book-reviews

His Dark Materials

by Philip Pullman

Rating: ★★★★★

Coming back to a series from childhood is a little worrying. The fear is that the story that once seemed so rich and enthralling will, with the perspective of age and experience, look awkward and cliche. Plot that once seemed smooth might be filled with holes. Characters once relatable could become shallow and despicable. The choice to revisit, then, becomes double-sided. Do you hold to your memories alone in fear of what a second look might reveal, or do you trust the book to stand up to a fresh exploration?

His Dark Materials fares pretty damn well. Lyra may be a child, alternately wild and spoilt, but she is no fool, and Pullman makes you respect the fierce little liar. Will is a different beast, a masculine role-model, hardened to a quiet and cold strength. One my favourite lines comes when Lyra asks the alethiometer if Will is a friend or an enemy, and it replies that he is a murderer. Lyra relaxes at once.

This is not children's stories as overprotective parents imagine them. There is not only your usual array of danger and adventure, but murder, cruelty, rending loss and rebellious theology. Children are not innocents, and nor are they helpless. A man of sufficient daring might tear the fabric of the world and confront God himself. There is a spiritualism here, of a vague New Age kind, all pure intentions and living-life, but what Pullman throws up is of little importance to how he tears down the alternative.

An easy recommendation for children and adults both, this is a fantasy story which would keep both parties to the bedtime story wanting more. Part of this is the depth to it, the Gnostic philosophy lingering under the surface. Part of it, however, is just Pantalaimon's teeth, the knife-fight on the roof of a temple, the bare-faced lies to bears out past the edges of civilisation. More children's books could do to remember this little spark of wilderness.