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His Dark Materials | Study Guide

Philip Pullman

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His Dark Materials | Context


Literary Influences

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

His Dark Materials has often been compared to the works of English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, best known for The Lord of the Rings (1954), and British novelist C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950+). Philip Pullman, though, rejects those comparisons. He thinks that the Tolkien books, epic fantasies that are both intricate and entertaining, leave out what Pullman believes makes great literature: "human nature, emotion, in the ways we relate to each other." Also Tolkien was a devout Catholic and did not question either religion or the Church.

C.S. Lewis's Narnia series contains Christian themes, just as Pullman's His Dark Materials does. But Lewis, a lay theologian who studied a field of Christian theology that presents logical support for the doctrines of Christianity, communicated those unwavering beliefs in his books. Pullman's works, on the other hand, show a strong criticism of both Christianity and of organized religion in general.

John Milton

English poet John Milton's Paradise Lost tells of the fallen angel Satan's banishment from heaven, his temptation of the first humans Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the paradise of the Garden of Eden for disobeying the laws of God. Milton's poem presents Satan as a fully realized, sympathetic character who rebels against an authoritarian God. Readers are often seduced into sympathizing with Satan, whose charisma and introspection make him frequently more compelling than the cold, absolute God. Milton himself frequently argued against unquestioningly accepting orders or dogma and was a key figure in the rebellion against Charles II of England in 1685 after his restoration to the throne in 1660. Milton sided with the Parliamentarians who believed that the king existed to serve the people and not the reverse, and so critics have suggested that Milton empathizes with Satan or feels ambivalent about God's authority.

Pullman considers His Dark Materials a retelling of this story of the fall from grace, with Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry playing the roles of Eve and Adam as they gradually lose their innocence and are exposed to evil in the world. But where Paradise Lost ultimately presents the fall as tragedy, Pullman presents Will and Lyra's transition from innocence to experience as entirely good. As he said in one interview, "It is good for people to know things, to grow up, to become sexual beings." Another difference is that Milton's stated purpose in Book 1 of Paradise Lost is to "justify the ways of God to man." Pullman's purpose, on the other hand, is to encourage people to question the ways of God, certain religious doctrines, and perhaps the existence of God entirely.

William Blake

English poet and painter William Blake had a strong belief in the Bible but was hostile to the Church of England and most forms of organized religion. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1789 and 1794) explores the differences between children's and adults' perceptions of the world and between innocence and knowledge. In Blake's view childhood is a time of protected innocence, but it is sometimes negatively impacted by the adult world. As children get older, knowledge of the world slowly brings additional exposure to, and sometimes corruption by, social, political, and religious issues—even though growing up is fundamental to humankind. Blake's poems, which are often cited in the headings of the chapters in The Amber Spyglass, show that people must find a healthy balance between the innocence of childhood and the critical knowledge that comes from experience.

Heinrich von Kleist

German poet, dramatist, and novelist Heinrich von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810) also examines the ideas of innocence and a fall from grace. It describes a conversation between a dancer and his friend, where the dancer comments that in some ways puppets are superior to humans because they are able to move with more freedom and grace than their human counterparts. They are never self-conscious or display affectations. They are, in an odd way, "pure." But since people have already irrevocably become thinking creatures, their only hope is to move forward toward total knowledge. This belief of the virtues of knowledge over innocence is a key idea in His Dark Materials.

Language and Naming in His Dark Materials

Pullman says in the preface that the story is set in a universe "like ours, but different in many ways." In this universe language has evolved somewhat differently than it has in our own universe.

One method Pullman uses to create this sense of semantic difference is to invent new words to take the place of familiar vocabulary. To accomplish this task, he uses Greek and Latin word parts, combines existing words to form new terms, and cites domain-specific terms in technical areas of study.

  • Instead of riding the subway or underground, for example, characters refer to the "Chthonic Railway station," formed from the Greek word chthōn for "earth," which also yields the word chthonic meaning "related to the underworld."
  • The Pacific Ocean is the Peaceable Ocean, a direct translation of pacific, which means "peace-making or tranquil."
  • Anbaric energy is an invented term based on the original etymology of electricity.

Other examples of Pullman's minted words are atomcraft for particle physics, naphtha for oil and petroleum, and smokeleaf for tobacco.

Pullman also substitutes archaic or adapted place names for the present-day names of countries. For example, Lee Scoresby, the "Texan" from the book, is from the sovereign nation of Texas within New Denmark.

