His Dark Materials, comprising the three books Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, is a trilogy which I have read many times over since I was a young teenager. It is a story about parallel universes and follows twelve-year-olds Lyra and Will who come from two similar-but-different Englands and find themselves caught up in a war which will affect all of the worlds.
There is no limit to Philip Pullman’s imagination and the books are populated with fantastic creations such as ‘dæmons’ in the shape of animals which are visible parts of people’s natures, a knife which can cut through the very fabric of the air, and four-legged creatures with a diamond-shaped structure to their bodies who ride on wheels. Pullman’s inventions are often bizarre but somehow always believable, not least due to the way he grounds so many of his ideas in plausible, seemingly-scientific explanations. Consequently, you do not doubt even for a second that the little communication instrument called the lodestone resonator is made up of particles which have been split apart and which of course can still resonate simultaneously, even in separate worlds. He has a way of making the incredible credible.
As a children’s book it appeals greatly at this level, with vibrant characters and exotic places exploding from every page. But it goes beyond that, attracting an adult readership too, because there are so many layers to the series with Pullman actually addressing very serious subjects within the basic boy-and-girl-go-on-an-adventure story. The issues of mental health, homosexuality, loss of innocence, infidelity, religious obsession and life after death are all raised throughout the books, often very subtly and sometimes more obviously. The overriding theme is that of the church, its abuse of power, its oppression of the people, its fanatical desire to wipe out original sin even if that calls for the murder of an innocent child. Pullman’s language is strong and his ideas are controversial, thought-provoking and, speaking from personal experience, very influential on impressionable minds. Though His Dark Materials is a piece of fiction, it has the ability to profoundly alter your view on life.
Pullman is also masterful in the art of emotion. He constructs his characters so vividly and sympathetically that you are wholly drawn into their endeavours, rejoicing in their successes and mourning their losses. The fate of the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and his dæmon Hester, though they are only secondary characters, stays with you for a long time afterwards. And, of course, the conclusion of the entire series is deeply poignant; twice I have listened to the trilogy on audio book in the car and twice I have been a blubbering mess behind the steering wheel. You cannot help but feel keenly for Lyra and Will and curse Philip Pullman for having a heart of stone.
Personal feelings towards the author notwithstanding, I think His Dark Materials is an excellent trilogy which endures so well because it is able to cross that elusive divide between children’s and adult fiction. I got a great deal out of it as a teenager and I get even more out of it now, after countless readings of it. It is a series which never fails to stimulate both intellectually and emotionally. I have no doubt that I will read it again in the future and find it just as satisfying.