His Dark Materials
Cover of Scholastic collected edition, 2008
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
His Dark Materials is an epic trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman consisting of Northern Lights (1995, published as The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). It follows the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a series of parallel universes. The three novels have won a number of awards, most notably the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year prize, won by The Amber Spyglass. Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995. The trilogy took third place in the BBC's Big Read poll in 2003.
The fantasy elements include witches and armoured polar bears, but the trilogy also alludes to ideas from physics, philosophy and theology. The trilogy functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton's epic Paradise Lost, with Pullman commending humanity for what Milton saw as its most tragic failing, original sin. The series has drawn criticism for its negative portrayal of Christianity and religion in general.
Pullman's publishers have primarily marketed the series to young adults, but Pullman also intended to speak to both older children and adults. North American printings of The Amber Spyglass have censored passages describing Lyra's incipient sexuality.
Pullman has published two short stories related to His Dark Materials: "Lyra and the Birds", which appears with accompanying illustrations in the small hardcover book Lyra's Oxford (2003), and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008). He has been working[update] on another, larger companion book to the series, The Book of Dust, for several years.
- 1 Settings
- 2 Series
- 3 Related works by Philip Pullman
- 4 Characters
- 5 Dæmons
- 6 Influences
- 7 Awards and recognition
- 8 Controversies
- 9 Terminology used in the books
- 10 Pronunciation
- 11 Adaptations
- 12 See also
- 13 Further reading
- 14 References
- 15 External links
The trilogy takes place across a multiverse, moving between many parallel worlds (See Worlds in His Dark Materials). In Northern Lights, the story takes place in a world with some similarities to our own; dress-style resembles that of the UK's Victorian era, and technology has not evolved to include automobiles or fixed-wing aircraft, while zeppelins feature as a notable mode of transport.
The dominant religion has parallels with Christianity, and is at certain points in the series (especially in the later books) explicitly named so; while Adam and Eve are referenced in the text (particularly in The Subtle Knife, in which Dust tells Mary Malone that Lyra Belacqua is a new Eve to whom she is to be the serpent), Jesus Christ is not. The Church (called the "Magisterium", the same name as the Catholic body) exerts a strong control over society and has some of the appearance and organisation of the Catholic Church, but one in which the centre of power had moved from Rome to Geneva, moved there by Pullman's fictional "Pope John Calvin" (Geneva was the home of the real, historical John Calvin).
In The Subtle Knife, the story moves between the world of the first novel, our own world, and in another world, a city called Cittàgazze. In The Amber Spyglass the story crosses through an array of diverse worlds.
At first glance, the universe of Northern Lights appears considerably behind that of our own world (resembling an industrial society between the late 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War), but in many fields it equals or surpasses ours. For instance, it emerges that Lyra's world has the same knowledge of particle physics, referred to as "experimental theology", that we do. In The Amber Spyglass, discussion takes place about an advanced inter-dimensional weapon which, when aimed using a sample of the target's DNA, can track the target to any universe and disrupt the very fabric of space-time to form a bottomless abyss into nothing, forcing the target to suffer a fate far worse than normal death. Other advanced devices include the Intention Craft, which carries (amongst other things) an extremely potent energy-weapon, though this craft, first seen and used outside Lyra's universe, may originate in the work of engineers from other universes.
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
— Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920
Pullman earlier proposed to name the series The Golden Compasses, also a reference to Paradise Lost, where they denote God's circle-drawing instrument used to establish and set the bounds of all creation:
God as architect, wielding the golden compasses, by William Blake (left) and Jesus as Geometer in a 13th-century medieval illuminated manuscript of unknown authorship.
Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure
— Paradise Lost, Book 7, lines 224–229
Despite the confusion with the other common meaning of compass (the navigational instrument) The Golden Compass became the title of the American edition of Northern Lights (the book features an 'alethiometer', a device that one might label a "golden compass"). In The Subtle Knife Pullman rationalizes the first book's American title, by having Mary twice refer to Lyra's alethiometer as a "compass" or "compass thing."
Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass)
Northern Lights (published in some countries, including the USA, as The Golden Compass) revolves around Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who lives in a world in which humans are constantly accompanied by dæmons: the animal embodiments of their inner-selves. Dæmons alter their forms frequently when people are young but begin to settle into a fixed, animal form when children reach puberty. Lyra, whose dæmon is named Pantalaimon, is brought up in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, where she accidentally learns of the existence of Dust — a strange elementary particle being researched by Lord Asriel, whom Lyra has been told is her uncle. The Magisterium is a powerful Church body that represses heresy, and believes Dust to be related to Original Sin. Dust is less attracted to children than to adults, and a desire to learn why and to prevent children from acquiring Dust when they become adults leads to grisly experiments, carried out to separate kidnapped children from their dæmons. The experiments are directed by Mrs. Coulter and conducted in the distant North by experimental "theologists" (scientists) of the Magisterium. The Master of Jordan College, who has been raising Lyra, turns her over to Mrs. Coulter under pressure from the Church. But first he gives Lyra the alethiometer, an instrument that uses Dust to reveal any truth and can answer any question when properly manipulated. Lyra, initially excited at being placed in the care of the elegant and mysterious Mrs. Coulter, discovers to her horror that Coulter heads the secretive General Oblation Board, who are rumoured to be the ones kidnapping children throughout England for experimentation; they are known among children as the "Gobblers" (from the initials of General Oblation Board). Learning of Mrs. Coulter's Gobbler activity, Lyra runs away and the Gyptians, who live on riverboats, rescue her from pursuers. From them she learns that Mrs. Coulter is her mother and Lord Asriel is her father, not her uncle. Taking Lyra along, the Gyptians mount an expedition to rescue the missing children, many of whom are Gyptian children. Lyra hopes to find and save her best friend, Roger Parslow, who she suspects has been taken by the Gobblers. Aided by the exiled armoured bear Iorek Byrnison and a clan of witches, the Gyptians save the kidnapped children, including Roger. Lyra and Iorek, along with the balloonist Lee Scoresby, next continue on to Svalbard, home of the armoured bears. There Lyra helps Iorek regain his kingdom by killing his rival, King Iofur Raknison. Lyra then carries on to find Lord Asriel, exiled to Svalbard at Mrs. Coulter's request. She mistakenly thinks her mission all along has been to bring Asriel her alethiometer, when in fact she was destined to bring him a child, Roger. Lord Asriel has been developing a means of building a bridge to another world that can be seen in the sky through the northern lights. The bridge requires a vast amount of energy to split open the boundary between the two worlds. Asriel acquires the energy by severing Roger from his dæmon, killing Roger in the process. Lyra arrives too late to save Roger. Asriel then travels across the bridge to the new world in order to find the source of Dust. Lyra and Pantalaimon follow Asriel into the new world.
The Subtle Knife
In The Subtle Knife, Lyra journeys through the Aurora to Cittàgazze, an otherworldly city whose denizens have discovered a clean path between worlds at a far earlier point in time than others in the storyline. Cittàgazze's reckless use of the technology has released soul-eating Spectres, to which children are immune, rendering much of the world incapable of transit by adults. Here Lyra meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our world. Will, who recently killed a man to protect his ailing mother, has stumbled into Cittàgazze in an effort to locate his long-lost father. Will becomes the bearer of the eponymous Subtle Knife, a tool forged 300 years ago by Cittàgazze's scientists from the same materials used to make Bolvangar's silver guillotine. One edge of the knife can divide even subatomic particles and form subtle divisions in space, creating portals between worlds; the other edge easily cuts through any form of matter. After meeting with witches from Lyra's world, they journey on. Will finds his father, who had gone missing in Lyra's world under the assumed name of Stanislaus Grumman, only to watch him murdered almost immediately by a witch who loved him but was turned down, and Lyra is kidnapped.
The Amber Spyglass
The Amber Spyglass tells of Lyra's kidnapping by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium who has learned of the prophecy identifying Lyra as the next Eve. A pair of angels, Balthamos and Baruch, inform Will that he must travel with them to give the Subtle Knife to Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, as a weapon against The Authority. Will ignores the angels; with the help of a local girl named Ama, the Bear King Iorek Byrnison, and Lord Asriel's Gallivespian spies, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, he rescues Lyra from the cave where her mother has hidden her from the Magisterium, which has become determined to kill her before she yields to temptation and sin like the original Eve.
