I have now finished my re-reading of Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels entitled ‘His Dark Materials’, and on discovering these I am struck by two things. The first is the utter power of the imagination; the sheer strength of the envisaging and creation of the various worlds or dimensions through which the protagonists Lyra and Will travel. He is bold and daring from the start, in that the first novel takes place in another world; and nothing is explained or given to the reader. You have to work it all out yourself, from the off-beat nature of the Oxford Lyra inhabits * to the frequent references to something called ‘anbaric’ current (only in the second novel do we find out that this world developed power from amber rather than electrum: hence ‘anbaric’ rather than ‘electric’.) I could go on and on about this and I’m sure others have, but the main thing to say is that the power of Pullman’s imagination and the force of his writing knocks you out like a huge wave. In the acknowledgements he credits the work of William Blake, and many of the images here are pure Blake, especially the angel Metatron (I can’t find the quote at the moment, but the intensity of his blazing eyes exactly recalls a painting by Blake, which I also can’t find. I wish I had all day to research these posts, but there you are.)
He is also able to recreate our world with equal authenticity, though the books don’t spend much time here.
Where I think the books fall down is in the rhetoric. The point is to tell an atheist version of the Adam and Eve myth where the church is the villain (he recreates the excesses of the Inquisition nicely) the angel Metatron is in charge and god – known as the Authority – is old and feeble and ready to die. Being an atheist myth, it posits the physical world as the only reality and in that sense it is the anti-Narnia, since C S Lewis’s idea (taken from Plato) was that this world is only a faint ‘copy’ or mirror of something more real which we may attain after death. In ‘His Dark Materials’ there is nothing after death and the dead long passionately to return to the physical world. But since they are dead, the only way they can return is through a window which Will and Lyra open and which allows them to dissolve into their constituent atoms.
I think the novels fail here – and not just because I’m not an atheist: I think this is where his imagination fails him because he is determined to make this an atheist myth and there is no way to imagine life after death if you’re an atheist.
But don’t take my word for it: read it yourself:
Unless, of course, you already have – in which case read them again. And take a look at the work of William Blake. The man was a genius and as I never cease to say, deserves to be celebrated FAR MORE THAN TURNER!!!!!
….deep calming breaths, deep calming breaths….
*this type of fiction, where you posit a world that has split off from ours, is called ‘slipstream’ – as I have recently found out.