April 11, 2011

His Dark Materials

Turns out this is a trilogy by Phillip Pullman. It’s made up of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It’s rather a convoluted plot, so please bear with me. I’m condensing as much as possible. Also, the plot may be somewhat offensive to some readers. Please remember that it’s a work of fiction.


Golden Compass: A spunky little girl, Lyra, gets embroiled in worldwide espionage when she saves her “uncle” Lord Asriel (really her father) from being poisoned. Her mischievous eavesdropping and subsequent rescue lead to a convoluted adventure to determine the very fate of God. Before any of that can happen, her best friend gets kidnapped (along with many other children), and she goes off to live with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (played by Nicole Kidman in the movie). Mrs. Coulter turns out to be one of the bad guys, so Lyra flees with her daemon (A part of her soul that appears as an animal. Everyone in that world has one.) and her alethiometer (the golden compass, which allows her to ask any question and get a true answer). She’s taken in by gyptians (think gypsies) and together they go to the far north, save an armored bear from indentured service, and go off to rescue Lyra’s best friend and the other kids who were kidnapped. Turns out the kidnappers were working for Mrs. Coulter, who is also Lyra’s mother. They were experimenting on them to see if removing their daemon would enable the children to somehow exist without the taint of original sin, which the bad guys think comes from elementary particles they call Dust (no, I didn’t really follow the reasoning either). Either way, all the experiment did was kill the kids.

So, kids saved, Lyra and bestie Roger are reunited and go off with previously mentioned armored bear, Iorek Byrinson, to his homeland to return the throne to Iorek and to see Lyra’s dad who is imprisoned there. Lyra fast talks the false king, Iorek tears his jaw off and eats his heart, and Lyra sets off to see Daddy. Turns out Daddy has a crackpot plan to open a hole in the universe and set off to kill God (known here as the Authority). To succeed he has to kill Roger by separating him from his daemon and setting off some sort of cosmic bomb. He does all that and goes off into the mist, Lyra following. End scene.

The Subtle Knife: We’re introduced to Will, who is from our world. He’s trying to take care of a schizophrenic mom, who’s not entirely paranoid for nothing because strange men have been showing up and asking strange questions about his long-lost father. The strange men break in; Will tackles one of them and accidentally sends him down the stairs, where he presumably breaks his neck. Now running from the law as well as the strange men and in search of his dad, Will comes across a weird looking spot of air in the suburbs of Oxford. Closer examination reveals that it’s a hole to another universe. Will goes across thinking he’s found the perfect hiding spot.

The other universe is virtually empty of adults. It’s plagued by ghost-like creatures called Specters that eat adult souls. Kids are just fine. There Will runs into Lyra. They agree to help one another. Lyra finds a physicist in Will’s world who has also discovered Dust and it turns out that it’s some sort of sentient particle that collects around conscious beings and their artifacts. (All I can say is, “Don’t question the movie.”) Lyra also runs into a kindly old man who turns out to be a bad guy and steals her alethiometer. This sets up a standoff in which the guy promises to return it if Will and Lyra steal a knife from the other world. When they do, they discover that the knife has the ability to cut anything in the universe, including the fabric between the universes. This leads to the stealing back of the alethiometer and Lyra and Will fleeing from Mrs. Coulter and her bad guy buddy who want both Lyra and the knife.

The kids are aided by witches from Lyra’s world and do a pretty decent job of escaping. Meanwhile, Will’s dad turns out to have been stuck in Lyra’s world and is now in search of him to tell him that the knife is the most important weapon in the war against the Authority. Also, Lyra’s physicist friend, Mary, talks to the Dust who tell her to go to another world and play “the serpent.”

Coulter and her baddies catch up with the kids. While Will is meeting his dad for the first time, she kidnaps Lyra and kills all the witches save the witch queen who was out on a side mission. Will learns that he’s of the utmost importance in the war, his dad is killed by a witch who was scorned by him, and two angels appear to him to lead him to Lyra’s dad. Will refuses until he can rescue Lyra.

The Amber Spyglass: Lyra spends a good part of the book asleep in a cave in the Himalayas of her world, where her mother has her drugged to keep her away from the church, who wants to kill her. Turns out that witch prophecy says that Lyra will be the new Eve, and the church would like nothing better than to kill Eve before she can be tempted. Will spends a good amount of time trying to find her. He hooks up with Iorek Byrinson, armored bear, and together they find Lyra with the help of Will’s angel friends.

