about such big questions. But also it's not just to be clever; it is such a great story and appeals to the child in you that wants there to be more to life, for there to be adventure and discoveries, for there to be a purpose to life and a heroic task to undertake, for there to be magic.

I could quote all sorts of things, we must have a hundred favourite moments from the story but I will give you this as a taster, from The Subtle Knife, Will finding the window:

"The cat stepped forward, and vanished.
Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came round the circle and swept it's lights over him. When it had gone passed he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn't easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it.
At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two metres from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a metre across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could only see it from the side nearest the road, and you couldn't see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a street light.
But Will knew without the slightest doubt that the patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.
He couldn't have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly that he knew fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien.
And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn't hesitate: he pushed his shopping bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another." (p14-15)

You can pop back to Midsummers Day 2009 when we took a visit to Will and Lyra's bench in the Botanical Gardens in Oxford, which is another of my most visited posts. I am guessing that, even though it is 12 years since the final book was published, there were a few people gathering the other day to sit on the bench, just as we did.

1 comment:

  1. It's a fantastic read, isn't it? As for the film I found myself just watching, rather than listening to it. Visually, it really captures the spirit of the book, plotwise, well that's films of books for you.

    As for the idea of eternity being nonsensical, I rather like what the scientist JBS Haldane said, that "... my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

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