It's counterintuitive, but last month's camping trip got me caught up on my reading. You'd think that all the portaging and spider-killing would have left no room for books, but the nine of us passed around The Hunger Games and a few lefty magazines with an obsession bordering on Talmudic. In my tent, hopefully away from the spiders, I hoarded Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, which turned to be a kind of literary to-do list for when I got out of the canoe and back to a bookstore. Chabon went nuts for His Dark Materials, a trilogy from 1995 through 2000 by Philip Pullman. It was marketed in the same vein as The Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter septilogy - a fantastical children's epic - but the truth is, it's not really a story for children. Lyra, the main character in the first novel, and her buddy Will, introduced in volume two, are both pre-teens, but the thematic juice in the books is God, death of. With all due respect to the Potterites and the Narnians, Pullman's books go places kid's lit usually doesn't: deep into the bowels of purgatory, for example.
The books are plot-heavy, for sure: with a cast of thousand (hot air balloonist? Okay!) and geographically stretching over at least four different worlds, there's a lot of territory to be covered. They start with an evil plot to separate children from their daemons, the animal familiars that are the outwards embodiment of a person's soul (Chabon rightly points out that a major draw for readers is daydreaming about what one's own daemon might be), and ends up with God, the Authority himself, climbing out of his crystal travois, gibbering some nonsense at Will and Lyra, and dying. The relief the aged, insane deity feels at this final goodbye is palpable.
Pullman's books feature all kinds of magical elements - talking animal familiars, polar bears in iron armour, witches on broomsticks, shamans, and a knife that cuts through the fabric of the word - but the most wondrous and prevalent is Dust. It pervades the books from beginning to end, and is a mystery throughout. It's attracted to adults but indifferent to children. It seems to be tied to the natural world (it helps fertilize trees and erupts from the aurora borealis), but is only visible under certain scientific instruments. It reacts to human consciousness, but humans seem unaware of it. It's weird. The man does a beautiful job of making his readers wonder what, exactly, this ethereal substance is.
Since he was publishing at the same time as the wildly popular Potter series, Pullman's would-be detractors focused a lot of their energies on Harry and his ilk's witchy ways. But Pullman was far more subversive. He was often overtly critical of the Church, and of the blind adulation for authority he thinks the religious have. He literally goes ahead and kills God, and two main characters perish into a bottomless void with God's proxy, a thundering angel called Metatron. Potter's world contained a lot of good v. evil stuff, but J.K. Rowling never murdered a deity.
At the end of the books, a shadowy underworld that hitherto had been populated by vicious harpies is transformed into a place where dead folks go to tell their stories. They're guided by the reformed bird women to a place of great beauty, where their corporeal form transforms into golden particles, recycled into the natural world for all eternity. Heaven, which had been a rolling warship in the sky, is destroyed in a battle, and with no God and no Metatron to build it up again, it seems lost forever. The source of Dust - which turns out to be the physical manifestation of knowledge and experience - is renewed constantly with the dead. Even God, upon dying, turns into Dust - no more above or below anyone else, but part of the natural order of everything.
The books are confusing to read if, like me, you were brought up in a psuedoreligious household that had a vague understanding of God = good. It stands to reason, then, that the lack of God, the death of God, would be a tough break. But Pullman paints the church in a different light: in his books, the church campaigns against knowledge and understanding, since it was eating the fruit of knowledge that got us all into this clothed, dying mess in the first place. They see Dust as the manifestation of sin - which, you know, going back to that apple, it is. But not in a bad way.
Which is why I doubt that kids reading these books, if there are many, are getting the whole metaphysical dynamic. Truth be told, I had a hard time understanding a lot of what was going on. I studied the Bible in university and went to church as a kid, but the battle between good and evil, where Bad is the church - not evil church offshoots, but the legit main pillars - and Good is the upstart rebels campaigning for more information - is kind of a mind-blower. Say what you want about Harry Potter (and I lost interest around the time the book that was all about quidditch was released), but it was always clear who to root for.
That's the appeal of Pullman's so-called children's books. Usually, we like our books to have a stern and stately moral compass. But Pullman? He leaves us a little adrift, so we need to figure out what, exactly, we're rooting for here. Some of the Church-affiliated characters are sympathetic, while others are jerks; some rebel characters are huge egotistical nightmares, while others are people you'd want to drink bourbon with. He leaves it up to us. And God's death isn't the end - his particles are everywhere, in all worlds, just everyone else's. It's one of the more ambiguous books I've read in a long time, but it's a challenging and interesting one. Pullman's push for knowledge, for the Dust to settle on us all, is a lovely, weird, frightening story.