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The Dark Materials Trilogy
by Philip Pullman
Sam North reviews the first of the great apocalyptic trilogy

“Is it all coming on us now, Will? We can’t rely on anyone else now, can we...We’re too young...If poor Mr Scoresby’s dead and Iroek’s old...It’s all coming on to us, what’s got to be done.’
From the Amber Spyglass

It isn’t a secret, for last time I looked millions of copies of Northern Lights have been sold in paperback and I am sure there are similar figures for The Subtle Knife in paperback and if The Amber Spyglass isn’t selling by the boat load, then the world is truly upside down and the devil is winning.

Philip Pullman is without doubt one of the finest authors working anywhere in the world today. This is no exaggeration, no hyperbole. If you haven’t heard of him or his books, or that he won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award , the Smarties Award of the Carnegie Medal, where have you been?
J.K. Rowling may have become the world’s favourite author and read by children and adults in every language in the world, but for some reason, the work of Philip Pullman has not been catapulted into the world’s consciousness outside of the UK. We know of Harry Potter and his ‘cute’ friends, but of Lyra Silvertongue, Will Parry, King Iorek Byrnison, the cruel Mrs Coulter and ambitious Lord Asriel they apparently know little.

When you begin a journey by reading the first of the trilogy, you are alarmed, then in rapture, finally you have a copy of all three at home. I sincerely believe that every child of ten or more should be so exposed to these fantastic tales and absolute truths. Every adult would benefit from reading about Lyra, every hypocrisy we hold so dear to our hearts, every religious belief we would question and the realisation that we are all living a lie would be the only conclusion. More than anything I’d like to see the pope read it just before he gets apoplexy from its conclusions.

Northern Lights is not just a challenge to the average reader (Quite how anyone thought these were for children is beyond me). The very text is controversial. Explain a world where the truth can be devined with the use of the alethiometer, where everyone has a daemon - a visible soul that takes the shape of an animal at will, where bears can speak, and some, secretly, can travel between parallel worlds. A world where a vindictive Church with a dedication that mirrors the worst of the Spanish Inquisition seeks to slice the souls out of their own children, turn a whole generation into zombies who will never challenge their authority.

Northern Lights is number one in the Dark Materials trilogy. It is obsessed with truth, above all with Dust, an invisible enemy to the Church, a source of enlightenment to others.
These books are so riveting, so necessary, so much about darkness, goodness and evil, so not ‘cute’. The principal heroine Lyra is famous for being a liar, her eventual friend Will, abandons his half crazed mother to search for his explorer father who disapeared mysteriously. Lyra’s own mother is a torturer, her father a disgraced grandee who seems bent on challenging the very authority of God. Allies switch sides, trust is freely traded, and it as normal to meet a witch as it is to meet an Angel and in the skies fly Zeppelins and gyrocopters. It is one moment a late 18th century England and the next our world, or another, populated by frightened children afraid to grow up because when they come of age the ghosts will suck out their souls.

If you say... well there is no way I am giving such a book to a child, it will terrify them, you are right. But say, unlike letting them watch videos of Hannibal Lecter or read Stephen King, which are petty loveless exploitations of the worst of humanity, Northern Lights and the sequels are a celebration of the richness of life, a fantastic illumination on prejudice that is the heart of every religion, a harsh judgment on humanity and the most uplifting, harrowing, inspiring literature that has been written in decades. You don’t have to sneer at talking armoured bears, these are the most noble creatures you could hope to meet. You will know they are right to shun the venal plans and plots of the human race. You will recognise that if Philip Pullman had not written ‘bear’ but substitute Native American Indian and you would see that Pullman is a deeply spiritual writer who has set out to inform, educate, elaborate. He does not shy away from making the material a challenge, he does not seek to substitute difficult words for easy ones, there is absolutely nothing easy about this books, except this, once you start, you physically cannot do anything else, you have to read it through, you have to continue, you simply must buy the Subtle Knife and then the Amber Spyglass. Lyra Silvertongue will enter your psyche, the characters will become part of your dreams and your will pray that someone can afford to make them into movies. *Since writing this is was made into a movie that had a spectacular look and feel but under the name The Golden Compass. It made around 180 million bucks but wasn't considered successful enough to continue the series. A real shame.

Buy Northern Lights now and begin a journey that will stay with you a lifetime.

© Sam North 2001

Some thoughts about Amber Spyglass and Subtle Knife: August 2002

The idea of cutting from one world into the next with the world's sharpest knife is quite unique. But this isn't as far fetched as you would think. Imagine disappearing down a hole in a street in Birmingham and popping up in a street in Kabul two years ago. A country where there was no singing, no women allowed to be educated, working was frowned upon and the soccer stadium used for weekly executions of people who didn't agree with an oppressive system of government that was crushing the life out of a whole people. The people who were cheering the murder of their fellow citizens are still there.

This is one world, but you don't need a knife to peer into the horror of the next. A jet or TV will do.

Pullman, through his books, pulls us through these holes into other worlds, but he's also saying that this world where we read his books in is full of parallel worlds, if we care to look. And Lyra's father isn't crazy to want to argue with God himself, because so much mayhem is loosed in the world in his name, or the name of other gods. The madness that will soon engulf Iraq is entirely stoppable, but the slaughter will begin, right about the time George Bush needs votes in November. Cynical. I think not.

