His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Chaired by Peter Rex Valentine

Geoffrey Catchpole

BRLSI Member

19 April 2005

The trilogy comprises Northern Lights (1996), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2001). The speaker’s interest was aroused through the BBC ‘Big Read’ poll of 2003 and the subsequent National Theatre play, together with an interview between Pullman and Melvyn Bragg, televised this year. A film is also pending. Enquiry of the audience showed that many had some acquaintance with either the books or with the other productions.

After noting the references to ‘poetic mixture of adventure, philosophy, myth and religion enriched by a heady brew of quantum physics’ in press comments, he noted that the intriguing title for the trilogy came from a passage in Book Two of Paradise Lost in which reference was made variously to several features which were to figure prominently in the trilogy itself, namely: an ‘abyss on the brink of hell’, ‘the womb of nature and perhaps her grave’ where ‘pregnant causes must ever fight, unless the almighty maker them ordain his dark materials to create more worlds’.

Turning to the subject of Pullman himself, the speaker sketched aspects of the author’s life and work, which also relate to themes in the trilogy. Much-travelled as a child, with estranged then deceased father and enjoying adventure comics, then in maturity teaching Greek myths in Oxford before turning to writing novels (some based on plays for children), the author had stressed in discussion that ‘writing stories’ was his principal interest. His methods of work indicated that elements of stories from a variety of sources of inspiration were first isolated then assembled into coherent narratives.

The speaker then confessed that he had found the task of compressing the substance of the trilogy into his talk somewhat exacting, since there were many elements, stories and links between them, which were essential to appreciation of the work as a whole. Nevertheless he would attempt a survey. He prefaced that with mention of Pullman’s injunction within the trilogy to ‘tell true stories’, which raised certain issues. ‘Truth’ (like ‘beauty’) can be seen variously, but Pullman’s emphasis on the value of ‘myth’ suggested that some truths lie too deep for the words of authoritative statements. The stories embedded in the trilogy were then outlined.

Summaries of books

In Northern Lights Lyra Belacqua (then 11 years old) and her ‘daemon’ called ‘Pan’ (her essential self, rendered in the form of changeable animals) live in Jordan College, Oxford, in a world which closely parallels our own. She is enticed to the Arctic by ‘Mrs Coulter’, but there she learns that abducted children have their daemons cut away (through intercision) by the ‘Oblation Board’ of the Church. She also learns that Mrs Coulter is in fact her mother and that her father is ‘Lord Asriel’, imprisoned by the Church because he competes with it for learning secrets of ‘Dust’, which the Church fears. After rescuing the children, Lyra finds Asriel, who needs energy obtained through intercision from Dust to escape to another world. Since Asriel will not sacrifice his daughter, he kills her friend ‘Roger’ and escapes, while Lyra vows revenge.

The Subtle Knife introduces Will Parry (then 12) who also lives in Oxford, but in our world. Leaving a frail mother with a friend, he sets out to find his explorer father (John), lost somewhere in the North. After finding a kind of ‘window’ into another world, he encounters Lyra and Pan, in a city called ‘Cittagazze’, where only children are safe, since ‘Spectres’ ‘feed’ on adult consciousness. Returning to our Oxford, Will and Lyra meet Dr Mary Malone, of the ‘Dark Matter Research Unit’, who studies ‘Shadows’ through computers and learns that they are in fact Dust - consciousness which empowers all thought and matter. Lyra encounters ‘Sir Charles Latrom’, an agent of the Church, who steals her ‘althiometer’ (a device which, through Dust, enables her to glimpse some truths) and offers to exchange it for an ancient knife kept in a Cittagazze tower. When she and Will return to the tower, Will has to kill a man to get the knife, but later outsmart Latrom and obtain both knife and althiometer. Mrs Coulter then kills Latrom and abducts Lyra.

Meanwhile, John Parry was lost in Lyra’s world but needed to warn the knife’s bearer of its crucial role in the fate of the universe. Eventually meeting him on a mountainside, Will learns from John of a coming battle between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ and that Ariel must be found. At their moment of recognition a jealous jilted ‘witch’ kills Will’s father.

