Happy Anniversary: His Dark Materials

2020 marks two milestones for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the UK publication of its first volume, Northern Lights (published a year later in the United States as The Golden Compass); and the twentieth anniversary of the international publication of the third, The Amber Spyglass (both Knopf).

 

All three novels in Philip Pullman’s sweeping fantasy trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) were starred by The Horn Book Magazine. In the intervening years, the books have begotten a major film adaptation; an HBO series; several novellas; and a companion trilogy, The Book of Dust (the first two entries of which have been published so far).

The original trilogy has also inspired quite a bit of controversy due to its religious — or rather, anti-religious — content. A rebellion against the ancient and now-impotent Authority, the power-hungry Regent of Heaven, and the corrupt human institution of the Magisterium is building strength, and the fate of billions of interconnected worlds rests on the shoulders of young protagonists Lyra and Will.

         

I discovered the trilogy in my senior year of college. And while I had grown up in the Catholic church and attended Catholic school, I was increasingly feeling alienated and disappointed by its doctrines. I was grappling with a big, scary question: how can I be good and do good without religion — without God?

The entirety of His Dark Materials is Pullman’s answer to that question. The trilogy’s moral philosophy is complex and layered, but a passage near the end of The Amber Spyglass is about as concise a summary as possible: “We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are…there isn’t any elsewhere.”

I had another question, one that was more pragmatic and pressing: what the hell am I going to do after I graduate? Pullman’s trilogy offered guidance, albeit in a more roundabout way, to this dilemma as well. I had recently discovered YA fantasy and was reading it insatiably, initially to escape the stress (and less interesting reading!) of my English degree program as I neared its end. But finishing His Dark Materials — in floods of ugly tears — marked a true turning point for me. I realized that books written for children and teens could be as complex, engrossing, and heartrending as any other literature, and as worthy of serious study. I wrote my senior thesis on the trilogy; stuck around another semester to take a few children’s lit classes; was accepted into Simmons’s children’s literature master’s program; and eventually interned, and then worked for nine years, at the Horn Book.

Re-reading the trilogy in 2020 — in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, economic depression, potentially catastrophic climate change, and protests against white supremacy and police brutality — was a profound experience. Our world and especially our nation are in tumult, with leadership that is incompetent, corrupt, and self-serving. How do we survive this historic moment? How can we emerge from it as a more equitable and compassionate society? Again, His Dark Materials has some applicable lessons:

Start now. Start where you are.
There isn’t any elsewhere, and no one but us can envision and build a better world.

Happy anniversary to the beginning and the end of this remarkable trilogy, which asks plenty of difficult questions and provides no easy answers, but whose wisdom and reassurance are as important now as ever.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. See also Katie Bircher's Out of the Box blog post A visit to Lyra's Oxford (and other British children's lit landmarks).

Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, formerly editor of The Horn Book Guide, is a freelance children’s and YA editor. She's also a former bookseller who holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons University. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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