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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.