His Dark Materials Book Series: A Glowing Review

This series will always give me chills. Not only because of the atmosphere and the setting, but because this story quite simply stole my soul when I was a child. It was my first foray into darker fantasy and it was a gamechanger. It didn’t patronise me or give me unrealistic expectations about reality- it told the truth.

And the characters! Too often, the protagonist in MG is perfect. They have no faults and they act as a mere conduit for the action- but not so with Lyra! Lyra was not a typical child heroine- she had flaws and a seemingly paradoxical personality. She felt like someone I might actually know. And she wasn’t the only one bringing the story to life- as with the children in the story, the adult heroes and villains and parents were all morally grey and oh-so-very human. I saw then that this was a book that wasn’t prepared to talk down to its audience or treat children as stupid- the whole point of this book is to give you the freedom to think for yourself.

his dark materialsBut I’m getting ahead of myself with this reminiscing. Let’s bring this back to the present tense and what finally spurred me on to do a reread- and that’s the adaptation. As I’ve said before on this blog, I do really like the show. A lot of the acting is spot on- we have the best Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel and Lee Scoresby we could ask for. And the style is vivid and memorable.

… and yet it wasn’t the same. Because as much as I have talked about the darkness in the story, the flipside is that His Dark Materials also has a lightness to it, capturing the ephemeral beauty of childhood. Lyra herself is more innocent (and considerably less angsty) in the books. And Lyra’s Oxford, while having a dark underbelly, also gives off a sense of magic and wonder and enchantment. All of which felt a little lacking in the show.

For me, this highlighted some of the subtlety of the book. Critically, while there are hints that things are even darker in the story, it is often cloaked by a layer of ambiguity. The greatest horrors of the book are not described in visceral detail- but rather hinted at and glossed over and subtly worked into the prose. Fundamentally, this gives the sense you are seeing the story through a child’s eyes. And, as a child, it made the story feel all that closer to home, whilst simultaneously shielding me from the full implications. As an adult, it’s creepier and all the more shudder inducing (ironically as a child Pullman was talking a little over my head- but I didn’t know that at the time!) And, of course, I realise that the show is a different medium and perhaps it was impossible to represent this on screen- nonetheless it is a pity to be missing this element.

Oddly enough, despite what I said about the show was not as light, there were element in the book that were even darker. For instance, Lyra is dealing with a significant amount of trauma in the second book, which (in my view) turns her wilder than ever. It’s not prettied up for the reader- it’s harsh and it’s realistic. We feel just as lost as Lyra as we search for the bridge between the first and third stories. FurthermoreWill takes on the mantle of murderer more readily in the book and even threatens to kill Lyra… which she believes. And yet neither of them think of this by the end of the story, because children are prone to bursts of hyperbole. For me, there’s something about this callous honesty that really captures the childishness of the characters. Lyra and Will- for all their attempts at mimicking adulthood- don’t know what they’re doing. And this is so important to the plot.

Because the ignorance with which they act carefully draws the link with Paradise Lost– toying with the theme of original sin, the pursuit of knowledge and the fight for freewill (far bigger themes than your average children’s books). As a coming-of-age story, it’s remarkable and unique. And the deeper you get into the series, the more complex its philosophy is. The betrayal becomes not just a betrayal of others- but a betrayal of the self. Lyra loses a part of herself- and yet also undergoes a necessary trial that’s part of growing up. She acquires knowledge- and yet that knowledge comes at the cost of a new awareness. Yet this is shown to not be a bad thing at all: growing up is hard… but a wonderful (and sometimes beautiful) experience. As much as children can seem clear-eyed, the wisdom of age shines as a brighter promise. And, as Pullman identifies, anything worth having is worth working for.

Now, of course, it’s not perfect (though I would not expect that from true art 😉). It is certainly of its time, with its hints of post-modernism and militant atheism. And yet I truly respect this book for its candour. It does not moralise or deliver a utopian propagandistic conclusion- it leaves the final thoughts up to the reader.

And that’s why I keep recommending these books. And that’s why this is one of my all-time favourite series. And that’s why I’ll happily SHOUT FROM THE ROOFTOPS IT’S GOING TO BE A FUTURE CLASSIC. His Dark Materials is a glorious series.

Rating: 5/5 bananas


So, have you read this series? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

41 thoughts on “His Dark Materials Book Series: A Glowing Review

  1. Great post, you hit the nail on the head about what makes these books special! Which of the trilogy do you like best? I think The Amber Spyglass is the best. I remember waiting for it to be published! I like the TV adaptation but I felt like season 2 lost the tension and I didn’t like how the Spectres were visualised, they looked a lot like the Obscurus in Fantastic Beasts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. These books are atheist propaganda. They should not be praised.
    Don’t ban them or burn them, but their purpose as stated by the author is to make children atheists.


