What is His Dark Materials?

Mary McMahon

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of young adult fantasy novels written by Philip Pullman. The novels have received numerous awards in their native England and abroad, and they are often compared to works like the Chronicles of Narnia or A Wrinkle in Time. The themes in His Dark Materials are quite complex, and as a result the novels have attracted a great deal of scrutiny, attention, and controversy. Numerous bookstores carry the novels, and are also happy to order them for customers.

"Paradise Lost," by John Milton, is often referenced in the "His Dark Materials" novels.
"Paradise Lost," by John Milton, is often referenced in the "His Dark Materials" novels.

The trilogy consists of Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife, (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2001). In the United States, Northern Lights was released as The Golden Compass. Pullman claims to have been heavily influenced by Paradise Lost, a work which is often referenced in the novels, and they have clearly also been influenced by the fantasy genre in general, but His Dark Materials are about much more than simple fantasy, tackling topics like theology, physics, and philosophy.

The plot of the novels centers around the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belaqua and Will Parry. The children live in parallel universes; Will lives in a world which appears to be identical to our own, while Lyra lives in very different circumstances, in a world dominated by the Magisterium, a deeply conservative Christian church which appears to have a stranglehold on her society. The role of the Magisterium in the novels is a common topic of discussion and controversy, as Pullman's painting of the Church is far from favorable, and the novels assaults ideas like God and the Christian heaven.

Christians have expressed understandable unease with His Dark Materials, as the books are intensely anti-church. Pullman himself suggests that the books are a “moral reversal” of traditional Christian beliefs, calling them the “anti-Narnia.” While these qualms are certainly valid, many people think that the books also have a valuable place on any shelf of modern literature, and some Christians actually greatly enjoy them, along with the criticisms they contain. His Dark Materials also contains an interesting exploration into the nature of the soul and sacrifice which rings true in the hearts of some readers.

Pullman has also attracted a great deal of public attention himself, by speaking acerbically about beloved authors like C.S. Lewis; Pullman is quite vociferously outspoken about the “evil” of the Chronicles of Narnia, arguing that the books send a negative message to children. He has also commented negatively on classics like Lord of The Rings. The author's stance on classics of the fantasy genre has not made him popular among many fantasy fans, including those who enjoy his books.

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