  • Beringland (Northwest America)
  • Brytain (Britain)
  • Cathay (China)
  • Corea (Korea)
  • Eireland (Ireland)
  • Groenland (Greenland)
  • New Denmark (region occupied by the United States, east of New France)
  • Nippon (Japan)

To make the parallel worlds even more disconcerting, countries or places are not always situated exactly where they are in our own world, nor are they necessarily identical even when they appear in the same geographical space. For example, even though Lyra lives at the University of Oxford―which exists in her parallel universe as well as in ours―Jordan College, her home, is not a college in real-world Oxford.

Pullman also blends the familiar and the unfamiliar in naming characters. Barnard and Stokes, the two scientists whose theory of multiple worlds is considered heresy by the Church, bring to mind Irish mathematician and physicist Sir George Stokes and American educator and mathematician Frederick Barnard. Wise Farder Coram's name echoes an 18th-century English philanthropist named Thomas Coram. John Faa, leader of the gyptians, is the name of an actual historical Scottish figure who was recognized as king of the gypsies in the 1500s. The name gyptians is an archaic form of gypsies, who were once incorrectly thought to be Egyptian in origin.

Parallel Worlds and the Multiverse

Toward the end of The Golden Compass the scientist and explorer Lord Asriel tells his daughter Lyra Belacqua that there are "uncountable billions of parallel worlds." He explains that every new world comes about as the outcome of a possibility. For example, when one tosses a coin, there are two possibilities: it can come down either heads or tails. But if it comes down tails in our world, another world splits off where it came down heads. The motif of parallel worlds continues throughout His Dark Materials, and characters eventually begin to move between the universes.

The idea of parallel worlds—also called quantum universes, alternate universes, alternate realities, and a variety of other names—that exist within a larger multiverse has intrigued scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians for decades. The concept is attributed to an American doctoral candidate in physics named Hugh Everett, who came up with his hypothesis around 1957. It was called among other names the "Many-Worlds Interpretation," and it was one explanation for observations and findings that seemed to contradict known physical laws. These contradictions, usually observed at the level of subatomic and elementary particles such as protons and quarks, seemed to suggest that there were laws operating in the universe on a level much deeper than those with which we are familiar.

As scientists continued to explore these ideas, they began to speculate that those unfamiliar laws might be functioning in other worlds or parallel universes. Some researchers believe, as Lord Asriel explains, that the universe splits when any action is taken that could have different outcomes. In that scenario there are worlds with alternate pasts and alternate futures. For example, there is a world where dinosaurs still exist because the asteroid that may have destroyed them missed Earth. There is a world where Australia was colonized by the Portuguese. Another version of the idea describes universes where multiple versions of ourselves are living in alternate worlds that interact with and influence each other.

The Church and Controversy

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials ranked number 8 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000–09. In 2007 the Catholic league campaigned against the series, saying it attacked Christianity and especially the Catholic Church. The groups who protest it point to the fact that the series has been marketed to young adults, and that the Church and its supporters are cast in the role of the villains or zealots. Characters such as the witch Ruta Skadi make observations such as, "For all [of the Church's] history ... it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse." A character called "the Authority," who is worshipped in the world of The Dark Materials as a god, is so frail he eventually dissolves when he is freed from his crystal box. His regent, Metatron, is portrayed as a tyrant whose ultimate goal is to suppress any independence exhibited by the people of the world. Some religious critics have therefore called the series "atheism for kids" or described it as propaganda aimed at steering children away from religion.

Pullman himself, although a self-described atheist-agnostic, maintains the series is not anti-God or antifaith. Instead, Pullman says, his books are more about the dangers of rigid doctrine and tyrannical religious institutions. He worries religion and belief in God are sometimes used as justifications for people doing "many wicked things they wouldn't feel justified in doing without such a belief." Surprisingly his views are supported by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church. Williams agrees the books are not anti-Christian but warns about the abuse of religion. He has even recommended that the books be used as the basis of religious study to fill in gaps in young people's education and to promote a dialogue that otherwise might not happen.

Critical Reception

His Dark Materials has won both wide acclaim and some notoriety. Not only is it a rich epic fantasy, it also dares to deal with some highly controversial themes in science, philosophy, and religion. These themes—which include a strong argument against organized religion and, some would say, belief in God—proved to appeal universally to both adults and young adults. The series has been enormously popular, with sales rivaling some volumes in the Harry Potter series in the United States and actually outselling them in the United Kingdom.

It has also won a number of important awards. The first volume, under the name Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the United Kingdom in 1995 and was later voted in an online reader's poll as the best Carnegie Medal winner in the 70-year history of the award. The series' most notable award, however, came in 2001, when The Amber Spyglass was named the Whitbread Book of the Year, one of Britain's most prestigious literary awards. It was the first time that the award had been given to a book from their children's literature category.

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