Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Book(s) Review: "His Dark Materials"

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) has won all manner of awards, and every one of them seemed well-deserved to me. I decided to read all three books now so they'd be fresh in my mind for the first movie, and enjoyed all three a great deal. The first, The Golden Compass, was probably my favorite of the three, but each of them is quite imaginative. Together they make one of the best fantasy series I've read; I rate them right up there with the Harry Potter canon and Tolkien's works.

Pullman has created some brilliant plot devices through which to explore some of the most contentious issues in human society and retell Milton's great epic Paradise Lost. Alternate universes abound in these books, where humans' souls take animal form and accompany them through life as tangible companions, armored bears rule the Arctic and a grand alliance is formed to defeat the nefarious Authority. Through it all, two young people make their way through a dizzying labyrinth of adventures and escapades as they seek to unravel the mysteries of life, faith and Dust (Pullman's term for the force that seems to resemble the Christian concept of "holy spirit").

Some evangelicals and conservative Catholics have decried these works for their portrayal of organized religion, but while Pullman's books are very anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic, they are also deeply spiritual and very provocative in their examination of intense theological issues. I thought of them not as anti-religious, but as a direct critique of those who claim that their interpretation of faith is the only "right" way. I found BU religion professor Donna Freitas' take on Pullman's books very compelling, and agree with her conclusion: "It is a beautiful story, and a Christian story. It is a story that could prompt believers to reflect on their faith. It is just not a story that everyone may want you to read."

Absorbing characters, polished prose, and an important message about the role of faith in our lives made these books all the more interesting to me. Highly recommended.


Catherine said...

Thanks for your thoughts - I've been looking around the web to see what bloggers are saying about the books. I just posted mine as well here if you're interested. I'd love your feedback!

J. L. Bell said...

I like the His Dark Materials very much as well. For me The Subtle Knife was the strongest book. Of course, it suffers from “Empire Strikes Back syndrome”: as the middle of a trilogy, it doesn’t quite stand on its own. Even though we need no background for Will’s story, since it begins here, we’re still coming on Lyra in the middle of her adventure. And the big big BIG issues must wait to be resolved in book 3.