Will, Lyra, Tialys and Salmakia journey to the Land of the Dead, temporarily parting with their dæmons to release the ghosts from their captivity. Mary Malone, a scientist originating from Will's world, interested in Dust (or Shadows, as she knows the phenomenon), travels to a land populated by strange sentient creatures called Mulefa. There she comes to understand the true nature of Dust, which is both created by and nourishes life which has become self-aware. Lord Asriel and the reformed Mrs. Coulter work to destroy the Authority's Regent Metatron. They succeed, but themselves suffer annihilation in the process by pulling Metatron into the abyss. The Authority himself dies of his own frailty when Will and Lyra free him from the crystal prison wherein Metatron had trapped him, able to do so because an attack by cliff-ghasts kills or drives away the prison's protectors. When Will and Lyra emerge from the land of the dead, they find their dæmons. The book ends with Will and Lyra falling in love but realising they cannot live together in the same world, because all windows — except one from the underworld to the world of the Mulefa — must be closed to prevent the loss of Dust, and because each of them can only live full lives in their native worlds. This is the temptation that Mary was meant to give them; to help them fall in love and then choose whether they should stay together or not. During the return, Mary learns how to see her own dæmon, who takes the form of a black Alpine Chough. Lyra loses her ability to intuitively read the alethiometer and determines to learn how to use her conscious mind to achieve the same effect.
Related works by Philip Pullman
The first of two short novels, Lyra's Oxford takes place two years after the timeline of The Amber Spyglass. A witch who seeks revenge for her son's death in the war against the Authority draws Lyra, now 15, into a trap. Birds mysteriously rescue her and Pan, and she makes the acquaintance of an alchemist, formerly the witch's lover.
Once Upon a Time in the North
This short novel serves as a prequel to His Dark Materials and focuses on the 24-year-old Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby. After winning his hot-air balloon, Scoresby heads to the North, landing on the Arctic island Novy Odense, where he finds himself pulled into a dangerous conflict between the oil-tycoon Larsen Manganese, the corrupt mayoral candidate Ivan Poliakov, and his longtime enemy from the Dakota Country, Pierre McConville. The story tells of Lee and Iorek's first meeting and of how they overcame these enemies.
The Book of Dust
The forthcoming companion to the trilogy, The Book of Dust will not continue the story, but was originally said to offer several short stories with the same characters, world, etc. Later, however, it was said it would be about Lyra when she is older, about 2 years after Lyra's Oxford, when she will go on a new adventure and learn to read the alethiometer again. The book will touch on research into Dust as well as on the portrayal of religion in His Dark Materials. Pullman has not yet[update] finished writing this work.
Pullman has also told of his hope to publish a small green book about Will:
Lyra's Oxford was a dark red book. Once Upon a Time in the North will be a dark blue book. There still remains a green book. And that will be Will's book. Eventually...—Philip Pullman
Pullman confirmed this in an interview with two fans in August 2007.
All humans in Lyra's world, including witches, have a Dæmon (pronounced "demon"). It is a the physical manifestation of a person's 'inner being', soul or spirit. It takes the form of a creature (moth, bird, dog, monkey, snake, etc.) and is usually the opposite sex to its human counterpart. The dæmons of children have the ability to change form - from one creature to another - but towards the end of a child's puberty, their dæmon "settles" into a permanent form, which reflects the person's personality. When a person dies, the dæmon dies too. Armoured bears, cliff ghasts and other creatures do not have dæmons. An armoured bear's armour is his soul.
- Lyra Belacqua, a wild 12-year-old girl, has grown up in the fictional Jordan College, Oxford. Although initially ignorant of the fact, Lyra is Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel's daughter. She is described as skinny with dark blonde hair and blue eyes. She prides herself on her capacity for mischief, especially her ability to lie with "bare-faced conviction". Because of this ability, Iorek Byrnison gives her the byname "Silvertongue". Lyra is given the alethiometer, which is capable of answering any question when properly manipulated and properly read.
