His dark materials
(Philip Pullman, 1995-2000)

As everyone probably knows by now, this fantasy series consists of three books: Northern lights, The subtle knife, and The amber spyglass. Pullman apparently plans several spin-off books linked to the series, but this is the basic trilogy.

It's now six years since I last read any of these books, but it seems rather an omission that I never put any review here, so here are my thoughts based on notes I wrote at the time.

Basically, I was unsure about Northern lights, quite impressed by The subtle knife (though it seemed too frightening to be given to children), and greatly disappointed by The amber spyglass.

Pullman writes quite well, he has a good imagination, and some of his imagery is memorable. But his imagination seems to me undisciplined: there's not just one fantasy element here but many, a stack of different weirdnesses piled untidily on top of each other. As a general rule, I disapprove of fantasy that runs riot like that. Even Terry Pratchett has more discipline, and he writes comic fantasy in which it doesn't matter so much.

Pullman's characterization is good only when he concentrates. His main characters, Will and Lyra, are quite convincingly drawn and I came to care about them, but the other characters in the book, even quite important ones, are only sketched and don't exist in any depth.

Although Will and Lyra are juveniles, this is a very serious adult story in which seriously bad things happen. It doesn't make comfortable reading, and I'm really surprised that it seems to have become so popular.

I should perhaps mention that Pullman appears to be virulently anti-Christian. This isn't a problem for me as I'm fairly anti-religious myself, but I was a bit startled by the strength of his feelings.

When I finished The amber spyglass, I was disgusted with the ending. On a cosmic level, the right side wins. But, on a personal level, it seems that all the characters end up dead, unhappy, or no better off than they'd been at the start; and Will and Lyra in particular seem doomed to live unhappily ever after.

When you write fantasy, particularly with the sort of wide-open licence Pullman gives himself, you can have any sort of ending you want. If he gives us an ending no better than that, it's because that's the sort of ending he wants, which indicates that he and I are thoroughly incompatible. I don't expect I'll ever read any of his other books, because plainly he has no intention of delivering the kind of book I want to read.

There are rarely happy endings in real life; but we experience real life whether we like it or not. We read fiction by choice, and I choose not to read fiction that allows me to emerge at the end feeling dismal and let down. Fiction is entertainment; if I'm not agreeably entertained, I don't come back for more.

It's admittedly difficult to imagine an ending for Will and Lyra of the form “... and so they lived happily ever after.” Neither of them was suited to be written off in such a quiet and peaceful way. Any happy ending for them would really require several more books to be written about their subsequent adventures. Indeed, even with the ending as written one's left suspecting that they got up to many unreported adventures after the end of the story.

The really unpleasant thing is that they were condemned to do so separately. Pullman contrived that they eventually fell in love with each other and were then almost immediately required (for bizarre reasons of cosmic expediency) never to see each other again. It might even have been preferable if one of them had died.

I was reminded of the story of John Lennon's first meeting with Yoko Ono. He was at an avant-garde art exhibition, and one of the exhibits involved climbing up a ladder and peering through a magnifying glass at something. When he did so, what he saw was “Yes”. He was pleased that the message turned out to be positive, and sought to meet the artist.

With Pullman, I felt that I spent quite a long and weary time climbing the ladder, looked through the magnifying glass, and saw “No”. I feel no desire to meet the artist.

Written in February 2008