Some years ago I spent two terms teaching English at a girls’ grammar school and during that time I tried as best I could to encourage my students to read for pleasure. At the start of one lesson with a group of Year 7s (that’s 1st year seniors in old money, so 11 and 12 year olds) I took from my bag the book I was reading – it was Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace , I remember – and after I’d explained the story so far and we’d made a few guesses as to how it might end I asked if anyone else was reading a book they thought the rest of us might enjoy. And a miraculous thing happened. There was a kerfuffle at the back of the room as a chair scraped backwards and a backpack was hastily unzipped, and then a skinny, bespectacled, little thing (I’ll call her Margaret as a tribute to MA) who had never volunteered to speak out in my lessons before was suddenly brandishing a book. That book was The Amber Spyglass, the third volume (I know now) in the Pullman triolgy collectively known as His Dark Materials. Margaret was aghast when I admitted I hadn’t read it; hadn’t readNorthern Lights even, the first in the series. ‘It’s like you’re really there,’ she told me, ‘except it’s not the you that people see, it’s the you inside that can’t get out.’ She flushed beetroot when I asked her to continue so I promised to read Northern Lights and left it at that.
That was nine years ago. Scary, how fast the years disappear. But little Margaret’s uncharacteristic outburst had stayed with me for the best part of a decade, so when hubby was pressing me to name books I wanted in my Christmas stocking I decided it was high time I stuck to my word. In a fit of enthusiasm hubby bought me not only Northern Lights, but The Suble Knife and The Amber Spyglass to boot. Oh well, in for a penny…
Northern Lights concerns the child, Lyra, and is set in a world that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Earth. In the second volume,The Subtle Knife, the scope expands and we move between Earth, where we meet the boy, Will, Lyra’s world, and a third world devastated by ‘ethereal vampires’ called Spectres. In the third and final volume,The Amber Spyglass, we move between those three worlds and many more besides, including the world of the dead.
Before reading the trilogy, His Dark Materials was firmly lodged in a pigeon-hole in my brain labelled ‘Children’s Fantasy.’ With hindsight that’s a bit like calling Sophie’s World a Whodunit. Sure, there are witches and talking bears and tiny people (the Gallivespians). But then there are also angels, including Xaphania, ‘one of the angels who rebelled so long ago’ and intervened in human evolution to give us consciousness – hang on, that’s what Satan did – and Metatron, The Authority’s appointed Regent, who ‘was once Enoch.’ The Bible characterises Enoch, Adam’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, as a man who ‘walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him.’ (Genesis 5,24) – a holy man, a patriach. But in Pullman’s story Xaphania is one of the good guys, an ally of Lyra’s father, whereas Metatron is the baddy who ‘wants to set up a permanent inquisition in every world’. And The Authority – God – ‘was never the creator. He was an angel…the first angel’ and he ‘has retired…and…no longer runs the daily affairs of the kingdom.’ Wow! This makes The Satanic Verses and The DaVini Code look like models of orthodoxy. But whereas TSV and TDVC each mooned at one major world religion, HDM sticks two fingers up at all three. Small wonder The Times described it a ‘courageous and dangerous.’
But Pullman doesn’t limit himself to religious heterodoxy. Add into the mix particle physics, the ancient Chinese divination system of I Ching, Greek mythology, environmental science, shamanism, parallel universes – I could go on – and you have metaphysical speculation on an epic scale.
Perhaps Pullman’s most intriguing creations are the daemons, pronounced demons. You might see these engaging characters as familiar spirits, or as guardian angels, or as manifestations of the soul, or as anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious self – Jung’s anima and animus if you like (particularly as a daemon is usually of the opposite sex to its human), or as all of these, and more, rolled into one. And we’re introduced to our first daemon in line one!
But huge concepts and extraordinary connections alone don’t make a good book. You need characters. You need a plot. Well, this has got them in spades. At times there were butterflies in my stomach. At times I felt my chest tighten. At times I was blinking back tears – slightly embarrassing, that, given I was reading on the train. I’ll admit the penultimate chapter of the third book strayed slightly too far into teenage-angst territory to hold my interest entirely but this is a minor quibble in the context of the other 75 chapters of the trilogy that did.
So, if by some chance you’re reading this Margaret, thank you so much for the recommendation, and here’s to the ‘you’ inside, whatever we choose to call it.
Overall rating: **** (one of the best books I’ve read this year)