- Pantalaimon is Lyra's Dæmon, like all dæmons of children, he changes from one creature to another constantly. When Lyra reaches puberty he assumes the permanent form of a pine marten. Pantalaimon and Lyra follow her father, Lord Asriel, when he travels to the newly discovered world of Cittagazze over his newly created "Bridge to the Stars."
- Will Parry, a sensible, morally conscious, highly assertive 12-year-old boy from our world. He fights for, and becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife. Will is very independent and responsible for his age, having looked after his mentally unstable mother for several years. He is also strong for his age and knows how to remain inconspicuous.
- Kirjava is Will's Dæmon, so named by Serafina Pekkala, it takes the permanent form of a large, shadow-colored cat. Will's dæmon, which is separated from him in the crossing to the world of the dead, finally becomes a visible entity, like other dæmons.
- The Authority is the first angel to have emerged from Dust. He controls the Church, an oppressive religious institution. He told the later-arriving angels that he created them and the universe, but this is a lie. Although he is one of the two primary adversaries in the trilogy — Lord Asriel is his primary opponent — he remains in the background; he makes his first and only appearance late in The Amber Spyglass. At the time of the story, the Authority has grown weak and has transferred most of his powers to his regent, Metatron. Pullman portrays him as extremely aged, fragile and naive, unlike his thoroughly malicious underling.
- Lord Asriel, ostensibly Lyra's uncle, is later revealed to be her father. He opens a rift between the worlds in his pursuit of Dust. His dream of establishing a Republic of Heaven to rival The Authority's Kingdom leads him to use his considerable power and force of will to raise a grand army from across the multiverse to rise up in rebellion against the forces of the Church.
- Marisa Coulter is the coldly beautiful, highly manipulative mother of Lyra and former lover of Lord Asriel. She serves the Church by kidnapping children for research into the nature of Dust. She has black hair, a thin build, and looks younger than she is. Initially hostile to Lyra, she belatedly realizes that she loves her daughter and seeks to protect her from agents of the Church, who want to kill Lyra.
- The Golden Monkey, Mrs. Coulter's Dæmon (named Ozymandias in the BBC Radio adaptations but never named in Pullman's books) has a cruel abusive streak that reflects Coulter's character.
- Metatron, Asriel's principal adversary was a human being in biblical times Enoch and was later transfigured into an angel. The Authority has displayed his declining health by appointing Metatron his Regent. As Regent, Metatron has implanted the monotheistic religions across the universes. He becomes vulnerable to the seductive advances of Marisa Coulter, who betrays him by luring him into the underworld to his death. He is the series' main antagonist.
- Lord Carlo Boreal, or Sir Charles Latrom, CBE as he is known as in Will Parry's world, serves as a minor character in Northern Lights, but is a main antagonist in The Subtle Knife. He is an old Englishman, appearing to be in his sixties. He normally wears pale suits and is described as smelling sweetly. He is ultimately poisoned by Mrs. Coulter, to whom he has previously been a lover.
- Mary Malone, is a physicist and former nun from Will's world. She meets Lyra during Lyra's first visit to Will's world. Lyra provides Mary with insight into the nature of dust. Agents of the Church force Mary to flee to the world of the mulefa. There she constructs the amber spyglass, which enables her to see the otherwise invisible Dust. Her purpose is to learn why Dust, which mulefa civilization depends on, is flowing out of the universe. Mary relates a story of a lost love to Will and Lyra, and later packs for them a lunch containing "little red fruits", which her computer, "the Cave," had instructed her to do.
- The Master of Jordan heads Jordan College, part of Oxford University in Lyra's world. Helped by other Jordan College employees, he is raising the supposedly orphaned Lyra. In chapter 1 of The Golden Compass, he tries unsuccessfully to poison Lord Asriel. Lyra sees the Master poison a decanter of tokay wine that Asriel is expected to drink. She warns Asriel, who later "accidentally" knocks the decanter to the floor, blaming a servant for the mishap.
- Roger Parslow is the kitchen boy at Jordan College and Lyra's best friend.
