Philip Pullman (author and narrator), The Golden Compass: The Audiobook (Random House, 1999)
Philip Pullman (author and narrator), The Subtle Knife: The Audiobook (Random House, 2000)
Philip Pullman (author and narrator), The Amber Spyglass: The Audiobook (Random House, 2001)

His Dark Materials. At last we meet. I've been aware of this trilogy for some time, and though I didn't know precisely what it was about (and maintained my ignorance up until the moment the special GMR cherub delivered it to my door and I embarked on my journey), I did know this: That's a great name. Seriously. Isn't that a neat title theme for a series? It's dark and portentous, and the individual titles of each installment hint to us of the unique magical devices within: those which each have their own influences on the path of the continuing story.

Half the story is in the title after all. Well, maybe not half. Three eighths? Four seventeenths? I don't know. Ask a literature / mathematics double-major. That's not really the point. The point is the book was off to a good start before I even opened the cover. Actually, there wasn't a cover. There was a box with a bunch of CDs in it. Mia Nutick has the actual books, and she reviewed them here. She had to actually read with her eyes open, the book propped up, turning pages constantly. Sucker. Me, I just pushed play.

Lyra enchanted me from the beginning. Was it the beautiful voice-acting of Joanna Wyatt, the wonderfully realized character crafted by Pullman, or some combination of the two? I would favour the latter. I've never actually listened to an audiobook before (unless you count those Sesame Street read-alongs, and I outgrew those by the time I was 20), but I'm glad that my first experience with this text was through such a marvelous cast. Even minor characters are first-rate, and Pullman himself does a more than passable job as narrator. After listening to about 35 hours of it, I don't think I could ever read the text without hearing each distinct character as they are performed echoing in my head. That's not something I mind.

The Golden Compass is, in some ways, my favourite of the three books. We're introduced to Pullman's unique parallel world, wherein each and every human has a 'demon', a sort of totem or spirit animal, which represents a part of their souls. A part, we will later find out, that is also present in the likes of us more run-of-the-mill humans, though not in so visible a form. We explore this world through the eyes of Lyra, who is, at this point in the series, still a child, and full of vim and vinegar. I don't rue the natural course of character development, which must, of necessity, take place. But I won't deny that I felt some pang of regret at her passage into womanhood, setting aside the child I'd come to love and electing to grow up by the end of the series. Call me overprotective.

This first installment also boasts a whole host of characters whose roles disappear, or are heavily diminished, in the subsequent books. Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Sean Barrett), the exiled king of the armoured bears, Lee Scoresby (Garrick Hagon), the Texan aeronaut (in a world where Texas won the Alamo), and Farder Coram were my favourites, and though they all appear in subsequent books (some more than others), these appearances largely feel like cameos to me, regardless of their importance to the plot.

The Subtle Knife gives us Will Parry, who, I must confess, I loved as well. I only wish that we didn't have to lose touch with Lyra for the entire first half of the book, seeing her only through Will's eyes. Things do get a bit better mid-way through -- there is more balance between the characters -- but I found myself missing Lyra a large portion of the time up to that point. And after, as well, though for different reasons.

From their first meeting, Will is shown to be the capable one. Even before he discovers himself the 'knife-bearer', he is commanding, strong, and courageous. Lyra is his second fiddle. I found this absurd, after all her adventures and brave deeds. And besides, she is, after all, the reader of the alethiometer (Golden Compass), and has an important task in mind. Will, alternately, is someone who stumbled through a portal.

However, I'll forgive Pullman this, because this was still largely an excellent book. Once Will has been established as a character, and Lyra seems to be less ignored, the two of them make quite a pair, and the reader feels that as long as they are together, things will be all right. They can accomplish anything. Of course, the book ends with Lyra being snatched away by her wicked, estranged mother, and Will electing to put his supposed destiny on hold in order to go after her.

