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‘Tis the Season of Rereading His Dark Materials

heya Virtually Readers! It’s a ’tis the season of rereading day again! Today, I’m talking about my rereading experience for His Dark Materials. I first read this when I was in sixth or seventh grade. I remember hat it was a marvellous adventure, and I remember that the ending was really sad. Since then I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how it’s very anti-religion–sort of the opposite to The Chronicles of Narnia, if you will. On this reread, I definitely kepth that in mind. I have a bind up of all three books, and I mostly read this in Lucknow, so I carried it around a lot, so these 900 pages have made my arms stronger if nothing else.

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So for those of you who don’t know, His Dark Materials is trilogy that came out in the late nineties/early 2000’s, and it’s about the girl called Lyra. She’s a bit of a Chosen One, there are all these prophecies about her, and hse has a few special skills. In her world (there are multiple world in the novels) humans have a ‘daemon’, a sort of physical expression of their soul which takes the form of an animal. Meanwhile, there are all these horrible experiements taking place and worlds being torn apart.

A few months ago (was it October) a ‘equel’ (not a prequel, not a sequel) to His Dark Materials was published. It’s called The Book of Dust, and it was sort of what reminded me to reread these books. also I don’t want to take 900 pages to New Zealand with me!

So first, the religious stuff: I don’t know how I missed this as a child. Pullman seems to be especially against stern, prescriptivist religion which tells people what to do. He mostly takes this from an Old Testament point of view; Lyra is almost a replacement for Christ, who doens’t come up at all. The books are especially against formal, strict, institutionalised religion, such as the mediaeval Catholic  Church. In the later boks, Angels and heaven are big topics of discussion. I didn’t necesserily agree with his perspective here, but it also didn’t trouble me too much. The magic of faith is woven really well into the story, and it’s an interesting perspective. The ending of death (which Lyra is prophesied to bring about) is done exquisitely, and is just interesting. It made me think lots, which I liked.

And honestly, regardless of your own faith and beliefs, there are two things here which I think work universally. The first is the idea of not waiting for heaven as a paradise, but building where you are right now. The second is from Lantern Slides for the Amber Spyglass (the extra snippets which accompanied my edition), which basically asks how Dust (positive sentience force for creation) manifests in our world, which is a question worth pondering.

I guess you could see this as a childrens book: the main character is 12 or 13 in the last book. But it has all these ideas and references and classical poetry quotations which make it just as appealing (if not more appealing) to adults. There are high level ideas here, and the fact that they’re immersed in a appealing adventure narrative simply makes them more interesting to me. Ideologically, this is a complex book, but it’s also fun enough that 9 year olds could enjoy it.

Pullman builds a rich and complicated world (or rather, worlds). The title of each book–The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, the Amber Spyglass–is centred around an object. Part of this is his rejection of the idea that somewhere there is a higher plane of existence for those who are saved: the real world (whichever one that is) is the most important one. It also has to do with rejection of appearances. The golden compass is not a compass, though it is a guide; the subtle knife is a knife of extraordinary ability and intention; the amber spyglass is not made of amber and is not a spyglass, though it does help you to see. These objects are defining, fascinating, and inexplicable.

Pullman is inventive, and that is something I remember vividly from the first time I read this: not vertabrate intelligence, creatures on wheels, armoured bears, witches on cloud-pine branches, aeronauts, worlds subtly and magnificently different from our own. Enough to provok thousands more questions, in the best possible way.

And rereading this has really reminded me that this is a story about love. (Like the LotR, I think of His Dark Materials as one entity; you should read all three together, though each book has a seperate narrative). It’s about love for the world you live in, and love enough to sacrifice happiness and the chance of more love. Love enough to grow up and leave what you know behind.

Have you read (or reread!) His Dark Materials? What’s a book with a lot of subtext that you might feel differently about if you read now? let me know in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season of Rereading His Dark Materials

  1. The first time I read “Rising Sun” by Michael Crichton, probably as a young teenager, I just thought it was a good read. The second time I read it, in my early 20s, I was shocked by how anti-Japanese it was. A paranoia level of anti-Japanese thought that was only possible in that brief period in the late 80s/early 90s when some Americans thought the Japanese were taking over the world economically.

    I haven’t read Pullman but a lot of the things he’s said in interviews and such have turned me off. In some of his statements he comes off as really, really anti-faith, not just anti-“institutional religion” but wishing to undermine faith in God or belief in Jesus as a whole. It could be that he’s just exaggerating for effect though.

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    1. We were actually talking about His Dark Materials in church the other day. I think it’s kind of complicated–because in the end, the ultimate narrative is the jesus one, where a ‘chosen one’ must make a choice, and sacrifice something marvellous and powerful for the good of others and the world. He does get a lot of time for being a reactionary to Narnia as well I reckon

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  2. That was such a fantastic post – and it made me want to re-read this series even more ahah 🙂 It is one of my favorite series of all times, but I have read it a long time ago now, and I would love to re-read it at some point, to get the deeper messages and meanings I didn’t really understand or thought about when I read it as a young teen.
    Did you read The Book of Dust or are you planning to, soon? 🙂

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