- John Parry, a.k.a. Stanislaus Grumman a.k.a. Jopari is Will Parry's father. He is an explorer from our world, originally known as John Parry, who discovered a portal to Lyra's world and there became the shaman known as Stanislaus Grumman.
- Elaine Parry is Will Parry's mother. She became mentally ill after her husband disappeared on an expedition and has been left by Will in the care of Mrs. Cooper, Will's former piano teacher.
- The Four Gallivespians: Lord Roke, Madame Oxentiel, Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia — are tiny people (a hand-span tall) with poisonous heel spurs.
- Iorek Byrnison is a massive armoured bear. An armoured bear's armour is his soul. Iorek's armour is stolen, so he becomes despondent. With Lyra's help he regains his armour, his dignity, and his kingship over the armoured bears. In gratitude, and impressed by her cunning, he dubs her "Lyra Silvertongue". A powerful warrior and armoursmith, Iorek repairs the Subtle Knife when it shatters. He later goes to war against The Authority and Metatron.
- Ma Costa: A Gyptian woman whose son, Billy Costa is abducted by the "Gobblers". She rescues Lyra from Mrs Coulter and takes her to John Faa. We later discover that Ma Costa nursed Lyra, when she was a baby.
- John Faa: The King of all the Gyptians. He journeys with Lyra to the North with his companion Farder Coram. Faa and Costa rescue Lyra when she runs away from Mrs. Coulter. Then they take her to Iorek Byrnison.
- Lee Scoresby, a rangy Texan, is a balloonist. He helps Lyra in an early quest to reach Asriel's residence in the North, and he later helps John Parry reunite with his son Will.
- Serafina Pekkala is the beautiful queen of a clan of Northern witches. Her snow-goose Dæmon Kaisa, like all witches' dæmons, can travel much farther apart from her than the dæmons of humans.
- Father Gomez is a priest sent by the Church to assassinate Lyra. The angel Balthamos, kills Gomez before he can reach her.
- Fra Pavel Rašek is a representative and alethiometrist of the Consistorial Court of Discipline. He is said to be a sluggish reader of the device, his Dæmon is a frog.
- Balthamos is a rebel angel who, with his lover Baruch, join in Will's journey to find the captured Lyra. Near the end of the story, he saves both Lyra's and Will's lives by killing Father Gomez. Upon ensuring their safety, Balthamos calls out Baruch's name and dies.
- Tony Makarios is a naive boy who is lured into captivity by Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter gains Tony's confidence by offering him a delicious drink of "chocolatl" (the name for chocolate in Lyra's world). The offer, accepted by Tony, draws him into a warehouse and into captivity.
- Mulefa are four-legged wheeled animals; they have one leg in front, one in back, and one on each side. The "wheels" are huge, round, hard seed-pods from seed-pod trees; an axle-like claw at the end of each leg grips a seed-pod. The Mulefa society is primitive.
- Tualapi are huge, flightless birds who attack Mulefa settlements. The Tualapi sail to the settlements on tandem fore-and-aft wings that are uplifted to serve as sails. On reaching settlements the Tualapi kill any Mulefa they can catch, eat all the food, destroy everything in sight, then defecate everywhere.
- The Palmerian Professor is a very minor character, he is very possibly Pullman himself making a 'guest appearance' in his own novel.
One distinctive aspect of Pullman's story is the presence of "dæmons". In the birth-universe of the story's protagonist Lyra Belacqua, a human individual's inner-self manifests itself throughout life as an animal-shaped "dæmon", that almost always stays near its human counterpart.
Dæmons usually only talk to their own associated humans, but they can communicate with other humans and with other dæmons autonomously. During the childhood of its associated human, a dæmon can change its shape at will, but with the onset of adolescence it settles into a single form, this final form reveals the person's true nature and personality. In Lyra's world, it is considered to be "the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable" for one person to touch another's dæmon — this violates the strictest of taboos. "A human being with no dæmon is like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense."