Book three, The Amber Spyglass, picks up quite directly from where we left off. Since the end of the very first book, there have been great, grand events in motion. The version of the Catholic church which exists in Lyra's world (a very tyrannical institution, much as our own was in centuries past) is waging war on Lyra's callous, murderous, and yet, championing father, Lord Asriel (also by Sean Barrett), who has in turn mustered an army with the intent of going after God Himself. Once the true aim of Asriel's campaign becomes clear, Pullman tactfully stops referring to God as 'God', but rather gives Him a new name, 'The Authority'.

I can imagine that a lot of Christians would start getting very offended by this point, but like all good fantasy, Pullman's work stems from an intriguing question (one first considered by Milton in Paradise Lost, as Mia points out): What if God really did do all the things spoken of in the Old Testament? What if he genuinely and actively set up the Church with the sole intent of controlling and seeking worship from humanity? More importantly, what if God wasn't a 'god' at all?

Pullman explores the idea that God's pettiness and fallibility in scripture are not the result of human influence in Biblical texts at all, but of a less-than-genuine divinity. There is no clear Satan in His Dark Materials, but all the angels which appear as characters are rebels, and 'The Authority' is revealed to be himself merely a very powerful angel, who set himself upon the throne of Heaven, and devised a less than joyous underworld for the souls of the dead, pious and unpious alike.

At first, when the story of Adam and Eve came into it, read to Lyra by Lord Asriel at the close of the first book, I was a little worried. Tackling Christianity so directly can be a risky proposition. Despite my misgivings, however, I did find that it all tied together quite well in the end. The myriad versions of the Church, in countless worlds, are shown to be the greatest sham of all, but not in the way you would expect. It's not that there is no God, it's that God Himself is a liar. It's the ultimate conspiracy, and by the end of the book you discover that nothing really happened the way they said it did: the true meaning of things is always obscured.

In fact, that was my only real beef with The Amber Spyglass. I was entranced with Pullman's 'great conspiracy', and with the fact that nothing was as it seemed. That's why I was annoyed when 'The Second Fall' was as literal as it was. Pullman ties consciousness inextricably with sexual awakening. Honestly, I find Will and Lyra's burgeoning hormonal affections a little unsettling, even though I realize the point he's trying to make is that one should enjoy life and the Christian ideas of shame and sin have been foisted on us unfairly. But that's not really my complaint.

In keeping with his theme, I would have expected the Fall, along with original sin, to be revealed to be a sham, just like everything else, and for Lyra to choose knowledge rather than ignorance, freedom rather than supplication, that sort of thing. Her great decision, her 'Second Fall', was what? Making out with Will? And this saved millions of universes? The problem here is that we have the entire human species, and several other million versions of humans, and all manner of other conscious peoples, and I fail to see why Lyra and Will going through puberty quite typically, falling in love even, would constitute this 'Second Fall', while any number of junior high parties fail to have the same result.

It's a little too close to the original Genesis account for me. There is no fruit to take, for that was done long ago, and (as Pullman notes) that fruit is the inheritence of all humanity, to be received at a certain turning point in our lives. But essentially, Lyra and Will realize their nakedness, come to understand their shameful feelings, and embrace them, forsaking guilt and condemnation by any 'Authority'. Perhaps that was what Pullman was trying to say. To revel in life, in our limited time in the flesh, and not accept anyone else's word on what is right and wrong. But if this is his great decision, his envisioning of 'The Second Fall', I'm a bit disappointed. I expected something a little more enlightening.

That said, this entire trilogy is still quite excellent. And the audio versions are absolutely first-rate. Obviously you can't listen to just one of them, as they really aren't self-contained at all. But if you're not overly sensitive of your religion, give it a shot, and hopefully you'll see it through to the end. Pullman explores a lot of different ideas that one wouldn't really expect to come across in a children's book. I don't know if a child would pick up readily on the undercurrent of sexuality that runs throughout the series or not, but I doubt I would want my kids to read this. On the other hand, I read a lot of stuff as an adolescent that my parents might not have approved of, so maybe I should stop being a censoring fuddy-duddy. Maybe it only seems a little dirty to me because I'm a dirty old man myself. Who knows?

[J.J.S. Boyce]