Sunday, December 14, 2008

HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy by Philip Pullman

I like Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so far (I'm about halfway through vol.2). The Subtle Knife, thus far, lacks the inventiveness and originality of The Golden Compass, but I'm still reading...The anti-theological satire seems more pronounced in book two, a trend which I hope continues, because Pullman has hit upon a fascinating idea for an alternate Earth: What would Europe look like if the Reformation had failed? No schism in Christendom, no Enlightenment, science referred to as 'experimental theology' and priestly spies posted to all science laboratories. This is all marvelous stuff, and Pullman handles it so subtly that only adults or attentive teens will pick up on it all.


Having just finished The Subtle Knife, I'm beginning to appreciate the Romantic audacity of Pullman's project. He is rewriting Paradise Lost in Nietzschean terms, imagining a story in which 'Adam' and 'Eve' bring about the death of God, destroy 'the Authority.' Magnificent. If he can pull this off, I will remove my hat and humbly eat it. This is a Romantic act worthy of his own daimonic Lord Asriel. Upon book three, The Amber Spyglass, rests the question of the success or failure of Pullman's Miltonic rebellion.


Well, Pullman didn't quite pull it off. The trilogy runs very well for most of its length, with few missteps, but then in the last third of The Amber Spyglass Pullman prematurely climaxes his most adventurous storyline, leaving the book to limp toward an anticlimactic, unsurprising denouement. A truly disappointing ending--and damn bad narrative construction. Until the last 100 pages, though, His Dark Materials is superior fantasy, illuminated by flashes of strong, strange greatness that lift it out of the genre bin and onto the literature shelf. Specifically, I'm thinking of the alethiometer and its interpretation, which can be interpreted as an allegory of reading; of the mulefa world, an invention worthy of Calvino; of the 'subtle knife' itself, a Borgesian space-time instrument that cuts like a moviola between different narrative worlds; of the very Borgesian concept of the possibly infinite number of parallel worlds; of Iofur Raknison's grand, gaudy, filth-strewn bear palace; of the dismal 'refugee camp' of the dead. This is all marvelous stuff--intelligent, literary fantasy at its best--and it's wonderful to think that kids and teenagers will read it and perhaps move on to investigate the works alluded to (Milton, Blake, Keats, etc.). Just as Jim Morrison led me to Blake many years ago, Philip Pullman might pull contemporary young people toward the canon. Harold Bloom's fulminations over Harry Potter's success seem overly curmudgeonly in light of the fact that some Harryheads will inevitably become Pullmaniacs and have their appetites whetted for the old books that inform Pullman's new ones. As a bonus, there's some biting anti-Christian satire in these books that simply delighted me.


julia schwartz said...

hi there, I stumbled upon this post- or should I say, fell through a window?. I agree quite a lot with your assessment. I loved the first 2 books and most of the third and then did feel let down by the end. I'm not sure what would have been better as I didn't want it to end at all. I want to add that I am a psychoanalyst and a painter. As an analyst, there is quite a lot in this series that works as metaphor for experiences of trauma- severed child, spectres; as metaphor for analysis itself- the method Lyra uses for reading the alethiometer; etc. I was working on a series of abstracted portraits ('bare subjects') while I was reading the books, and Pullman and his characters made their presence known; for some examples, you can go to my website at
I am also so pleased to have been directed to your website and your blog; love many of the same books. love to view paintings in the same way. recently was moved to tears while viewing at length a single Martin Kippenberger at MOCA in L.A. where I live, that opened a door (or a window?) to a new body of work. this is not yet on the website, still in process wet paint images on facebook page if you're interested... thanks, julia

BRIAN OARD said...


Thanks for the interesting comment. Your remarks on the psychoanalytic interpretation of some elements in the series show me that it's an even richer imaginative creation than I had realized. Even though Pullman might have constructed the last part of book three a bit better, the good in these books heavily outweighs the bad.

I went to your website and checked out the paintings online. Good stuff. I was especially drawn to the marvelously haunting "Fences#3", "Doppelganger," "End of Authority" and "Interpretation of Dreams". Your "bare subjects" are uncanny; I'm sure I've met some of those people in my dreams... Thanks.