Note: this review discusses themes from the latest Philip Pullman book but avoids major plot spoilers; it does discuss previous books in depth, however.
Twenty-four years have passed since Philip Pullman first published Northern Lights, the first volume of the groundbreaking His Dark Materials trilogy.
In the world of Northern Lights, people’s consciousness exists both inside their heads, and in the form of a daemon, an animal that reflects aspects of their personality/consciousness/soul, which is both part of and independent from their human counterpart.
The book follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon, as she discovers her true parentage, learns how to use the truth-telling device known as the alethiometer, travels to the Arctic to rescue a group of kidnapped children, and learns more about the mysterious Dust that the Magisterium (roughly the Catholic Church) so desperately seeks to destroy.
Where Lyra is fearless in using her imagination to blag and lie and talk her way out of any situation, she finds herself learning from Will, whose contrasting skill is to make himself so unobtrusive and dull as to almost disappear. He finds himself the possessor of the Subtle Knife, a powerful object that can cut doorways between the different worlds.
On their travels, they encounter all kinds of creatures: angels, harpies, talking bears, the wheeled mulefa, and the horrifying Spectres that feed on people’s imaginations; and find themselves embroiled in a battle between free-thinkers and the Magisterium.
Pullman makes explicit his atheistic and humanist worldview in the books. Will’s father, summarising Pullman’s thesis, states “There are two great powers and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other.
“Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”
Pullman stated in an interview after the completion of the trilogy, that he had aimed “to undermine the basis of Christian belief... I find the books upholding certain values that I think are important, such as ‘life is immensely valuable’ and ‘this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place’. We should do what we can to increase the amount of wisdom in the world.”
The final book in the volume ends with a visit to the land of the dead, and the death of God. Not bad for a supposedly “young” adult trilogy. Reading the books as a young teenager felt thrilling, daring, subversive.
And it is for this audience, of young readers now grown-up, that Pullman has created his follow-up trilogy, The Book of Dust.
The first volume, La Belle Sauvage, published in 2017, is set ten years before the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Featuring a baby Lyra, and new characters Malcolm and Alice, the book was much darker and more violent than previous ones.
Though set in the same fantasy universe, La Belle feels more like a spy thriller than YA fiction. Proof of Pullman’s consistency in the rules of his universe, or “story bible”, came in a particularly shocking scene which sees villain Bonneville beat his own hyena-daemon in a brutal act of self-hatred.
The struggle against the Church authorities was made even more prominent in the book. Pullman’s obsessive love for his home town also continues (sometimes referred to derisively as “Oxford porn” by his readers), but which I find idiosyncratic and charming above all else.
The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, set ten years after the events of the previous trilogy, has been released this autumn. It sees Lyra as a university student on the trail of an unsolved murder, which leads to more revelations about Dust, consciousness, and daemons, and continues the ever-dangerous battle against the Magisterium.
Pullman does not just aim his fire against the dogmatic thinking of religious authority. Lyra becomes infatuated with two seemingly contradictory books: a philosophical novel that promotes selfishness and egoism over kindness of spirit, a nod to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and another which denies the existence of objective reality.
The common theme of both books, however, is the idea that beneath the clever wordplay and seemingly subversive and daring aphorisms lies little more than sophistry and justification for small-mindedness and selfishness.
The long quest Lyra undertakes in the book reflects her personal journey to reconnect with her more humane, generous, forgiving younger self — a self which embraced the “secret commonwealth” of magical creatures and other worlds, rather than just the cold formality of reason, logic, and inward-looking Objectivist-type thinking.
There have been some criticisms raised of the book: that it is too didactic, too long, too shocking.
It seems out of character that Lyra would distance herself from her childhood travels, and the kindly and patient outlook gained from those experiences. Some scenes of violence, or even just swearing, seem deliberately written just to remind the reader how “adult” this series has become. And must every character, whether romantically or parentally, unconditionally love Lyra?
There is additionally, perhaps a tension between Pullman’s rationalism and his fantasy universe. This is highlighted in the latest book’s fight against dogmatic rationality – the solution to which is apparently belief in the intangible and otherworldly, things which are arguably the kinds of superstition that Pullman argued against in the first trilogy. This is a departure from the consistency of the worldview and framework of previous books.
If the ideological contrasts seem one-sided or in places contradictory, the underlying thread of Pullman’s oeuvre does shine through, however: a belief in the necessity of human-centred politics, a philosophy concerned with the fates of individual human beings as much as society, an affirmation of the necessity of both art and science, in a humanist embrace of the labours of mind and hand.
Despite unsolved questions and flaws, this theme is what keeps the series fascinating and worth engaging with.
I’ve read numerous terribly-written sci-fi novels just because they have an interesting idea, and Pullman’s novel is far, far better than those. A step down from iconic is excellent, or at least very good, after all. And no-one can deny this is a page-turner. A sub-plot involves a refugee crisis caused by people fleeing from war and religious fundamentalists — not a particularly subtle modern reference, but still incredibly moving.
Pullman skilfully weaves the different narratives together, interlacing stories, leaving one character in a cliff-hanger situation before switching to another, with the rigour and plotting of a crime thriller. Yes, I probably would have read this latest addition to Pullman’s series anyway, regardless of its tensions and flaws.
But the masterful author has once again created an engrossing, thoughtful, humanist novel.