Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.
If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.
His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.
Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.
Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.
The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.