After John Milton and his Paradise Lost, the second guiding spirit for much of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is William Blake. Its radical, subversive nature, its speaking truth to power, its combination of ancient wisdom and modern rebellion, are prefigured in the life and work of the great poet, painter and mystic. When we meet the Ancient of Days in the last novel of the series, Blake’s vision comes before us, though Pullman adds a few twists and surprises. We learn prior to his appearance that the Old Man, or the Authority, may not be the Creator. Gnosticism comes into play in the view that the god of organized religion is not the creator god, but a usurper, a demiurge, which follows yet another ancient pattern of divinities overthrowing divinities and rewriting history. Rather, their devotees rewrite history by expunging the previous layer of all-fathers. And so it goes.
Along with Milton and Blake, Pullman continues to draw from myth and legend as the series moves forward. Lyra and her friend Will Parry descend into the land of the dead to rescue Lyra’s friend, Roger, as Heracles rescued Theseus from Hades. Harpies appear and play a key role in the land of the dead, though Lyra manages to upset the apple cart for them as well. Long before that journey, Pullman adds two more magic tools in the form of an all-powerful knife that can cut through universes, and an amber spyglass that gives the owner, Mary Malone, the ability to see Dust and know part of its fate. As in many of the best stories, magic has a dual edge and brings both boon and curse. The subtle knife brings the gift of escape, of flight, of access to a billion universes, but also lets evil pass through and creates it in the process.
As I finished the second novel, The Subtle Knife, I wondered if Pullman had set too many stories into motion to ever reconcile. I wondered if he had moved too far away from the far more unified vision of The Golden Compass. It wasn’t until near the end of the third and last book, The Amber Spyglass, that I felt he had succeeded in bringing together the divergent strings. And there were many to bring together. Which was one of the themes of the series to begin with. Diversity, difference, and strings that bind us all. Things falling apart, moving away from each other, drifting away and exploding outward, but never really losing their center. Never really losing contact.
There are witches, good and bad, battling each other. The stories of two in particular are relevant: Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi. There are angels, good and bad, battling for supremacy, moving toward a cosmic day of reckoning. Balthamos, Baruch and Xaphania are in opposition to the most powerful of the seraphim, Metatron, who acts as regent for the Authority. There is the battle between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel for control of Lyra’s loyalty and destiny, which shifts and often surprises the reader. There are the Spectors, who sap the life out of adults, but can’t hurt children. And the least successful of the animal creations, in my view, the Mulefa, small, elephant-like creatures who teach Mary Malone more than a few life-lessons.
All of these strands point ultimately to a greater cosmic battle. But Pullman isn’t afraid of dealing with less grand emotions, ideas and philosophies along the way.
For me, perhaps the most amazing thing about the series is its refusal to take the easy way out. Pullman doesn’t try to tie things up with pablum, with greeting card logic, or platitudes. I think most readers will see the ending as open enough for broad interpretation, and few will be disappointed. Few will feel they’ve been had. Which is a more common experience than it should be with books that deal with philosophy, magic, mysticism and religion.
I highly recommend this series.