His Dark Materials: Loose ends and contradictions

This is part of a series of posts on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (henceforth HDM). Spoilers abound.

Having covered the two major flaws in Pullman’s HDM trilogy in the previous two posts, this last post is a disorganized collection of contradictions and loose ends that bothered me after I finished the trilogy.

  1. What is Lord Asriel’s origin? It’s hinted in a few different places that he is something other than an ordinary human, but this is never explained or followed up on.
  2. When did Lord Asriel get the time to build his alliance? He doesn’t get the ability to travel easily between the worlds until the very end of the first book, but in the third book we discover that he is the leader of a vast, trans-dimensional rebellion. When did he find the time to visit all of these dimensions and recruit his allies? This connects with question #1, because we’re led to believe that Asriel’s rebellion has been in the works for centuries or more, which is obviously impossible if Asriel is just a normal human.
  3. How did Asriel discover both that the Authority existed and that he could be killed? This is a counterintuitive combination of beliefs. It would be one thing for the skeptic Asriel to conclude that God/The Authority doesn’t exist; it would be another to discover that he does, and is immortal and indestructible in the way that the Church describes. It’s not at all obvious how Asriel came to believe that the Authority existed but could be destroyed.
  4. Why is the Magisterium afraid of Dust? Why do they oppose research into it? The most that the trilogy offers by way of explanation is the puerile assumption that because Dust is Good, the Church (being Bad) must oppose it. But this doesn’t explain anything at all. In particular, what does the Church think that Dust is? What bad outcome are they trying to avoid? I can’t possibly believe that the Church knew ahead of time that research into Dust could lead to the extinction of the Authority—from the interior perspective of the Magisterium, that would be impossible. We’re left with no motive at all, other than the bad guys being bad because the plot requires them to.
  5. What is the Authority’s motive? How do he and Metatron benefit from their (very weak) control of the world? Furthermore, if the Authority wants to control the world, why does he do it so indirectly through the vehicle of the Church rather than using his legions of angels? This ties into the general lack of a coherent motive for the antagonists in the trilogy. They’re simply evil because the plot requires them to be evil, and because Pullman wants to convince us that their real-world counterparts are evil.
  6. In what sense does Lyra “disobey” in the third volume? Her disobedience was predicted as being a world-altering event from the very first book in the series, but it’s not clear who or what Lyra is actually rebelling against. The “forbidden fruit” that she tastes is presumably her sexual discovery with Will (and I’ve already talked about the stupidity of that particular plot point), but who is there to forbid her from doing that? The Authority and Metatron are already dead. Everyone else in the book is supportive of her. This appears to be another instance of Pullman trying to force Lyra into the mold of a Second Eve against the logic of the story.
  7. The big one: the book’s treatment of God/The Authority is incoherent and self-contradictory. For most of the trilogy, we are told that God exists but is evil, and we need to kill him. After God is killed, Mary has a very long monologue explaining why she doesn’t believe that God exists… which contradicts the fact that we just spent the entire trilogy working against him. But never mind that. Even if we accept that the Authority is not who Mary means by “God”, this ignores that the trilogy is premised on the existence and goodness of Dust. And what is Dust? An omnipresent, all-knowing “substance” of some kind, which is responsible for the existence of conscious life, which has an awareness and motive of its own, which selects, speaks to, and guides the protagonists throughout the story. That sounds vaguely familiar. If only I could remember what people called that BENEVOLENT OMNIPRESENT FORCE WHOSE WILL THE HEROES HAVE TO ENACT. Maybe one of my readers can help me.

All of which comes down to a single recommendation: don’t bother reading the whole trilogy. Read the first book if you must, but know that if you skip the rest you won’t be missing much.

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4 Comments

  1. I continue to enjoy following your blog and seem to share much of your perspective (though the “aspiring” in “aspiring writer” is a bit more tragic in my case).

    I always assumed that Dust was the “real” God, essentially a panentheistic (though not conscious in the way we would understand it) quintessence of the universe. A sort of nod to the poetic metaphors about we human beings being star dust.