Dæmons and their humans can become separated through intercision, a process involving cutting the link between the dæmon and the human. This process can take place in a medical setting, as with the guillotine used at Bolvangar, or as a form of torture used by the Skraelings. This separation entails a high mortality rate and changes both human and dæmon into a zombie-like state. Severing the link using the silver guillotine method releases tremendous amounts of unnamed energy, convertible to anbaric (electric) power.
Pullman has identified three major literary influences on His Dark Materials: the essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist, the works of William Blake, and, most important, John Milton's Paradise Lost, from which the trilogy derives its title. In his introduction, he adapts a famous description of Milton by Blake to quip that he (Pullman) "is of the Devil's party and does know it."
Critics have compared the trilogy with The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, Pullman however has characterised the Narnia series as "blatantly racist", "monumentally disparaging of women", "immoral", and "evil". The trilogy has also been compared with such fantasy books as Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Awards and recognition
The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year award, a prestigious British literary award. This is the first time that such an award has been bestowed on a book from their "children's literature" category.
The first volume, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995. In 2007, the judges of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children's literature selected it as one of the ten most important children's novels of the previous 70 years. In June 2007 it was voted, in an online poll, as the best Carnegie Medal winner in the seventy-year history of the award, the Carnegie of Carnegies.
On 25 May 2005, Pullman received the Swedish government's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's and youth literature (sharing it with Japanese illustrator Ryōji Arai). Swedes regard this prize as second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature; it has a value of 5 million Swedish Kronor or approximately £385,000.
The trilogy came third in the 2003 BBC's Big Read, a national poll of viewers' favourite books, after The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. At the time, only His Dark Materials and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire amongst the top five works lacked a screen-adaptation (the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which came fifth, was released in 2005).
Pullman has expressed surprise over what he perceives as a low level of criticism for His Dark Materials on religious grounds, saying "I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak... Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God".
Some of the characters criticise institutional religion. Ruta Skadi, a witch and friend of Lyra's calling for war against the Magisterium in Lyra's world, says that "For all of [the Church's] history... it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out". Skadi later extends her criticism to all organised religion: "That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling". By this part of the book, the witches have made reference to how they are treated criminally by the church in their worlds. Mary Malone, one of Pullman's main characters, states that "the Christian religion... is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all". Formerly a Catholic nun, she gave up her vows when the experience of falling in love caused her to doubt her faith. Pullman has warned, however, against equating these views with his own, saying of Malone: "Mary is a character in a book. Mary's not me. It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy". In another inversion, the tenet that the Church can absolve a penitent of sin is subverted when the priest selected to assassinate Lyra has built up sufficient penitential credit before attempting to carry out this sin for the Church.
Pullman portrays life after death very differently from the Christian concept of heaven: In the third book, the afterlife plays out in a bleak underworld, similar to the Greek vision of the afterlife, wherein harpies torment people until Lyra and Will descend into the land of the dead. At their intercession, the harpies agree to stop tormenting the dead souls, and instead receive the true stories of the dead in exchange for leading them again to the upper world. When the dead souls emerge, they dissolve into atoms and merge with the environment.
Pullman's "Authority", though worshipped on Lyra's earth as God, emerges as the first conscious creature to evolve. Pullman makes it explicit that the Authority did not create worlds, and his trilogy does not speculate on who or what (if anything) might have done so. Members of the Church are typically displayed as zealots.
Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, said: "In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant". His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both." William A. Donohue of the Catholic League has described Pullman's trilogy as "atheism for kids". Pullman has said of Donohue's call for a boycott, "Why don't we trust readers? [...] Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world".
Pullman has, however, found support from some other Christians, most notably from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (spiritual head of the Anglican church), who argues that Pullman's attacks focus on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Williams has also recommended the His Dark Materials series of books for inclusion and discussion in Religious Education classes, and stated that "To see large school-parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging". Pullman and Williams took part in a National Theatre platform debate a few days later to discuss myth, religious experience and its representation in the arts.
Pullman has singled out certain elements of Christianity for criticism, as in the following: "I suppose technically, you'd have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against". However, Pullman has also said in interviews and appearances that his argument can extend to all religions.
