His Dark Materials


By Philip Pullman
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Can you think of the hero or heroine of a fantasy book for children or young adults in which the hero or heroine is not an orphan, or who cannot at least say along with Ursula LeGuin's Ged, that his or her mother, "died before he was a year old...(and) his father...was a grim unspeaking man." With the notable exception of A Wrinkle in Time, orphans dominate the genre, some notable examples being Tolkien's Bilbo and Frodo, Lloyd Alexander's Taran, Snow White, Cinderella, The Baudelaire Orphans, and of course Harry Potter.

    One could suggest many reasons for this phenomenon. Obviously, it elicits sympathy, yet as a literary device the orphaning of children serves many other purposes. If there is any improper child rearing to be done, wicked aunts, uncles, cousins, and stepmothers are much more acceptable and less unsettling to a young reader than wicked parents would be. J.K. Rowlings' Dursleys are a prime example of that. Also, when evils befall a child, living parents would necessarily be set up as having failed to protect their children, another frightening concept for young readers.

    One of the many interesting things regarding Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, is that Pullman inverts the usual pattern of orphaning his lead character, Lyra Belacqua. To all appearances Lyra is a typical Fantasy novel orphan, raised in the musty and erudite confines of Jordan College at the behest of her powerful Uncle Lord Asriel. It turns out, however, that both of Lyra's parents are not only alive, but dangerous, and powerful, each at odds with the other and equally menacing to Lyra.

    The book is set in an alternate earth in which the failure of the Protestant Reformation to materialize is a central difference. Oblique references are made to Pope Luther, and it subtly unfolds that science and religion have maintained their medieval interconnectedness.

    Also central to the book is the existence of daemons, animal familiars which all humans have, quasi-independent manifestations of a person's soul which can only move within a few yards of their human, but who can think and act on their own. Pain and emotions are channeled back and forth between people and daemons. In all ways they are extensions of each other.

    The books both excite and fascinate with strong characters, inventive historical and technological twists, and provocative conceptual underpinnings. The writing is smooth and elegant. Pullman even indulges, very effectively, in two Homeric similes to record a pivotal scene of single combat.

    The first two books in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, and The Subtle Knife, were released in 1996 and 1997 respectively. The final volume of the Trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, will be released this October.

    Already discovered and appreciated by the younger end of the equation, Pullman's books have yet to be seized upon by their elders. It may be hoped, with enjoyment of J.K. Rowlings fresh in mind, that adults will consider sampling the very great pleasures which Pullman's trilogy will afford them.