    Of course, I’ve never understood Pullman’s “lets make an alternative to God-stuff … gee I guess I’ll have to use magic”. This willful invention of meaning is oddly telling.

    From what I guessed the Authority was the first being to obtain what we understand as consciousness. When other beings came long after, it exhibited a natural instinct of self-preservation. It subjugated younger beings on the basis that they were an existent threat to his own life (perhaps it even fed on them in some way to extend its life). Metatron was what amounted to a necessary partnership with a being of potential rival power. So instead of trying to destroy or control Metatron with threats, the Authority bribed Metatron with power (also a means of control).

    Since the Dust is the “real” God or the quintessence or whatever, it is essentially the base power of all living things to be living and to live at a level of consciousness. There is power in the stuff therefore it is in the Authority’s best interest across all dimensions that Dust be controlled, if his eternal reign is to be preserved.

    He has many agents, though perhaps not enough without much delegation. The Magisterium is one such agent, the Angelic army another. Perhaps the army was needed elsewhere? Their entire purpose is essentially to stop folks from using Dust to overthrow the Authority. That’s why they forbid research into it.

    Also. What’s with all the shmex? Well, if Dust is life/god/whatever sex is the ultimate and proper mode of its nature. Immortality (which the Authority’s true goal, it’s own continuation) is a violation of the proper order which both depends on and produces Dust.

    I’m not quite sure what her having sex did, I mentioned before that none of that made sense to me, but its clear that the manifestation of her adulthood was central to the theme and what everyone was mucking on about throughout the books. Plot device, I guess.

    He wanted a metaphor, but ended up needing that metaphor stretched too tightly.

    I have no idea about Lord Asriel, but I always assumed he wasn’t human or at least was a human from some other dimension (which would make him not human as we understand it).

    I think what Mary means is that that Dust isn’t the God people are looking for. Dust isn’t conscious, but the stuff consciousness is made of. It isn’t “alive” but enables “life” to exist. It isn’t your friend and you can’t talk to it, serve it, or relate to it in any way. It just is. Sort of Daoist?

    1. It seems like you put more effort into disentangling the metaphysics of HDM than I did, as by the end of the third book I had pretty much thrown up my hands in disgust.

      You’re probably right about the Authority. It is established that he was the first conscious being, and I suppose achieving immortality is enough of a goal to motivate his efforts at domination. I’m still unconvinced of his need for the Magisterium, and I don’t feel that there is any satisfactory explanation for why the Church needs to suppress research into Dust. Perhaps the Authority thinks that research into Dust will threaten him, but that obviously isn’t the explanation that the Magisterium believes in.

      I, too, find it telling that Pullman aimed at atheism but wound up at pantheism. Dust is clearly not God in the sense that any of the Abrahamic religions recognize, but nor does it have any place in the impersonal, materialistic universe of the atheists.

  2. I’m a little scandalized that anyone could not love these books – trying very hard to tell myself you’re entitled to you own opinion.

    Anyway dust was, to the church, supposed to be the evidence for original sin, when in fact it is wisdom and the energy that connects all life. It’s sort of the Buddhist idea that the entire universe is alive and connected and conscious.

    The allegorical part comes in the sense that all scientific discoveries and changes in ideas and theories (earth goes round sun, evolution, etc.) were considered heretical. So dust, and the churches interest in it, is a metaphor for the churches desire to suppress wisdom and knowledge and scientific curiosity.

    Hope this helps…

  3. Oh and as to all the shmex… Whilst I agree that it was an anticlimax to some extent, the idea is supposed to be that dust loves flesh and matter. Dust loves humanity and anything of human making. The dust was drifting away into the abyss but Lyra and will gave it a reason to stay, they gave it hope. And this was manifested in their sexual acts of the flesh and if matter. The idea being that the more we experience the wiser we become

    … In my opinion 🙂

    But yeah… Anticlimax …

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