About Me

My Photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (slightly spoilery discussion)

Spoilerz lurk in wait below. Yawl are warned.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Okay ... first, I'm glad to have read this now-classic trilogy. Although it has young protagonists and is popular with a youthful audience, the three novels that make up His Dark Materials are sufficiently complex in their language, themes, and psychology to appeal to adults, even adults who are well read in literary fiction. I wouldn't hesitate to give a set or a one-volume version as a gift to a grown-up who enjoys fantasy (and that's just as well, since I did exactly that before reading it ... I gave it as a gift to a friend a couple of months back, thinking, from what I knew about it, that she would enjoy it).

In fact, there's much to love about His Dark Materials. The main character, Lyra (the little liar), is vivid and likeable, though sometimes I wanted to shake some sense into her (why do we imagine that we can actually do that!?). The adult characters - particularly Lyra's mutually-antagonistic parents, Lord Asriel and the amazing Mrs Coulter - are wonderful literary creations. I really enjoyed the armoured bear king, Iorek Byrnison. These and others will stay in my memory.

Similarly for the magical objects that play a large role in the trilogy. The subtle knife that gives the second book its title is especially notable - we are made to feel just how powerful and useful, how sinister and dangerous, this weapon is. Once again, the action surrounding these objects is vivid, detailed, and memorable.

The trilogy's values are also noteworthy, and I applaud them. The implied author clearly sides with freedom, effort, love and sex, and the bold recognition that life is complicated and ambiguous. Sam Harris might not like it, but lying is often showed as justified and useful in the particular circumstances that the characters face throughout; seemingly evil characters turn out to have some wholesome aspects; and no one ever suggests that momentous decisions are easy. All in all, this is a story that can only be salutary for young, maturing people. It challenges inflexible, absolute moralities, and stands in favour of love, joy, and a resolute acceptance of life's complexity.

All that said, I thought the last book, The Amber Spy Glass, particularly its final 50 to 100 pages, was a bit of a mess. As I inched towards the ending, I kept wishing that Pullman's editor had shaken some sense into him (even though we know that this never actually works ... see above). The main plot is resolved long before the book finally comes to an end, and the last 50 pages in particular seem tacked on to ensure an unhappy, or at least poignant, ending, and to make didactic points about the need to compromise. Worse, this was not a case of contriving a resolution that was unrealistically neat and happy; the sense of contrivance was certainly there, but apparently to avoid a neat, happy resolution as far as possible, even at the cost of introducing hand-waving and special pleading.

Conversely, some of the most important thematic and psychological conflicts, involving Lyra's relationships with her parents, needed a lot more resolution to be satisfying. Important characters disappear from the narrative with no real pay-off, and generally the whole wrap-up feels untidy and unsatisfying. That's especially disappointing when the first 800 pages of the trilogy (which runs to some 930 pages in my single-volume edition) are so good.

Notoriously, Pullman uses a version of the Catholic Church and a version of the Christian God (and his chief supernatural minion) as his evil-doers. This only really becomes important in the third book: up to that point, and especially in the first volume, the bad guys could be almost any cruel, sinister, authoritarian organisation. We could easily work out its resemblance to the Church for ourselves (as I gather happens with the movie of the first book, which I still haven't seen). By the end, this plot point was seeming heavy-handed to me, though I did find some of the anti-clerical diatribes placed in the mouths of the characters both apt and eloquent. Cheers for Pullman to that extent.

In all, reading His Dark Materials was an interesting, thought-provoking, positive, generally enjoyable experience. Much of it will stay with me, and I do recommend the trilogy for both teenagers and adults. But the last book could have done with some serious re-thinking and was a bit of a let-down.

9 comments:

ColinGavaghan said...

I agree with pretty much all of that. Pullman himself is on record as saying that he saw the trilogy partly as an antidote to CS Lewis-style depictions of adolescence as a spiritual tragedy. For Pullman, gaining knowledge and acquiring adult feelings is something to be celebrated, not mourned as a loss of innocence.

His position on 'God' is worthy of Bakunin; if there is a god, he is a tyrant, and it is our duty to rise up against him. All that, and gay angels too. Meaty stuff for a nominally YA book, & thoroughly admirable.

