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His Dark Materials (Part 2 of 2) October 2, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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(Second of Two Parts.)

For a series containing all the elements I should otherwise enjoy in a story, three things about His Dark Materials bother me. Two of these are perhaps as much a matter of style (on the writer’s part) and taste (on the reader’s) more than anything else, and thus may only resonate with those who share the same sensibilities as myself. Much has already been made of the third by critics of the trilogy, yet I feel compelled to also weigh in on the issue.

First, like most fantasy books, it goes without saying that much of His Dark Materials borders on the contrived. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem — the fantasy genre derives much of its charm from this very fact, to be sure — were it not for these novels erring on the side of excess. The series is chock full of details that simply do not go anywhere or that do not really add anything to the overall tale. The mix of races and dimensions introduced even at the very end of the tale and jarring plot twists among which include a sudden transmogrification of the tale into a love story, to name but two qualms I have with the books, give the impression that Philip Pullman was just making most of it up as he went along. As a result, the series does evoke a sense of grandness when considered in broad strokes, yet suffers in comparison when considered in detail. The most egregious example of this is perhaps in the final pages of the Golden Compass where, in his desire to push the story along and write about the onset of Asriel’s rebellion, Pullman succeeds in writing a scene where readers are left to wonder out loud, “What just happened here?”

Some might contend that this penchant for the unexpected is precisely what sets His Dark Materials apart from other titles that occupy the same space. This may be true were it not for the tendency of the “unexpected” to muddle the story telling. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second matter I take issue with in the series: the characters’ moral ambiguity. If the trilogy stands out in any one respect, it would be in that it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the story’s “good guys” from its “bad guys”, which is not entirely a good thing. Perhaps Pullman’s intention was to write a set of multifaceted and otherwise complex characters that add some depth to the plot; for my part, I find that all he accomplishes is to make it increasingly difficult for readers to identify with any one character or cause throughout the trilogy.

Then again, there is at least one theme that remains constant throughout the three books: they contain undercurrents that are unabashedly anti-religion, if not specifically anti-Church. This is arguably the most controversial aspect of the book, and the one that I object to the most. There is no denying that the Church and its beliefs are cast in a bad light throughout the series: the latter is portrayed as a scheming and sinister institution, while the “Authority” (that is to say, God) is depicted as a mere fraud. Certainly every author is entitled to his own opinion, and has the freedom to define protagonists and antagonists as s/he sees fit; yet this slant that Philip Pullman adopts may almost be excused as a mere plot device were it not for the underlying meanness that seems to be behind it. Other authors have done much the same with greater effect and, in my opinion, in much better taste.

Philip Pullman’s fans hold up His Dark Materials alongside such epic works of fantasy as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, or more recently as an alternative to fill the void left since the story of the Boy Who Lived came to a close. Where the former is concerned, I would have to say that everyone is entitled to play favorites — and Pullman is clearly not mine — and must point out that the trilogy would more appropriately be described as the anti-Narnia. As for the latter, there is a case to be made that His Dark Materials can help tide over the uninitiated looking for some flight of fancy to occupy them after Harry Potter, though it is not for everyone. Its acclaim notwithstanding, Philip Pullman’s saga as I see it is less enthralling, less innocent, and ultimately less inspiring than those of the aforementioned titles to which it often draws comparisons — titles that, by and large, unmistakably do fantasy right.

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1. His Dark Materials (Part 1 of 2) « BRAIN DRAIN - October 2, 2007

[…] (To be concluded.) […]


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