This month, I’ve broken the habit of a (five-year blogging) lifetime and reread the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman ahead of the publication of ‘La Belle Sauvage’, the first volume of the Book of Dust trilogy later this year. The first book in the series ‘Northern Lights’ is set in a parallel universe similar to ours but different in many ways and introduces twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon companion Pantalaimon who travel to the North Pole to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers who are carrying out experiments on children. In ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’, Lyra meets Will Parry and they travel between different universes including our own in pursuit of the meaning of Dust. 

My very brief summary above doesn’t really do justice to the vast complexity of the trilogy and its large cast of characters. As with all of the best books for children, it is the darker elements which really drive the plot and ensure that the books appeal to adults as much as they do to younger readers. At the heart of the story is the mysterious substance known as Dust, interpreted as original sin by the Magisterium (the church authority which holds an enormous amount of power over society in Lyra’s world). Pullman’s strong anti-Christian message throughout the series has generated a lot of controversy and one of the main reasons why I wanted to reread the trilogy was so that I could appreciate this aspect more than I did when I was younger. The books are an inversion of ‘Paradise Lost’ and if I ever read John Milton’s most famous work, I would probably have to reread ‘His Dark Materials’ again to further appreciate the allegorical context.

I rarely read fantasy novels but when I do, I generally prefer them to have at least some grounding in our universe and for that reason I still find ‘The Subtle Knife’ the most accessible of the three volumes. However, the parallel universe presented in ‘Northern Lights’ is a clever combination of historical, fantasy and contemporary elements. The scope of Pullman’s imagination is impressive with Texan aeronauts, armoured bears, witches and angels all making an appearance in a story full of exciting adventure alongside more challenging philosophical ideas. Pullman is also pleasingly unsentimental about the reality of Lyra and Will coming of age and growing up as young adults (in contast to the children in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, for example) and acknowledges the capability of heroes and heroines to achieve both good and bad things.

While I see the first two books primarily as adventure stories which rattle along at a good pace, ‘The Amber Spyglass’ is a much more reflective and dense volume which I think has a lot more appeal for adults than it does for children. Pullman has previously said he doesn’t write with a specific audience or age group in mind and even though the trilogy continues to be marketed towards younger readers, ‘The Amber Spyglass’ in particular becomes increasingly complex in its exploration of religious themes. Inevitably, the ending has also proven to be divisive among readers.

With the Book of Dust series and the forthcoming BBC TV adaptation of the ‘His Dark Materials’ books to look forward to, I’m sure lots of people will be revisiting one of the most celebrated trilogies of all time over the next few months. Are you planning to reread ‘His Dark Materials’ or any other books this summer?