Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy took me a while to get into as a kid, but by the time I’d finished reading it, it had, rather ironically, become a sort of bible for me. I recognized that these books were full of wisdom, and their wisdom touched me deeply in ways that I continue to explore. At twenty, I’ve seen a little more of life than I had at twelve, and I find new levels of meaning every time I reread each book.
The thing about His Dark Materials is that it isn’t a children’s series. But then, it’s not really adult literature either. For me, this is a series that defies age boundaries because it has so much to say about humanity as a whole. Pullman uses children as the vehicle for a message that is much richer and more complex than childhood itself. The end of childhood is not the end of the journey as it is depicted in so many children’s books. Instead, it is the beginning of a new and beautiful and deep appreciation of having a presence in the world. Pullman writes of his protagonist at the end of The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the series,
“[Lyra] felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and the lights coming on” (444).
Lyra’s entrance into maturity, both sexual and emotional, is also the beginning of an illuminated presence. With her newfound knowledge of love and desire comes light, not darkness, nothing evil or impure. To me, this series is most profound when it speaks to our fear that when we are no longer children, we lose the best part of ourselves. Instead of trying to regain an innocence that we can never again achieve, why not strive to appreciate the natural order of things? Why not revel in the hefty presence of a physical body and its needs and rhythms? Why not love ourselves for being human, for growing and changing and learning?
Along with their emphasis on the sexual awakening that comes with adulthood, the books tell us that all people have the potential to love, that life is precious to everyone who can think and feel and be:
“She wasn’t Lyra just then, and he wasn’t Will; she wasn’t a girl, and he wasn’t a boy. They were the only two human beings in that vast gulf of death” (Spyglass 360).
To be human, Pullman seems to say, is to cling to others in the face of death. Life begins to have true meaning when we (through Lyra and her friend Will) realize that death is a void, and that the beating heart of humanity is the only thing that anchors us in the world of the living. The physical body, not the purity of the soul that accompanies an ignorance of the body, is ultimately the most important part of being human. And being human in the best way we can is the best thing we can aspire to. As Will says,
“Angels wish they had bodies. They told me that angels can’t understand why we don’t enjoy the world more. It would be a sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and our senses” (Spyglass 439).
Pleasure is good, Pullman says, and for this he has been judged by those who believe that his books work against a traditional Christian morality. Be this as it may, his message about pleasure has its own morality. Lyra and Will are Adam and Eve in reverse, and the world of humanity is the new Garden of Eden. They gain knowledge by trying to help their friends and by developing a mutual trust in one another. The forbidden fruit, then, becomes the most beautiful and desirable type of love. And the passion that stems from this love is not sinful, but rather the natural extension of love.
Pullman’s trilogy transcends boundaries of age and gender and addresses what is human in all of us: our consciousness and our questions. While his books leave room for interpretation, they provide reassuring answers as well. It’s okay to enjoy life, Pullman seems to say, as long as we are good and kind people. This might seem to be the simplest of messages, but in a world that’s as convoluted and complex as our own, it takes a long time to get there.
Miranda Hoegberg is a summer intern for Indiana Review.
Very insightful and thoughtful piece.