Volume 1 - The Golden Compass
Volume 2 - The Subtle Knife
Volume 3 - The Amber Spyglass
Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
His Dark Materials is an epic saga about love, friendship, and the very meaning of our existence. It follows a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, on a journey of adolescence, bravery, and boundless adventure. The first installment illustrates Lyra's world, the comfort of an Oxford college not too different from the one in our world, her escapades with playmates, and her life as the ward of an elderly group of male scholars. Her worldview quickly shifts after children begin to go missing, including her best friend Roger, and she learns of mysterious other worlds and the important role of Dust. Lyra travels deep into the Arctic with an eclectic band of allies (Gyptians, an armored bear, and a Texan aeronaut) to rescue the children who, it turns out, are being stripped of their daemons (in this world, an animal extension of their soul) as part of an experiment. Lyra discovers, to her horror, that the mastermind behind the experiment is none other than her mother, Mrs. Coulter, with whom Lyra had only recently become acquainted. Many intrigues follow - in short, the children are saved, but Lyra inadvertently betrays Roger by bringing him along to rescue her father, Lord Asriel. Asriel has been doing some experimenting of his own, and at the book's climax, he opens a bridge to other worlds by severing Roger from his daemon. Lyra, horrified, uses the bridge in an attempt to get to the bottom of Dust and its role in the world, hoping to bring an end to the abuses of her fellow children and atone for betraying her friend.
The second volume introduces a slew of new characters, the most important of which is Will, a young boy who is living in a world just like ours before he slips through a window into another world where he encounters Lyra. The two children find they need each other's help to achieve their goals (Will is looking for his father, who disappeared some 10 years ago and never returned) and an uneasy alliance is born. Asriel and Mrs. Coulter continue their desperate plans to tackle Dust and revolutionize the world order and witches, angels, and physics professors join the ensemble. Will and Lyra find themselves forced to do battle for a knife with magic powers, and Will, as the knife's new bearer, finds he is able to open windows to other worlds. Will finally finds his father only to watch him die and Lyra is kidnapped by her mother a second time.
The final segment aligns our storylines, but only after some grisly deaths, grim defeats, and difficult decisions. Will saves Lyra from her mother and they hatch a plan to travel to the land of the dead. Lyra wants to apologize to Roger and see if there isn't some way she can help him, and two spies of Asriel's, Gallivespians (aka tiny people) accompany the pair. They succeed in attaining death's dark depths and claw their way to freedom with a host of ghosts in tow. The ghosts can never again embrace their corporeal forms, but they can become one with Dust particles in the world of the living, a fate they gladly accept. Metatron, an angel who has replaced "the authority", or God, with dastardly plans to ruin civilization as we know it, tries to find Lyra and Will and kill them. He is foiled unexpectedly by Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, who unite at last only to drag Metatron together to their deaths. Will and Lyra discover their love for each other in bliss, but just as they begin to celebrate their triumph, they learn that the worlds which have been opened to each other by Asriel and Will's knife and various other means must now be closed to each other forever. Dust is leaking from all of these tears in the fabric of the universe, and without Dust, life cannot go on. Will and Lyra must settle back in their respective worlds (for daemons can survive in longevity only in the worlds that are their own) and the witches and angels seal each window tight until the universe is whole once more.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
If you've read this trilogy, you know that I've just summarized an incredibly complex web of plots in very broad strokes. I have a much more detailed abstract for each book written down in the margins, but I think the one I gave above gives you a better overall feel for the series. Besides, if you want to know Everything that happens, you should pick the books up and read them yourself!
I experienced a wide variety of sensations about this series as I read it, including but not limited to elation, intrigue, anger, annoyance, amusement, and sorrow. The Christian allegory and its major role in the storyline were a bit tiresome to me by the end, but I still think Pullman definitely deserves his place in the fantasy classics genre.