Sadly we lack talking bears and angels to gather forces to stop tyrants and evil. But we have words, and good words can connect with readers' eyes the world over. The forces that gather for the final battle in Amber Spyglass are dramatic and victory is by no means assured. What wins in the end is enough people coming together with a common will and determination to beat back evil. The Dark Materials are a window into our world, a knife that reveals the stupidy of crass ambitions of many 'leaders'. His books speak to us because aside from how beautifully they are crafted, they speak to our subconcious. He opens up our hearts and minds and precious few books are capable of that anymore.

Although many say, how sad it is we don't have daemons of our own, we do. Children feel it stronger. You can get back your daemon, but it requires strength, purity of thought and an admission that maybe you are not alone. (Of course start talking to yourself on the Tube and people will lock you up.) One of the reasons we look for a partner in life is because instinctively we know we are not complete without another soul beside us. Not all of us find the right daemon, some of just find demons, but if you are lucky and choose well, that partner will be the one who understands your thoughts, encourages you to be brave when you need to be and cautious too.
When Will and Lyra part, a little of yourself goes with them. You pray they can find a way to meet again - somehow.

Buy Amber here -

From a reader Lisa Scott

Lyra and her Books Date : 16 Aug

I totally agree with your article on Lyra Silvertongue.I was always quite an advanced reader, searching out hard adults books instead of the soppy thin childrens books. I would read the old classics, then I discovered Harry Potter. I loved the idea of children being heroes or heroines and mixed with fantasy and adventure they were perfect. As I waited impatiently for Harry Book number four I egan to read more books abbout fantasy. Then I bought Northan Lights and was hooked. I was only ten but I understood it all, the murder and evil didn't scare me just made me desperate for more. Quizzing people at my school I found I was the only one to have read any of the His Dark Materials series, however nearly seventy five percent of the class had read Harry Potter the others had heard of him. I just want to say that I found your article riveting and I loved the way you tackled every angle.
Lisa Scott
Bazzeria (my daemon)

Ed: Thanks Lisa. Good to hear from you and here's to hoping that Phillip Pullman can find the strength to wrote more about Will and Lyra. I hope so, it's all quite addictive.

From Tony: Jul 25 2002
People everywhere should raise their glasses in a toast to Phillip Pullman. The books are sinisterly enjoyable, the different themes give it a certain edge that makes it a imperative to complete. I am fourteen and began to read them when I was about twelve, and I loved every part of it. Since after the Subtle Knife, I always search for a strange portal in the air, or a cat that disappears into thin air. The entire stories are about a battle between good and evil, truth and lies, bravery and fear. Also since they came out, I've been hoping there would be a movie about the books (let us pray that it is never Disney who make it, and that it's George Lucas). Lyra , Will Parr, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel are the some of the greatest characters I've read about, and when supported by Iorek Byrnison and Serafina Pekkala become even better. The only thing I have left to say is... Children, beware the Gobblers!
Adults, beware the Spectres...! From, Tony Kelly, Glasgow

I have literally just read your article and am currently reading 'The Amber Spyglass' and am on chapter 8. I am obsessed with the books. They are so much better than Harry Potter although I really like them. I donšt understand how so many people haven't heard of this trilogy by Philip Pullman. You just simply can't get better than this! Phillip has so much depth and imagination for these books. I found myself crying in ŒThe Subtle Knifeš when Mr. Scorsby died. Pullman actually gets you imagining you're there in all the action and how he does that is beyond my knowledge. Once you pick up the book you just can't put it down. It's unbelievable. You end up feeling so much for the characters themselves such as the unique Lyra Silvertongue and Will.Iorek Byrnison and Mr. Scorsby. Serifina Pekkala and Roger. I don't understand why this trilogy has not been made into a film. It would be amazing and if it isn't done by the time I'm older I will do it myself. This is no childrenšs book. Although I feel a mature 12 and over. The third book is confusing at times I can imagine for younger readers but that wonšt put them off a bit. I encourage everyone to read this book and I can assure you without a doubt you will fall in love with it in 5 minutes of reading time. By Amy Romer. age: 13
August 9th 2002

Sam Morris-
This is one of my favourite books of all time and will remain so untill the end of my days. I could never imagine being without a copy. This book to me - as with everyone else who has written in from what I have read - is like the bible to the pope, wings to an angel or armour to King Iorek Byrnison (though I'm sure he'd kick just as much ass without it). Phillip Pullman is an extremely talented writer and I have read all of his books I have discovered to date. Many of my friends have read this trilogy and those who haven't I have strongly advised it for what is life without Dust and Lyra. I also believe that if a film is made to the same standard as that of the book (just like Lord of the Rings) it would leave an abyss so deep in the world of film making it will never be forgoten. But for now I'm overly content with just the books. From Sam Morris, 16. August 13th 2002

August 15th: Vancouver

Thanks readers for sending in your notes. It is truly amazing how much Pullman's novels mean to people. I met two strangers in a restaurant in Salt Spring island - (An island off Victoria Island, British Columbia yesterday). It was the perfect place to meet Pullman addicts. A restaurant built around an old plum tree, the branches forming the roof. A girl asked me my favourite book and naturally I said Northern Lights and the others and immediately her eyes lit up. She had just read them and was keen to discuss them. Better yet, a boat designer was sat in the corner and he'd read them all too and was deeply affected by them. Three people - all strangers, sat under a plum tree in the corner of the world united by one triology.
Dust spreads everywhere.
Sam - editor at Hacks.
author of
Mean Tide

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