But I agree, the ending is horribly contrived & emotionally manipulative. (Though obviously effective enough for Russell Davis to rip it off for Dr Who!). China Mieville does a lovely piss-take of it at the end of UnLunDun. Still a cracking trilogy, though.

Russell Blackford said...

"For Pullman, gaining knowledge and acquiring adult feelings is something to be celebrated, not mourned as a loss of innocence."

Russell Blackford said...

^Comments not working well. Anyway, nicely put. I gotta say, though, that I'd have preferred it if the kids had been a couple of years older. I have nothing at all against exploring teenage sexuality, but even I found just a leetle bit tacky that we had those intensely erotic scenes between characters who were supposedly only 12 or 13. If they'd been 14 or 15, even, I'd have felt this much less.

ColinGavaghan said...

I suppose PP's point would be that, however awkward it makes us feel as adults, that probably is about the age that these feelings start to dawn, so - given the centrality of that transition to his message - there's a case for depicting it realistically.

I don't think I was a freakishly precocious kid or anything, but I also don't think I'd have empathised much with Will if he was a 15-year-old experiencing his first lustful stirrings.

(There again, I'm half way through George RR Martin's Ice & Fire series, so I guess I'm getting pretty inured to uncompromising depictions of nascent sexuality in fantasy realms!)

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's a matter of taste and judgment - I'd defend Pullman against censorship or any serious criticism about this. I was quite angry about the backlash against Bill Henson a few years back, and blogged about it at great length. But the kids and their experiences made them seem older than 12 or 13 to me. But then again I was distinctively non-precocious in my erotic life. I didn't have any real erotic experiences involving a girl (as opposed to urges, etc) until I was 16 and the girl concerned was 14. I guess that's untypically late by modern standard and even by the standards of the time.

Eamon Knight said...

Ditto on the discomfort at the implication that Will and Lyra are boinking at a rather young age, and with no mention of contraception. However, I mostly liked the books (which I read about five years ago). The first felt like kid-lit, but Pullman got into his stride during the second one.

The movie was a bit of a disappointment. It's visually sumptuous, but felt narratively clunky. It was sort of like a richly illustrated graphic novel of the books, but it was like, "Here's the pictures for this chapter of the book; aren't they nice? Now here's the next chapter..."

Disclaimer: I tend to react that way to movies of books I like -- I want to see "How did they handle this scene, that character?" It's only on subsequent viewings that I get into the movie on its own terms. So YMMV.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think they're necessarily boinking, bonking, screwing, or whatever term we prefer. I was wondering about this as I read those scenes, but as far as I could tell they were just pashing as we'd say here, or making out as Americans say. That's not so outlandish for kids of 12 or 13, I guess.

Still, whatever they're doing is pretty erotically charged. Maybe part of the problem is that it seems almost voyeuristic reading this as an adult. But then again, I wouldn't have felt like that if they'd been an age where adolescent kids are more obviously sexual beings. E.g. if they'd been 16 I'd have had no problem at all thinking of them as basically adults for this purpose.

Part of it, also, is how much we're required to think of this as not just a couple of kids pashing but as True Undying Love. But again, even that wouldn't have seemed so implausible if they'd been just a bit older.

I'm starting to think that the problem is more with me than the book - i.e., how you respond may depend, in part, on your own memories of adolescent sexuality, and of course those are going to vary a lot.

Robert Oerter said...

I agree - extremely inventive but a bit of a mess.

The theology that comes in at the end - Metatron and the insane creator God - is drawn from early Christian Gnostic writings. To me, that part seemed just shoehorned in to make a polemical point.

ColinGavaghan said...

I suppose, at least in Will's case, we can plausibly account for his maturity by reference to the fact that he has basically been caring for his mother for years. And by the time romance begins to blossom, they have shared some pretty extreme experiences.

One of the powerful non-fantastic elements in Martin's series deals with the manner in which young girls are flung around like bargaining chips on the occasion of their 'flowering'. While it's quite understandable that the producers of the tv series opted for somewhat older actors, it does serve to deprive the story of some of the real visceral impact of what is going on, in Martin's world and - not so very long ago - in ours.