A few thoughts, in no special order:
-- I finished the third book on a plane back from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and I for one am glad my seat partner was sound asleep and therefore did not see me weeping awkwardly as I pretended to glance out the window. There's something magic and ethereal about finishing a book in the middle of the air over the frozen mountains of Utah - I felt like even though time seemed as if it were in limbo, my brain was soaring and I could almost touch Lyra and her windows to new worlds. At least, until the entire Penn wrestling team woke up and starting creating some intriguing noises (and smells).
-- When Lyra consults the alethiometer (haghaghag which I just realized I comPLEtely left out of the plot summary even though it's crucial to the story - Whoops!), which is basically a compass for sussing out truths, about Will after she first meets him, it tells her he is a murderer. Lyra, contrary to what I hope most of the people in the world would feel, is delighted. And I quote, "well, good. there's someone I can trust." Hee hee hee. Oh, Lyra. ;)
-- One of the characters I also swept over quite quickly (the physics professor, as it were) Dr. Mary Malone, has an encounter with "the Shadows", or dust particles, or whatever you want to call them, through a computer program, and she thinks at them and they think back in typed letters. This reminded me of how awesome Sphere was, by Michael Crichton, and the computer as a sentient being. Anyone? Anyone?
-- Mrs. Coulter lures the children away to Bolvangar in the first book by offering them sweet treats and warm "chocolatl", a type of hot cocoa. I thought instantly of the white witch in Narnia and tried to send the little children a message in my head, something to the effect of, "Nuh-UH, you do NOT want any of her Turkish Delight, thankyouverymuch!"
-- Hands down the saddest scene in the series is when Lyra comes upon a child who has been severed from his daemon. Little Tony Makarios is clutching a piece of dried fish, calling mournfully for his "ratter", his daemon who was killed by the Gobblers. He lives only a day with Lyra and the Gyptians, and she can barely stand to be so close with his agony.
-- Quotations at the beginning of every chapter (ahem, third book, Monsieur Pullman) are *not* always a great idea. Especially if you are not as wizardly adept at using them as Richard Adams in Watership Down. I say, when in doubt, use your own words, every time.
-- Metatron? Really? God is an angel named Metatron? What is this, Transformers?
-- All told I felt like the series really hit its peak somewhere between the end of the first book and the middle of the second, but I think Pullman did a good job of finishing the series once finally got down to finishing the series and stopped introducing random new characters and waxing poetic about Christian allegory and new species with wheel legs, blah blah blah etc. etc. etc. Best takeaway (in my humble opinion) from the final installment was this: "we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere." I don't know if I believe in heaven (and if it exists, I'm not positive I want it to be a republic!) but I think that we need to see the world we live in as the now, not a stepping stone to the endgame. People kill each other, throw literal stones at each other, malign, torture, torment, and starve each other right here in this moment in this universe. If an afterlife exists, well bully for us. But whether it does or not, our world is defined by the actions each one of us put forth each and every day. The world is what we make it, and its our responsibility to build it better.
-- Last thought in what is becoming rather a longwinded post. Mrs. Coulter tells Lord Asriel that she can't bear the thought of oblivion. She can understand a heaven or a hell, but oblivion terrifies her. I've never been frightened of oblivion. Sure, it's a bit weird that we might exist and feel and think and love and strive and suffer and then - poof! - nothingness. But there's something gentle to me about nonexistence. It doesn't lift us up, or praise our deeds, but neither does it judge or punish. It simply is. Or perhaps it simply isn't. I know that many probably don't share this sentiment, but I just wanted to explore the idea for a moment.
Passages I particularly liked:
- Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter.
- I am an armored bear; war is the sea I swim in and the air I breathe.
- North and further north they ran, while the pallid noontide came and went and the twilight wrapped itself again around the world.
- I would have forsaken the star-tingle and the music of the Aurora.
- They flew throughout the night. The stars wheeled around them, and faded and vanished as the dawn seeped up from the east. The world burst into brilliance as the sun's rim appeared, and then they were flying through blue sky and clear air, fresh and sweet and moist.