The Amber Spyglass begins with angels telling Will that God (‘The Authority’) and his Regent ‘Metatron’ are in a ‘Clouded Mountain’ (a movable citadel) preparing war on independently minded conscious beings and setting up inquisitions in every world. The Church’s ‘Consistorial Court of Discipline’ regards Lyra as ‘Eve’-‘the cause of all sin’- and wants her killed. Mrs Coulter, however, then tells Will that she is hiding Lyra in order to protect her, but Will rescues Lyra and they both agree to go to a ghost-world in order to rescue Roger, the friend killed by Asriel. Lyra’s althiometer warns her, however, that they may never return from the ghost-world. When they use the knife to cut into the world of the dead they found that they could access the ghosts only through their own deaths, which meant that Lyra had to leave her daemon behind (a ‘great betrayal’ forecast in Jordan College) to mutual distress. Encountering ‘harpies’ who knew only of human ‘wickedness’ and thus continually reminded the dead of it, Lyra struck a bargain, which allowed ghosts to escape to the upper world if arrivals told the harpies ‘true stories – otherwise they would stay experience-less through eternity. While the Church had told believers that if their doctrines were followed they would go to ‘the kingdom of heaven’, the Authority had set up the realm of the dead actually as a ‘prison camp’. Asriel’s intention, however, was to set up a ‘republic of heaven’- with ‘no kingdom, no bishops, no priests’.

Mary Malone had accessed another world inhabited by strange vertebrates, who had adapted over evolutionary time to their environment through a symbiotic relationship with trees, now slowly dying, threatening their extinction. Through a spyglass she made, Mary sees ‘sraf’ (i.e. Dust) drifting away to oblivion, threatening all worlds. In the ghost-world a huge explosion causes an abyss (into which Dust streams), but Lyra leads the ghosts to the upper world, where they happily dissipate into the living natural environment. The forecast ‘great battle’ between the forces of Asriel (supported by witches and ghosts of friends) and Metatron (supported by Spectres and Church agencies) takes place. Mrs Coulter entices Metatron into a cavern, to fight Asriel, but sacrifices herself, when all three tumble into the abyss oblivion. The aged ‘Authority’ (God) is rescued by Lyra and freed, Himself happily to dissipate – ‘a mystery dissolving in mystery’.

When Mary realises that the ‘essential meaning’ of the natural world resisting the leakage of Dust is that ‘Matter loves Dust’, she understood that ‘thought, imagination and feeling need feedback’ or it would ‘wither and blow away’, leaving nothing but ‘brutish automatism’. When Will and Lyra then fall in love, the leakage stops and the vertebrates’ world is saved. They learn that the ‘republic of heaven’ cannot be universal, since it could only be created separately in each world, and also that only one opening between worlds should be cut, to allow ghosts to escape to dissipation. The only way to travel between worlds is ‘truly hard’- achieved solely through the ‘imagination’. This means that both Lyra and Will agree to destroy the knife and each to live apart in their separate worlds, united only in memory and love throughout their lives, until at their deaths their atoms would mingle, spread through nature."


Time did not permit consideration of the stories of the third book, but the speaker indicated subplots, other characters and text quotations as he presented those of the first two books, illustrating various allusions to religious and scientific matters relating to the Bible, the Church, quantum physics and the devices common in our own everyday lives. Criticisms by religious authorities and laymen were mentioned, but also an appreciation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested the trilogy should be studied in schools as a criticism of institutions rather than values. In asserting the need to confront moral issues directly, Pullman had ‘turned the story upside down- the rebels are the heroes … Dust is precisely the glory and vitality of the ordinary… the monitoring of fantasy for the sake of adult responsibility… the sense of hidden glory pervading the environment’. When the audience discussed with the speaker these aspects were further considered- the use of fantasy for indicating moral issues; the maturation from childhood irresponsibility to adult responsibilities; the liberation from apathetic conformity to positive thought and action; the role of imagination in life, etc., as well as Pullman’s emphasis on the beauty and essential value of the natural environment. Some mentioned his attractive style and it was suggested that children would enjoy the trilogy in different ways as they matured.

The interview with Bragg was considered in several aspects. Origins of the trilogy were from Pullman’s Oxford background and his own childhood experiences, a Kleist essay on Adam and Eve, etc., and the idea of ‘daemons’ which enabled him to produce internal dialogues and changes resulting from maturation. The stories originated from his acquaintance with Greek myths and his fascination with mechanical devices. His views on ecclesiastical authority were prompted by reflection on both his personal history and history generally and his conviction that human values must be sought with difficulty by each person in the here-and-now, without reference to supernatural realms and agencies. Struggles between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are over-simplified, since often two views of what is ‘good’ (and ‘true’) are in conflict. Pullman concluded that we should condemn ‘cruelty, intolerance, zealotry and fanaticism’, but we should celebrate ‘ love, kindness, tolerance, courage and open-heartedness’. (At the end of the talk and discussion, papers providing stories, commentaries and comparisons with other authors within the genre were provided by the speaker for those interested, together with an injunction to penetrate more implications through assiduous reading of this complex, but highly entertaining and instructive trilogy.)

Geoffrey Catchpole