His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass

His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials #1-3) - Philip Pullman Pullman's His Dark Materials have been described as an "atheist's Narnia." It's certainly the only series I've read comparable in ambition and quality in the genre, and as such I think it shares the major attractions and weaknesses of C.S. Lewis' Christian fantasies for children. I read Tolkien, a friend and fellow Christian of Lewis, didn't like Narnia. He stated in his introduction to Lord of the Rings that he doesn't like allegory, and that's exactly what those two series have in common, and it's both their weakness and strength. In the first book, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) Lyra's world was so engaging, with its armored polar bears, it's flying witches, and above all its animal "daemon" companions, the polemic flew right over my head. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, primarily in our own world where we meet the boy Will Parry, it was more evident, but at the same time I loved how Pullman weaved together science and religion, dark matter and consciousness and sin, making his book as much science fiction as fantasy. I felt more mixed about the third book, The Amber Spyglass, at first, where these themes become more blatant. The first time I stopped two-thirds through at "No Way Out." Just as at first I first stopped at Narnia's first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I felt the Christian allegory had overwhelmed story. I can point to the very passage that put me off in The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra explained to ghosts trapped in hell that if released "all the atoms that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never vanish. They're just part of everything." That seemed so...atheist dogma. I call myself an atheist, because it's what I am--someone who doesn't believe in a god or gods. But that doesn't mean I can't recognize the secular humanist cant that tries to find a substitute for the idea of heaven to put the fear of death at a distance, and I find the idea hollow and as much an orthodoxy in its way as Dante's heavenly spheres. A friend of mine feels that "Pullman's avil-shaped anti-church polemic ruined the series" and frankly, insert a "almost" between "polemic" and "ruined" and I don't disagree. Nevertheless I returned to The Amber Spyglass, ironically after making my way through the rest of the land of Narnia, and I have to admit that despite how I feel about the, to my adult mind, blatant polemic, just as with Narnia, there is just so much about this novel and series I find brilliant. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman acknowledges a debt to Milton's Paradise Lost and the poet William Blake, and I can't help but admire how he used those materials. There are so many scenes that stand out to me in this third book. The description of the Underworld is riveting from the very beginning, where bare earth is "beaten flat by the pressure of millions of feet, even though those feet had less weight than feathers; so it must have been time that pressed it flat, even though time had been stilled in this place." Possibly the most moving scene in any of the books is the one in this book where Lyra parts with her daemon Pan at the shore of hell's river. This really is an anti-Narnia, and I think I can appreciate His Dark Materials more for having read Narnia. In Narnia, to grow up is to lose access to that magical land, and it's better to die young than to lose innocence and with it faith. Pullman's message is the opposite. He values experience, knowledge, life. And while Narnia's ideal land is a kingdom, Pullman's is a republic. Although I'm more sympathetic to Pullman's vision, I'd give Narnia a tiny edge. I like the children of Narnia more than Lyra and Will. (Although Lyra grew on me, especially in the last book, and I liked Will from the beginning.) Narnia is more exuberant in its imagination, more charming, and it has more humor. But in the end I still do love Pullman's story as well, which feels more unified in its themes. (And it's not dated in its depictions of race and gender the way Narnia is at times, and the last paragraphs of The Amber Spyglass, unlike Narnia's final book The Last Battle, didn't leave me wanting to hurl the book against the wall; indeed the last line left me smiling.) I'm not sure how children are taken by His Dark Materials. I know people who read The Chronicles of Narnia as children and loved it said the Christian allegory went over their head. Maybe the didacticism I find off-putting in Pullman would go over their heads as well, leaving them only with the wonder of flying witches, gypsies, armored polar bears, tiny people who fly on dragonflies, antelopes with trunks that roll around on seed pods, and above all the lovable animal daemons that are part of each human's soul. I wouldn't hesitate to give children--and adults who love fantasy--both sets of books as gifts: food for the mind and imagination. Edit: A friend of mine said she did read it as a child, that she was 12 when The Amber Spyglass came out. She said she was aware of an underlying message, but it didn't bother her at the time, and the books were favorites, though she hasn't read them since. She thinks that children just have a lot more tolerance for being preached at than adults. She loved Narnia too btw.