His Dark Materials (novel)

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His Dark Materials is a trilogy of children's fantasy novels written by British author Philip Pullman. Modelled on classics like C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Milton's Paradise Lost, the trilogy is an allegorical indictment of organised religion and has been recognised as an attack on Christian beliefs.

The trilogy consists of The Golden Compass (originally published as Northern Lights in the United Kingdom in 1995), The Subtle Knife (published in 1997) and The Amber Spyglass (published in 2000). The title of the trilogy refers to a line from the 17th century poem "Paradise Lost" by John Milton,[1] a line that is stated at the start of The Golden Compass.


Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

The main action of the trilogy centers around Lyra Belacqua, an 11-year-old girl raised in England in another universe, and Will Parry, a 12-year-old boy from London in our universe.

The Golden Compass

The first novel is primarily concerned with Lyra, a girl living in Oxford. In Lyra's world, a person's soul is represented as an animal known as a daemon. Children's daemons can change their shape at will, but once a person reaches maturity their daemon becomes "fixed" and stays in one shape for the rest of its life. Lyra's world is ruled by "The Church", a religious organization that wields immense power. The Church worships a powerful being known as "The Authority".

The story follows Lyra as she travels across the North to rescue her friend Roger, a young servant at the college in which she lives who has been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers. She is also on a mission to rescue her explorer father, Lord Asriel, who has been imprisoned in a castle ruled by talking bears. Her primary assistance on this journey is a golden, compass-like object called an alethiometer, which can "tell the truth". Along the way, she encounters allies like flying witches, an aeronaut (hot-air balloonist), and tribes of seafarers called Gyptians.

Eventually, she is captured by the Gobblers and learns that they are a branch of The Church known as the General Oblation Board (The term "Gobblers" is derived from General Oblation Board). The Board is led by Lyra's mother, Mrs. Marisa Coulter. Their goal is to separate children from their daemons, preventing the mysterious, invisible substance known as "Dust" from settling on them. This Dust is believed by the Church to be the physical manifestation of Original sin - unfortunately, the separation of a child and their daemon always results in the death of both. With the aid of her allies, Lyra escapes the Oblation Board with Roger and frees the other prisoners in the process.

She ends up in Svalbard, the kingdom of talking, armored bears known as panserbjorne. With her bear ally Iorek Byrnison, she topples the corrupt bear-king and frees Lord Asriel. However, Asriel betrays her and uses Roger's daemon to open a massive portal to another world. The process of opening this portal results in Roger's death. Lyra vows to find the source and identity of Dust, and enters the portal.

The Subtle Knife

The second novel takes place several weeks after The Golden Compass, and introduces Will Parry, a 12-year-old boy who lives with his mother in Oxford in our world. His father has been missing for many years after going on a voyage to the North. At the start of the novel, he accidentally kills a thief, and is forced to go on the run from the law. He finds a portal to another world and meets Lyra, who has been searching for knowledge about Dust.

Meanwhile, a minor character from The Golden Compass receives a major storyline: Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from the Texas of Lyra's universe. He undergoes a quest to locate Stanislaus Grumman, an explorer who may hold answers to some of the mysteries surrounding Dust and be able to help Lord Asriel, who is amassing forces in another world. Eventually, Lee finds Grumman, where it is revealed that the explorer is John Parry, Will's long-lost father, who accidentally went through a portal on his expedition. The pair are followed by large war zeppelins and soldiers loyal to the Church. While holding them back, Scoresby is sadly killed, but his sacrifice enables Parry to continue on his journey.

Lyra and Will try to unravel the mysteries of Dust, meeting Mary Malone, a scientist from Will's world. She has been studying Dust and discovers that it mostly settles on objects of human design and origin, while avoiding natural objects such as plants or uncarved wood. Will and Lyra avoid the people looking for Will and return to Cittagazze, where they find an unusual device known as the Subtle Knife. This knife, which can create portals to many different worlds, also wards off Specters.

This discovery inadvertently results in the original owner being attacked by Specters, which angers the children who still reside in the city. They almost kill Lyra and Will, but the two are saved by Lyra's witch allies who have entered Cittagazze. The protagonists learn that the Subtle Knife would be helpful to Lord Asriel, who is amassing a large army to combat the Authority. Before this can happen, however, they are attacked by Specters under the control of Mrs. Coulter, and Lyra is captured.

Will, confused and disoriented, meets a wandering man who introduces himself as Stanislaus Grumman. He tells Will to give the Knife to Lord Asriel. As they see each other's eyes, they realize their familial connection. Unfortunately, before father and son can be truly reunited, John Parry is killed by a witch whose love he scorned because of his faithfulness to his wife. This witch commits suicide shortly thereafter. As Will tries to decide what to do, he encounters two invisible beings who introduce themselves as angels and promise to take him to Lord Asriel.

