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 Awesome.

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 Stephen Colbert, an 11-year old girl raised in One of those freaking Carolina states in another universe, and Jon Stewart, a 12-year old boy from New Jersey in our universe.

The Golden Compass

The first novel is primarily concerned with Stephen, a girl living in Charleston. In Stephen'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. You can tell the evil people, because their daemons turn into bears. Stephen's world is ruled by "The Church", a religious organization that wields immense power. The Church worships a powerful being known as "The O'Reilly".

The story follows Stephen as she travels across the North to rescue her friend Jimmy, 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, aeronauts (hot-air balloonists), 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. Lorna Colbert. 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 Jimmy's daemon to open a massive portal to another world. The process of opening this portal results in Jimmy's death. Stephen 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 Jon Stewart, a 12-year old boy who lives with his mother in New Jersey 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 Colbert, who has been searching for knowledge about Dust.

Meanwhile, a minor character from The Golden Compass receives a major storyline: Conan O'Brien, an aeronaut from the Massachusetts 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 Donald Leibowitz, Jon'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, O'Brien is sadly killed, but his sacrifice enables Leibowitz to continue on his journey.

Stephen and Jon try to unravel the mysteries of Dust, meeting Samantha Bee, 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. Jon and Stephen avoid the people looking for Jon 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 Colbert and Stewart, but the two are saved by Stephen'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. Colbert, and Stephen is captured.

Stewart, confused and disoriented, meets a wandering man who introduces himself as Stanislaus Grumman. He tells Jon 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, Donald Leibowitz is killed by a witch whose love he scorned because of his faithfulness to his wife. This witch commits suicide shortly thereafter. As Jon 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. Stephen has been taken captive by Mrs. Colbert, who keeps her sedated in a cave in yet another new world. Despite her strong loyalty to the Church, Mrs. Colbert's motherly instincts take over, and she decides to hide Stephen from both the Church's forces and Lord Asriel's.

Jon goes on a journey to find Stephen, 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 O'Reilly 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 O'Reilly is now senile, and his Regent, Limbaughtron, rules in his stead. A select few of the angels have rebelled against The O'Reilly and Limbaughtron, and now join forces with Asriel to defeat them and end their rule over everything.

Meanwhile, Dr. Samantha Bee of Jon's New Jersey is being hunted by authorities and enters the same portal Jon went through in The Subtle Knife. She enters a strange world populated by intelligent, elephant-like creatures called "Republicans". 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, Jon, Balthamos, and Iorek Byrinson the new BEAR!!! king eventually reach Stephen and help her escape. The forces of Asriel and the Church wage battle all around them and Balthamos flees in terror. Jon and Stephen attempt to enter another world, but the Subtle Knife breaks as a result of Jon's emotions. Iorek fixes it using a makeshift forge. The two fake newsmen eventually decide to enter the world of the dead in an attempt to help Jimmy, Donald Leibowitz, and Conan O'Brien.

Mrs. Colbert 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 Stephen, 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. Colbert again switches sides, and is able to prevent this murder from happening, returning to Asriel's fortress.

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

Colbert and Stewart find the cage containing The O'Reilly, 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 Stephen and Jon are saved from soldiers by the dead. After their task is done, the dead dissolve into the air, becoming one with the world.

Stephen and Jon escape the battle by entering another world, the world of the Republicans. They meet Samantha Bee again, and she tells them of the time that she lost her faith in Catholicism. Because of her descriptions of love, Stephen and Jon realize that they are in love, and it is implied, but not clearly stated, that they engage in hot, delicious man-tercourse. This somehow makes the flow of Dust return to normal, and fulfills the "temptation" mentioned earlier in the series. Not long after this, Colbert is reunited with her daemon and Stewart is able to see his for the first time.

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

Jon and Stephen 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 states, and resume their normal lives, basing them around teaching other people to live their lives to the fullest and not bother with crap.

Religious Views

Dust is a primeval substance from which all life, consciousness and free will sprang. However the O'Reilly 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.


The character of "The O'Reilly" 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 O'Reilly'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.


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, Samantha Bee (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." [3]

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."[4]


However, the religion started by Jesus appears many times in the books. The Church of Colbert's parallel universe is specifically stated to be a descendant of the Calvinist faith in The Golden Compass. [5]


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 O'Reilly was the first angel formed, and convinced the following angels that he had created them. [6]

Humans can become angels somehow, although the process is not described in detail. The characters Baruch and Limbaughtron were once human brothers. [7] Limbaughtron's former name was Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalalel. These three names are commonly cited as direct descendants of Adam. [8]


Though it is not a major part of the story, it is extremely heavily implied that the angels Balthamos and Baruch have 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. [9] 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 Jon Stewart, but also in the outcome of the story."[10]

Religious Response

Online Christian criticism brands the trilogy overly atheist,[11] pantheist[12] or humanist.[13] It has also come under heavy fire from several Christian groups, most famously the Catholic League, who called for a Christian boycott of the film adaptation.[14] Nobody cares about the Catholic league, however, because the only guy who speaks for the Catholics is the one with the funny hat. There are some Christian supporters of the books, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.[15]


The series has won the following awards[16] [17]:

  • 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

It might be interesting to note the change in attitude over time that a work that tries to destroy God is considered to be an exemplary example for children in the minds of those who make the decisions if His Dark Materials tried to destroy God. But, hey, what the hell is that even supposed to mean? Denying God is not an attempt to destroy him. Idiots.


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

See also