For the past couple of months, my daughters and I have been living in the fantasy world created by Philip Pullman. Every evening we make ourselves comfortable on our cosy sofa, I open the book and read the next chapter. Evening readings replaced TV-films quite a while back, and now we all enjoy following the currents of our imagination carried forward by a great story. And Philip Pullman’s story is truly great.
The trilogy His Dark Materials does what all good fiction must do: tell a captivating story, create characters that you care about, avoid black and white, explore existential themes. At the centre of the plot is an 11-year-old girl, Lyra, who gets caught up in the power struggle of important adults. Inquisitive, impulsive and very stubborn, she wins the reader over by her determination to do what’s right. And that is the biggest question of the story: what is the right thing to do? Should you strive for collective or individual good? How far into hell will good intentions lead you? What is God and does he deserve to live?
While reading I sometimes make a pause when my daughters want to clarify something. They want to talk about the reasons for actions, they love finding inconsistencies – that sometimes get explained by the author and sometimes not – and most importantly, they empathize with their favourite characters.
One of the best ideas of the author is a creature called a daemon (it’s not a spoiler in any way because daemons appear on the very first page). A daemon is an animal representation of a person; a part of the human soul. Lyra and her daemon talk to each other, they play and do everything together. These are two parts of one whole. This concept alone led to numerous discussions with my daughters about the animals that could represent us and why; about different parts of our selves and our consciousness. It’s fascinating to see how reading paves the way for self-awareness and self-discovery.
The other day my daughters were wondering if Ms Coulter and Lord Asriel, the main adult characters in the book, were good or bad. It was amazing (and amusing) to see their attempts to judge their actions and place them in just one box: black or white. It’s a new experience for them to meet characters who act abominably in one situation and heroically in another. Pullman’s world is a long way off the soothing clarity of Hogwarts. There are no wise Dumbledors, no thoroughly evil Voldemorts, no wicked Malfoys. Lyra’s world is much more like ours where good and bad are relative and context-dependent.
In one of his interviews, Philip Pullman said that he was inspired to write His Dark Materials by his laziness. He claims to be too lazy to travel the world, so he conjures up his own. Apart from having a vivid imagination, he is a master of description. Lyra travels through the different terrains of her world, and she also visits several parallel worlds. All the places come to life thanks to detailed descriptions of houses, people, animals, plants, the sky and the weather. In his youth, Philip Pullman wanted to be an artist. He regrets never having had the opportunity to study painting. But books are where he seems to make up for it.
PS The trilogy His Dark Materials includes three books: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. In 2003, the trilogy was ranked third on the BBC’s The Big Read poll.