The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass begins shortly after the end of The Subtle Knife. Lyra has been taken captive by Mrs. Coulter, who keeps her sedated in a cave in yet another new world. Despite her strong loyalty to the Church, Mrs. Coulter's motherly instincts take over, and she decides to hide Lyra from both the Church's forces and Lord Asriel's.

Will goes on a journey to find Lyra, led by one of the two angels, Balthamos. The other angel dies early in the book while delivering a message to Lord Asriel. From the angels, Will learns that The Authority is only the first and most powerful angel, formed from Dust, who has convinced everyone that he created everything. Since he is so old, The Authority is now senile, and his Regent, Metatron, rules in his stead. A select few of the angels have rebelled against The Authority and Metatron, and now join forces with Asriel to defeat them and end their rule over everything.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mary Malone of Will's Oxford is being hunted by authorities and enters the same portal Will went through in The Subtle Knife. She enters a strange world populated by intelligent, elephant-like creatures called "mulefa". She learns about Dust from their legends and customs, and constructs a spyglass with an amber lens, through which she is able to see Dust as particles of light. She discovers that Dust is slowly leaving the worlds, which will eventually result in disaster.

Traveling throughout the worlds, Will, Balthamos, and Iorek Byrinson the new bear king eventually reach Lyra and help her escape. The forces of Asriel and the Church wage battle all around them and Balthamos flees in terror. Will and Lyra attempt to enter another world, but the Subtle Knife breaks as a result of Will's emotions. Iorek fixes it using a makeshift forge. The two children eventually decide to enter the world of the dead in an attempt to help Roger, John Parry, and Lee Scoresby.

Mrs. Coulter is captured by Asriel's army and taken to his fortress. She escapes using a powerful flying machine and returns to the Church. However, she learns that the Church plans to kill Lyra, using a form of odd science, before she can face some "temptation" that has the potential to destroy everything the Church stands for, an explicit analogy to Eve. Mrs. Coulter again switches sides, and is able to prevent this murder from happening, returning to Asriel's fortress.

Will and Lyra are aided by two members of the fairy-like Gallivespian race in their efforts to reach the land of the dead. They eventually enter it by use of the Subtle Knife, but Lyra is forced to leave her daemon behind, an act of complete betrayal. Though the protagonists are reunited with their loved ones, they learn that the afterlife is little more than a prison, where all of the dead are emotionally tortured by monsters called harpies who feed on their sadness. They manage to convince the harpies to let them lead the dead out of the afterlife, and they cut a portal that leads them through the center of the world.

The final battle between the forces of Lord Asriel and the forces of The Authority and Metatron has officially begun, and Lyra and Will lead the dead right into the middle of it. Mrs. Coulter uses the flying machine to go to The Authority's palace, where she sees The Authority being carried out in a large glass cage. She eventually seduces Metatron into following her to the center of the world, where she says Lyra is being held. In reality, it is a trap for the angel laid by her and Lord Asriel, and they both push Metatron over the edge into an abyss, killing themselves in the process.

Lyra and Will find the cage containing The Authority, who is being attacked by animals. They drive off the animals, and free the being from his cage. Unfortunately, his frail body can not withstand a gust of wind, and he dies. The battle is not yet over, and Lyra and Will are saved from soldiers by the dead. After their task is done, the dead dissolve into the air, becoming one with the world.

Lyra and Will escape the battle by entering another world, the world of the mulefa. They meet Mary Malone again, and she tells them of the time that she lost her faith in Catholicism. Because of her descriptions of love, Lyra and Will realize that they are in love. This somehow makes the flow of Dust return to normal, and fulfills the "temptation" mentioned earlier in the series. Not long after this, Lyra is reunited with her daemon and Will is able to see his for the first time.

A priest sent by the Church to kill Lyra is almost given a chance to kill her and Will, but is stopped by Balthamos, who is ashamed of leaving Will and Lyra before. The assassin is accidentally killed, and it is implied that Balthamos dies of his wounds.

Will and Lyra delight in their new-found love, but they soon learn that the many holes cut by the Subtle Knife will need to be closed before the supply of Dust runs out. They also learn that staying in a different world for a long period of time will eventually cause a decline in a person's health, killing them. They decide that despite their feelings that they cannot stay with each other, since they have to leave one portal open to allow the dead to return to the living world. They each go back to their respective Oxfords, and resume their normal lives, basing them around teaching other people to live their lives to the fullest and not bother with faith.

Religious Views

Dust is a primeval substance from which all life, consciousness and free will sprang. However the Authority and Magisterium seek to suppress this knowledge because it contradicts their doctrine of supremacy, and therefore equate it with sin or loss of innocence. At an allegorical level this can be seen as the Church's work to eliminate sin conflicting with the need for free will. As the characters rediscover this dust and embrace its life-giving power, they choose to free themselves from the oppressive theocracy of the Magisterium.

Pullman suggests that Heaven does not exist, and when a person dies they go to something resembling the Hades of Classical Greece.


