I just finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Except for the last hundred pages, it’s great. It’s wildly inventive, uproariously fast-paced, and bubbles with characters that could each have been given a book of their own.
The closest comparison is with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Space Triology– ironically, since apparently Pullman hates Lewis. But both authors have multiple worlds, talking animals, wise professors and wiser children, good and evil semideities, a devotion to Oxford, and a philosophical agenda. The Gallivespians owe much to Reepicheep. They even both have a similar view of war: they find it a terrible thing, yet look most admiringly on noble and powerful warriors.
As for that agenda… Lewis and Pullman aren’t as far apart as they might think. What with the manifested souls, exaltation of consciousness, angels, life after death, and references to the Bible and Milton, this is hardly an irreligious view of the world. It’s deeply anticlerical, certainly; but you could say the same of Jesus, whose harshest words targeted the organized religion of his day. The repressive anti-joy Magisterium is a parody of the Papacy, but its theology is not Catholic but Calvinist. And I can’t abide Calvinism myself; there’s something really nasty-minded in its determination to abolish free will.
The last volume is unsatisfying, however. The great temptation for authors (and comic writers) is, I think, to fall in love with their characters. They stop making mistakes; the other characters fall in line behind them, protecting them from harm; and here, they even fall for each other. It’s particularly disappointing here because both Lyra and Will start out as sympathetic antiheroes: Lyra is a lying half-savage; Will is a loner with blood on his hands. They end up separated, but this is pure authorial fiat; Pullman has simply imposed an annoying restriction on them, one which contradicts the main themes of the book. Wasn’t this a book about getting into the wider universe and rebelling against arbitrary rules that prevent human happiness?
The movie, by the way, is fun and lovely to look at, but largely just illustrates the book, without adding much character of its own. It moves so quickly that there’s barely time for many of the characters to register