In a November 2002 interview Pullman was asked to respond to the fact that the Catholic Herald had called his books "the stuff of nightmares" and "worthy of the bonfire". He replied, "My response to that was to ask the publishers to print it in the next book, which they did! I think it's comical, it's just laughable". The original remark in Catholic Herald (which was "there are numerous candidates that seem to me to be far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter") was written in the context of parents in South Carolina pressing their Board of Education to ban the Harry Potter books.
Terminology used in the books
To enhance the feeling of being in parallel universes, Pullman renames various common objects or ideas of our world with archaic terms or new words of his own. The names he chooses often follow plausible alternative etymologies to those which have prevailed in modern English, thus making it possible to guess what everyday object or person he is referring to. Below are some of the significant renamings as well as new words the author has developed.
Pullman underlines the differences between the history of Lyra's world and ours by using archaic or adapted names for otherwise familiar peoples, regions and places.
The pronunciations given here are those used in the radio plays and the audio book readings of the trilogy (narrated by Pullman himself).
His Dark Materials has been adapted for radio, theatre and film, In addition there have been unabridged audio books of the three main novels in His Dark Materials on which Philip Pullman himself is the narrator, the other parts are read by various actors, including Jo Wyatt, Steven Webb, Peter England, Stephen Thorne and Douglas Blackwell.
The BBC made His Dark Materials into a radio drama on BBC Radio 4 starring Terence Stamp as Lord Asriel and Lulu Popplewell as Lyra. The play was broadcast in 2003 and is now published by the BBC on CD and cassette. In the same year, a radio drama of Northern Lights was made by RTÉ (Irish public radio).
The BBC Radio 4 version of His Dark Materials was repeated on BBC Radio 7 between 7 December 2008 to 11 January 2009. With 3 episodes in total, each episode was 2.5 hours long.
Nicholas Hytner directed a theatrical version of the books as a two-part, six-hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in December 2003, running until March 2004. It starred Anna Maxwell-Martin as Lyra, Dominic Cooper as Will, Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter with dæmon puppets designed by Michael Curry. The play was enormously successful and was revived (with a different cast and a revised script) for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005. It has since been staged by several other theatres in the UK and elsewhere.
A new production was staged at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in March and April 2009, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile and starring Amy McAllister as Lyra. This version toured the UK and included a performance in Philip Pullman's hometown of Oxford. Philip Pullman made a cameo appearance much to the delight of the audience and Oxford media. The production finished up at West Yorkshire Playhouse in June 2009.
New Line Cinema released a film adaptation, titled The Golden Compass, on 7 December 2007. Directed by Chris Weitz, the production had a mixed reception, and though worldwide sales were strong, its U.S. earnings were not as high as the studio had hoped.
The filmmakers obscured the explicitly Biblical character of the Authority to avoid offending viewers. Weitz declared that he would not do the same for the planned sequels. "Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully", he said, "the religious themes in the second and third books can't be minimised without destroying the spirit of these books. ...I will not be involved with any 'watering down' of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third". In May 2006, Pullman said of a version of the script that "all the important scenes are there and will have their full value"; in March 2008, he said of the finished film that "a lot of things about it were good.... Nothing can bring out all that's in the book. There are always compromises".
The Golden Compass film stars Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Eva Green plays Serafina Pekkala, Ian McKellen voices Iorek Byrnison, and Freddie Highmore voices Pantalaimon.
No sequels are planned yet. Much publicity was given to Compass actor's Sam Elliott blaming Catholic Church opposition for forcing their cancellation, but UK Guardian film critic Stuart Heritage thinks critical "disappointment" with the first film may have been the real reason.
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- pg.5 "...a decanter containing a rich golden wine..." Pullman, Philip (1995). Northern Lights. scholastic Point. ISBN 0-590-66054-3.
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And the latest script, from Chris Weitz, is truly excellent; I know, because I`ve just this morning read it. I think it`s a model of how to condense a story of 400 pages into a script of 110 or so. All the important scenes are there and will have their full value.
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- Philip Pullman Author's website
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- Scholastic: His Dark Materials UK publisher's website
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- HisDarkMaterials.org His Dark Materials fansite
- Cittagazze.com French His Dark Materials fansite