The character called "The Authority" is definitely the Judeo-Christian God, evidenced by many of his names.[2] Yahweh, one of the names mentioned, is a common name for God in the Bible. The Father the Almighty, another name, is a term from the Nicene Creed. Despite this, The Authority's traits clearly depart from the God depicted in the Bible. He is mortal and his powers are clearly limited, while the Judeo-Christian God is immortal and omnipotent. It mocks the belief of Christians and Jews, telling them that the God they worship is a powerless creation and worthy only of pity and disgust. However, it should also be noted that whilst the Judeo-Christian God is believed to be "the creator'", Pullman explicitly states that the Authority is not, but merely deceived other beings into believing he was. Alternatively, the Dust entity can also be read as the "God" of the trilogy. Dust is the spiritual aspect of the reality presented. Dust is both benevolent and omniscient. Dust is the irreducible building block of Pullman's Universe: essentially the "creator". Freitas and King argue that those who see God in the Authority figure are missing the point of the story.[3]


Jesus is only referenced directly once in the books. Near the end of The Amber Spyglass, when talking of her former devotion to the Catholic faith, Mary Malone (a minor character) says: "I wanted to take my whole life and offer it up ... and place it in front of Jesus to do as he liked with." [4]

In an April 2004 interview alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pullman stated that he felt that Jesus' teachings were antithetical to organised religion, and wanted to mark this by his absence in the story.

He doesn't figure in the teaching of the church, as I described the church in the story. I think he's mentioned once, in the context of this notion of wisdom that works secretly and quietly, not in the great courts and palaces of the earth, but among ordinary people and so on. And there are some teachers who have embodied this quality, but whose teaching has perhaps been perverted or twisted or turned, and been used in a fashion that they themselves didn't either desire or expect or could see happening.[5]

However, the religion that originated with by Jesus appears many times in the books. The Church of Lyra's parallel universe is specifically stated to be a descendant of the Calvinist faith in The Golden Compass.[6] Criticisms that on the surface seem to be aimed at Christianity are actually aimed at organised religion, particularly the Catholic Church (presented as the "Magisterium" in the trilogy).[Citation Needed]


Angels are a separate race in the books' world, complete with their own backstory. Apparently, most of the angels were formed out of the substance known as Dust at sometime in the past, and are very old. The Authority was the first angel formed, and convinced the following angels that he had created them.[7]

Humans can become angels somehow, although the process is not described in detail. The characters Baruch and Metatron were once human brothers.[8] Metatron's former name was Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalalel. These three names are commonly cited as direct descendants of Adam.[9]


Though it is not a major part of the story, it is implied that two angels Balthamos and Baruch, if they had physical bodies might have had a homosexual relationship. This is most seen in several instances of them or other characters referring to the two as "loving each other with a passion" or similar phrases.[10] It is unclear whether the same rules of gender apply, due to their non-human ancestry, but Pullman stated in an August 2000 interview that he "liked the idea of two male angels who love each other and who are, themselves, very different characters. They play an important part in the moral education, so to speak, of Will, but also in the outcome of the story."[11]

Religious Response

Online Christian criticism describes the trilogy as overly atheist,[12] pantheist[13] or humanist.[14] It has also been heavily criticized by several Christian groups, including the Catholic League, who called for a boycott by Christians of the film adaptation.[15] There are, however, some Christian supporters of the books, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.,[16] who has "suggested that Philip Pullman’s controversial novels should form part of pupils’ religious education", because "it is sometimes easier to clarify what religion is about by first confronting those who are hostile to it".[17]


The series has won the following awards[18][19]

  • the Astrid Lindgren Award
  • the Carnegie Medal
  • the Guardian Children's Book Award
  • the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the first time it had been given to a children's book


  1. http://www.kirkcenter.org/bookman/44-1-bernthal.html
  2. http://www.amywelborn.com/reviews/pullman.html
  3. Killing the Imposter God
  4. The Amber Spyglass, Ch. 33, "Marzipan"
  5. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/03/17/bodark17.xml&page=1
  6. The Golden Compass, Ch. 2, "The Idea of North"
  7. The Amber Spyglass, Ch. 2, "Balthamos and Baruch"
  8. The Amber Spyglass, Ch. 5, "The Adamant Tower"
  9. Bible Genealogy, Descendants of Adam
  10. The Amber Spyglass, Ch. 2, "Balthamos and Baruch"
  11. http://www.powells.com/authors/pullman.html
  12. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=58341
  13. http://www.facingthechallenge.org/pullman.php
  14. http://literarycatechist.blogspot.com/2007/11/his-dark-materials.html
  15. http://catholicleague.org/catalyst.php?year=2007&month=October&read=2322
  16. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/03/17/bodark17.xml
  17. RONAN MCGREEVY, "Archbishop wants atheist Pullman on sylabus". March 9 2004, , The Times
  18. http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/author/author.html
  19. http://www.philip-pullman.com/about_the_author.asp

See also