His Dark Materials: Good Stuff

I’m finally getting around to fleshing out my thoughts on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I finished about a week ago. And to start things off on a positive note, I’m going to start by talking about the things that the serious does extremely well.

The first book (The Golden Compass) is great from cover to cover, and there’s almost nothing bad to say about it. The heroine is marvelous, the settings gorgeous, and the world-building intriguing and complete. My favorites have to be the panserbjørne, though: giant armored bears who “make their own souls”. Iorek Byrnison is one of the most memorable figures of of recent fantasy literature, and he rightfully sits next to Aslan in the pantheon of dangerous-talking-animals-who-help-little-girl-protagonists.

In fact, what I remember most about the first book is the colorful, intriguing cast of secondary characters: the witches, the gyptians, and especially the Texan Lee Scoresby. I wished the second and third books had more of that–but then, I wished a lot of things about the second and third books.

Also, it’s impossible for me to talk about this book without bringing up the controversy and hostility the book generated in Christian circles. Some of the criticism was justified: Pullman’s clearly has it out for the Church, and his polemics derail his plot, especially in book 3. (More on this later.) But there was some rather hysterical stuff, especially lines like this: “I pointed out that, in these books, everything we normally associate with safety and security—parents, priests, and even God himself—is evil, is indeed ‘the stuff of nightmares.'” That says too much. Lyra’s actual parents are pretty nasty, but her surrogate parents (the gyptians, and to some extent Iorek Byrnison) are loving and courageous. In fact, there’s quite a bit of Christian virtue to be found in the heroes of the books, and a great many valuable or wise lessons imparted by Lyra’s surrogate parents.

As for the priests and God, that will have to be a separate post.

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