Book Review: “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman


His Dark Materials
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Random House

Frodo Baggins, tormented by the lure of the One Ring, battles within himself to find the will to destroy it. Mere feet from the fires of Mount Doom, he is under attack both by Gollum and his own intense desire to possess the ring’s power. As a reader I am totally absorbed by Frodo’s drama. I must find out what happens next. Tolkein has me.

Paul Atreides prepares to sink hooks into the great sandworm, to ride it across the deserts of Arrakis, ready to lead the Fremen warriors into battle for control of spice and the future of Dune. I can’t put the book down. Herbert has me.

I devoured the Dune trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I discovered them many years ago. Wonderful books they were, and seminal in the maturing of my love for both reading and writing. I did not care what J. R. R. Tolkein believed or didn’t believe. I didn’t care if Frank Herbert was an atheist or a Zoroasterian. If these authors had an agenda, an ulterior motive, a political or religious point to make with their novels, it was of no consequence to me. I loved their stories. They entertained me for countless hours, yes, but they also made me think, laugh, cry, and hunger for the next opportunity to spend time in the worlds and lives of complex, fascinating characters caught up in epic struggles.

On to His Dark Materials.

If you want to ride on the back of an armored ice bear, if you want to wield special tools to divine truth and slice into parallel worlds, if you want to step into the land of the dead to see if two strong-willed children can free their young friend’s ghost … then you won’t really care that Phillip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), is somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic on the religious scale.

Pullman’s made no secret that he is anti organized religion. It’s not hard to see the subtext in these stories. He would love to convince you that the church is utterly rotten and that Christianity’s God is an unfortunate but powerful myth best shed in favor of more reliable scientific and human truths.

But these works by Pullman—like the works of Tolkein, Herbert, and C. S. Lewis—are magnificent stories, well told. To refuse to read them simply because you don’t care for the author’s religious views is to rob yourself of the immense pleasure derived from reading exceptional, compelling, and often poetic prose.

I loved these stories. It’s been years since I’ve been so gripped by a novel, much less three novels. Pullman had me, no question.

I didn’t become a non-believer upon completing the series. If anything, I saw a whole lot of ways in which Pullman’s created world cries out for a sane, just, moral center and even a hopeful afterlife. I saw Pullman’s longing for the triumph of the good and the right, despite his disdain for religion.

This trilogy is not perfect. In places it is convoluted, confusing and maybe even a little oppressive. But, mostly, it’s a great adventure and a great read.

Jim Wormington

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