His Dark Materials – The Search For a Difficult Pleasure

I should really write two or three blogs this week, because there are lots and lots of words and stories presenting themselves as important to me recently. I’m trying (and failing in a spectacular fashion) to compose a short story for The Vanderbilt Review by this weekend, and the only reasons I haven’t yet entirely quit are the brilliant author pep talks on the website for National Novel Writing Month. When I compare my particular case of writer’s block with the hopelessness of trying to piece together an entire novel… there’s some schadenfreude  for sure.

                As I scrolled through the list of literature lovers whose essays are intended for encouragement in this month of inane novel production (by the way, some people really look like authors. Is there something I can do to be like them?), several names caught my eye as old favorites: Neil Gaiman, Brian Jacques, John Green, Garth Nix, Robin McKinley, Philip Pullman. Having been away from these authors for a while, I decided to revisit Pullman’s His Dark Materials over break. This trilogy of “young adult” novels is filled to bursting with literary allusions and a coming-of-age story for children and adults alike. As Pullman himself remarked, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” Too true, especially when your theme is a rebuttal of the central themes of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a celebration of the original sin that Milton and centuries of church teachings have condemned.

                What’s the story of these novels, Nathan?  I hear you asking. While it would take more than a full blog to do any justice to the story, the basic premise of the first book, The Golden Compass, begins with Lyra, the trilogy’s protagonist. Her uncle’s experiments and studies on a mysterious substance called “Dust” (eventually found to be the equivalent of our dark matter, but also the source of consciousness and, in the eyes of the church, the manifestation of original sin) lead her into a battle for the human soul as the Magisterium (Pullman’s church establishment) seeks to destroy this Dust, unknowing of the consequences for human consciousness.

The plot thickens when Will, a boy from our world, accidentally finds his way through a rift between universes into a third (the second and third novels take place in a variety of universes, traversed through rifts torn in the fabric of space, by the way) where Lyra is taking shelter. Their intertwined journeys introduce character after character based off of those from Milton’s work, from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and from older European folklore. In the interest of convincing first-timers to read through all three (the second and third of which are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), that’s where we’ll stop, but I will say that the allegory present in books two and three is impressive in scale and incredibly thought-provoking.

                A young adult epic on the rebellion of two children against the powers of organized religion is bound to provoke criticism, and His Dark Materials does not disappoint (though its admittedly much more subversive themes attracted relatively little attention next to the harmless Harry Potter series). Banned from many a school system library, Pullman’s works bring to mind the Oscar Wilde quote: “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Indeed, the controversial nature of the story is the foremost reason to read it – Pullman presents two young characters with compelling growth and a coming-of-age story engaging to younger readers, set amidst a philosophically gargantuan conflict and a three-novel-scale commentary on the true nature of consciousness and sin in the human experience. Sprinkle in travel among parallel universes, fantastic creatures and settings from a parallel Himalayan mountain range to the underworld itself, and you have a story with enough depth and complexity to make its young-adult classification seem frankly foolish, but enough creativity and diversity to defy any boring classification like “Adult Literature.” What, then, should we call Pullman’s trilogy?

                “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.” – Harold Bloom

I’d call it “required reading.”


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