Book Review

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I try being kind to myself. It's alright.

So, yeah, as mentioned elsewhere fucking constantly, I’ve had a breakdown. I’m not suicidal any more, but I do still kinda wish I was dead. Despite that, and listening to the voices of my friends rather than the voices in my head [and the external voice I’m trying my hardest to ignore], I’m keeping on keeping on, like, moving forward and trying to get my life on track (nb: not “back on track” because, let’s be honest, it wasn’t “on track” before I had my fucking breakdown).

So, in this new (temporary?) world of sobriety (if you exclude the antidepressants and shittonnes of caffeine), I’ve been attempting to “be kind” to myself. This phrase now means something very different to what it has meant to me for the last few years. Normally, historically, a “treat” for myself was the abandonment of all propriety and a slip into angry hedonism. Normally, historically, a “treat” was a pint of negroni, three bottles of wine, a quantity of cheese weighing more than my dog and an avoidance of anything stressful for days. But, no more.

Now, being kind to myself doesn’t mean trying to forget that I fucking exist, that my thoughts and my mind and my existence aren’t a waste of air… Now, being kind to myself means actually being kind to myself: i.e. not feeling bad about things I’ve failed to achieve and – instead – feeling good about things I have achieved; not feeling bad about eating too much, about being bald, about being ugly, uncool, boring or sad and instead feeling good about myself for the positive attributes that I have (and I do have some, lololololololol). But the main thing, the other thing, the serious and relevant TO THIS BLOG thing that I’ve done to be kind to myself is rereading. And not just rereading any book, not rereading a book because I didn’t “get it” the first time or because I’d forgotten I’d read it, but rereading a book because I needed a treat, rereading a book because I needed something fucking good in my life, rereading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman because I knew it would give me about 30 hours of absolute joy. And, thank you very much, it fucking delivered.

This post isn’t going to be long because it’s after midnight and I have to get up at around 7 to travel up and down the country for a day. This post also isn’t going to be long because I think it would be very easy to accidentally write a book-length essay on the majesty of Pullman’s huge, three-part novel and I don’t want to risk getting started on one. Part fantasy epic, part reimagining of the Bible, part adventure story, part philosophical exercise, both a children’s book and a deeply, deeply, literary text, this is a complex, rewarding and engaging book and I don’t think I’ve encountered many things that succeed so well with such an ambitious premise.

If you don’t know His Dark Materials, you’re missing out. It was published in the years surrounding the year 2000, and its first part, Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in America, which may be a worse title but makes for consistency with the titles of the other two parts) tells the story of Lyra as she journeys deep into the Arctic in a world similar to ours but not the same. It is a story with talking animals, witches and revelations about parenthood, and does – on its own – feel more like a very good children’s book rather than the literary masterpiece that the full text grows into, because what His Dark Materials (through the later parts The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) becomes is a deeply intellectual exploration on the nature of humanity, what makes us people, how and why we feel. (In many ways, Pullman is inventing  mythology that could be used for spiritual practice.)

In the many worlds that Lyra and her parents and friends travel through, every conscious being can be split into three parts: a body, a ghost and a daemon. I’m not going to go into detail about it here, because I’m tired and I’d’ve probably already gone to bed if I wasn’t poaching a chicken breast for my handsome little hunk to eat (my dog).

I slipped into Pullman’s clean prose and initially felt transported into a different world, tagging along on Lyra’s adventures. The Northern Lights feature as an increasingly significant image as the first part of the story progresses, and eventually the aurora are transformed/destroyed into a huge portal from Lyra’s world to another. The only misstep His Dark Materials makes occurs in this break between part one and two: Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father and the man who will lead the fight against a corrupt and ancient God, suddenly shifts from outsider with an unproved theory to commander of an interspecies army with very little time passing. This too-quick change aside, however, and Pullman’s text is difficult to critique with any aggression.

Pullman evokes emotionality in characters that would ordinarily lack it: his witches are not terrifying villains, but flawed, compassionate and principled individuals; his academic characters are motivated by differing intentions and have complex personal histories; the fantasy animals he invents, the mulefa, are both intelligent and naive; the Texan aeronaut who sacrifices himself for another is charming, brave, but reckless…

I wept many, many times, I was thrilled by the adventure and I was provoked into thought many times. I’m not very happy at the moment, and many parts of His Dark Materials are very sad. It has a profound focus on mortality and death, on ageing, maturity, adulthood and the importance of physical existence (something Lawrentian about it). The worlds constructed within these pages are worlds that may be fantastical, and though the people within these worlds may do fantastical things, almost all of them are human and flawed and complex and able to change and develop. There are perhaps a handful of minor characters whose plot function doesn’t require complex characterisation, but the vast majority of people (be they bears, angels, wheeled diamond-spined elephants or humans like us) appear on these pages as fully-formed individuals, with concerns that a reader can recognise and empathise with.

So, yeah, it’s not an overwhelmingly happy text, I didn’t choose to reread something that would put me in a good mood due to being funny or light or optimistic, I chose to reread a book that would scratch a nostalgic itch for my own adolescence, but also give me a deep, valid, emotional, literary experience. Like all the best books, it’s all about sex and the body and death, and not in a subtle way. This is a mature and enveloping giant, three-part novel, and though I may not be as stable as I’d like to be, there’s a part of me that is pleased – in a small way – to live in the same world that His Dark Materials exists in. It’s a book that can be enjoyed by children, but that doesn’t mean it’s shit. There is a LOT to enjoy here, and rereading it as an adult (to clarify, I last read it maybe when 13/14) I found parts of it significant that had passed me by as a child (which I definitely was then).

To be honest, I could go on spewing disconnected thoughts about this book all night, so I’m going to stop now and go to sleep. His Dark Materials is beautiful, I highly recommend you read or reread it.

NB: Absolutely fucking appalled by a line in the introduction to this edition describing a character in the novel with serious mental health problems as “pathetic”. Pullman’s depiction of the character was written with sensitivity and compassion, both things that his introducer – who I won’t name – lacks.

8 comments on “His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

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