Battle ensues. The church and Lord Asriel’s forces both show up the same time as Will. The church wants to kill Lyra and take the knife for themselves; Asriel wants the opposite. The battle provides cover for Will to save Lyra, but in the process he manages to break the knife. Coulter is captured by Asriel. Finally, Iorek uses his awesome bear skills to fix the knife, though it goes against his better judgment. (Did you not know that armored bears are very skilled metal workers? Who do you think makes the armor?)

Knife fixed, Lyra and Will go on a quest to the world of the dead. Lyra feels she needs to apologize to her friend Roger (from the first book), and Will wouldn’t mind talking to his dad again. They manage to cut through with the knife and get to the ferry that will take them to the world of the dead. Only problem is that daemons can’t go to the world of the dead and every live person has one whether you can see it or not. Lyra’s daemon is left behind to great pain and misery on both sides and Will also suffers.

Turns out that all dead souls are brought to a dull, gray, endless wasteland with no way out. No heaven, no hell. More like hell though, because the keepers of the world are harpies that scream at you with every bad thing you ever did in life. Lyra and Will make a deal with the harpies to lead them to a place in the underworld where Will can cut a hole into another world and let the souls out. There they would break into tiny pieces to become one with all of creation.

While they’re traversing the world of the dead, the church tries to assassinate Lyra from afar with some sort of bomb that targets her in any world so long as they have some DNA. (I thought this was the least plausible of all the highly suspect parts.) Mrs. Coulter escapes Asriel in an attempt spy for him against the church, unwittingly supplying the hair needed for the bomb, and then tries to stop the church. Disaster is averted, but a giant fissure is created in the fabric of the universe and Dust starts pouring out.

Back at the ranch, the dead are released. Happy dead people. Lyra and Will go off to find their daemons and in the process accidentally kill the Authority. He was really old and they found him in the woods after his guard had been killed. In trying to release him from his crystal litter, the wind pulled him apart. Asriel and Coulter, meanwhile, sacrifice themselves to kill the Regent to the Authority who was the one with all the power. Lyra and Will find their daemons and escape into the same world the dead are being released into.

In the new world they meet up with Mary, who plays serpent by recounting how she fell in love when she was a teenager. Suddenly Lyra and Will realize they’re really Romeo and Juliet. All would end happily ever after, except that all this cutting between universes is letting the Dust leak out and if all the Dust leaks out then consciousness goes with it. Also, you can’t live for more than a couple of years in a different universe from your own. Only one door can be left open, and Will and Lyra decide that it must be the door for the dead. And so, they are parted forever. The end.

Other thoughts:
  • Dear goodness, that was really long and complicated. Believe me, I left out giant parts of the story, and it’s still that long.
  • There was a lot of highly theoretical and mature topics in these books considering that they are young adult fiction. Just because the main character is a kid doesn’t mean that the books are aimed at children. I sort of think it’s dirty pool to aim this at children without making sure there’s an adult they can talk to while reading it.
  • The series has been billed as the anti-Narnia. Now, I have not read The Chronicles of Narnia yet. Regardless, it took an entire book and then some for me to finally pick up on the whole, “Let’s kill God,” plot. Clearly this is where it differs from Narnia.
  • On that same note, I was not nearly as bothered by the let’s kill God idea as I thought I would be. Let me explain. First, I have a very strong, “This is fiction,” instinct, because if someone suggested this in real life, I would take issue. Second, in reality what the author seems to want to kill is not God himself, but the oppression of the church, here symbolized by the actual God. He’s not entirely wrong in asserting the fact that the church has been responsible for some of the worst oppression and persecution in history. Still, it’s a pretty risqué plot line.
  • From a dorky physics major perspective, the fact that he cast Dust as dark matter was both cool and kind of ingenious. For those who don’t know about dark matter: based on the math, for the universe to exist as we know it, it should, in theory, have a whole lot more matter than what we can measure; the theory goes that dark matter makes up the rest of it. It’s all around, but we can’t see or measure it. In the series, this is the source of consciousness and intelligent thought.
  • I do sort of wish I had a daemon. It would be cool to have an awesome animal companion all my own that could talk to me.
  • Lame ending. I don’t see why we couldn’t have had a little happiness there. At the very least, he could have given us a nice epilogue about how Lyra and Will live full and meaningful lives.
We are now coming to Shakespeare. I’m going to try to do it a play at a time and provide some mini-post commentary on the way. Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing with the novels. Anyone have a copy of Rebecca I can borrow?

1 comment:

  1. Hey - as you know I took a pass on this series because I read the first book earlier in life and hated it but I'd love to join you for Shakespeare! I also have a copy of Rebecca that you can borrow. I'll bring it in tomorrow. =)


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