    1. Yes Pullman is an atheist, and yes you could say HDM is written from an atheist perspective. For example the Magisterium is like the mediaeval Catholic Church on a particularly bad day. But if HDM qualifies as atheist propaganda then by the same token the Narnia books are Christian propaganda. Would you say The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe should not be praised?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 1. Pullman specifically says he wants his books to destroy children’s perspective of God. I’ll have to find that.
        2. According to a professor and 15 other students Christianity isn’t propaganda.
        3. Now I hate you because I have to explain both and it will take a lot of research I keep putting off.
        But I will don’t and get back to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m going to have to pass finding the Pullman quote where he specifically states he wants to destroy children’s belief in god. I didn’t find it on my computer and searching returns thousands of possibilities.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. As for Christianity (and by extension C.S. Lewis’ writings) not being propaganda, I’ll try to make this a short as possible.
        1. In a class at a Christian college we read Bernays’ Propaganda.
        2. The book identifies a list of characteristics of propaganda.
        3. During the discussion I pointed out that Christianity has all of those characteristics and therefore Christianity is propaganda.
        4. My classmates and the professor said, “No, Christianity is not propaganda because Christianity is true.”
        5. I pointed out that “true” is NOT one of the characteristics of propaganda.
        6. They were not convinced. I stand by my original analysis. Now if I can just find my copy of the book.
        What do you think? If something is true, can it be propaganda?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It might be this one from the Washington Post (2001): “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/02/19/the-last-word/4bad376f-4ab7-441c-9c50-afc7e63dd192/]. Having said that, it’s worth remembering that Pullman can count ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a fan [https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/10/book-dust-philip-pullman-might-not-be-fond-church-he-intensely-spiritual].
          Thanks for the reference to Bernays’ Propaganda. I’d not heard of it or him, but I have now.
          I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where propaganda starts and stops, or whether something cannot be propaganda if it is true. My hunch though would be that a defining characteristic of propaganda is that it is designed to get people to behave in a particular way (where ‘behaving’ includes ‘believing’), and a successful way of doing that is by telling selective truths. That is after all what a lot of advertising is based on.
          It’s possible that ‘propaganda’ could be construed broadly enough to include HDM. My point though was not that HDM couldn’t possibly be described as atheist propaganda, but that if that was a possible description, then CS Lewis’s Narnia books could equally be described as Christian propaganda. But in neither case would that mean the books could not be praised. I thought the Chronicles of Narnia ran out of steam towards the end, but I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian & The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
          Thanks again 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hmm. Can’t figure out how to phrase this.
            Some good literature shouldn’t be praised because of its message and purpose.
            I didn’t let my kids read these books or the Hunger Games. I took the time to find books for them with themes that supported the values I wanted them to learn and that I was teaching them.
            Did I succeed? Probably not as much as I hoped, but in general, so far so good.
            Please add “Propaganda” to your reading list and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Khun another book from that class. It is the one book I didn’t read and since that class in 1978 I hear a reference to that book about every 3 years. It introduces the concept of “paradigm shifts”. I have since read it.
            Toss in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” and that should keep you busy for a while.
            “We need fewer new books and more people reading the ones we already have.”
            Olde Wisdom from Thee Frugal Curmudgeon (that’s me and I believe that quote is an original of mine though it is a paraphrase of some other quote)
            There are so many classics that are far better than anything written today. Many of those unread classics warned us to the mess that we find ourselves in today. We should have listened.


            1. Thanks. As it happens I’ve read ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ a number of times as it was pretty much a set book when I was doing undergraduate philosophy in the early 70s. I also remember reading something by Joseph Campbell. I think it was one of the ‘Masks of God’ series. Quite Jungian from what I remember.
              Now you’ve got me imagining what it would have been like to have tried to curate my son’s reading material on any other criterion than age-appropriateness 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I grew up reading juvenile non-fiction by C.B. Colby. It wouldn’t surprise me if you did too since we are pretty close in age. I used to max out the number of books I could check out every week and most of them were non-fiction.
                I’m not sure what happened to juvenile non-fiction, but I couldn’t find anything even remotely worthwhile for my kids (now in their 20s) even at the library.
                As for fiction, the vast majority was cr@p with few exceptions. It got harder when the hit their tweens and teens.
                I did find several series written by Christian authors that were pretty good and they enjoyed them.
                The best I could do was try to steer them towards the books that were least objectionable to me.

                Liked by 1 person

          2. Having an Anglican Archbishop as a “fan” is about as good a reference as having Jeffrey Epstein as a character reference for someone who wants to date your daughter.
            It makes sense in my head, does it make sense to you?


  3. I probably read it too late in my life, I liked the trilogy, but wasn’t enchanted by it. I actually like the TV series a bit more than the books, in this case 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I believe I´ve been reading some about it. Remind me: is this the one where all children in a parallelly world are born some kind of a demon and then some evil organization with a base at the North Pole wants to steal them?

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Should have reread your review before answering. Obviously missed out of the second book. Great reminder and I will try to sqeeze it into my tbr list. Have only 5 on it and has place for 10, but then I’m very particular in my reading due to my schedule.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember really enjoying the first book as a kid, but for some reason I just didn’t get around to finishing the series. I clearly need to do that! I think you’ve drawn a *really* interesting comparison between this series and Paradise Lost, one that makes me want even more to re-read The Golden Compass with fresh eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful, spot-on write-up! I read these books for the first time as an adult alongside my kids, but fell in love with them even more than my kids did. So much beauty and wonder. You make me want to read them again (even though I’ve read them more than once already.) I’ve really been enjoying the TV version, but I agree, there are certain elements of the books that the show just can’t capture.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I could have written that review myself, but sadly not as eloquently. In particular I agree about the TV series. I don’t think I could imagine a better one. It has a cast to kill for, if not to die for. But it still doesn’t quite hit the spot, and perhaps that no adaptation can. I feel a bit sorry for people who watch it before (or without) reading the books. For a start I think I would have found the TV series quite difficult to follow if I hadn’t read the books beforehand. But mostly it’s because of what you say about the TV series lacking both the lightness and the darkness which you get from the reading experience. I’m almost dreading seeing what they make of the gut-wrenching bit at the end of The Amber Spyglass, which I almost couldn’t believe was happening the first time I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! That’s really kind of you! ☺️ Yes I agree! I think when I was rereading it, I realised a perfect adaptation may have been too much of a big ask. I agree! It really is a case of it’s better to read the books first! Oh yes me too

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