My love affair with Philip Pullman began when I found The Golden Compass and fell for his beautifully descriptive writing and the fantastically creative world of Lyra Silvertongue. Our relationship began to suffer when he released The Subtle Knife, bringing together Lyra's amazing universe and our much more familiar world. I tried to hang on, but my loyalty was sorely tested. And then, when he cruelly betrayed me with the darkness and despair of The Amber Spyglass, I was forced to turn away and search for a new love...
The Golden Compass is a truly fascinating book. Lyra lives in a world where people's souls are separate from their bodies. These souls, or "daemons", take the form of small animals such as cats, snakes, rats, and monkeys. Every human has a daemon, and to lose one's daemon is the greatest tragedy that can befall a person. People don't even touch each other's daemons. Lyra lives at Oxford, where "experimental theologians" take the place of scientists, and where the Catholic Church holds sway much the way it did in our world before the Reformation took place. Lyra, who begins the book as an orphan, quickly discovers that she is destined to shake the Church's rule and bring about great changes in her world; she also learns that she is not an orphan and that her father is a powerful Lord. She discovers that she can operate the Golden Compass of the title, an oracular device used by trained theologians, and she discovers a dark plot involving Dust (a substance that holds all of the power in the Universe, and can be used for good or evil, much like The Force). In short order she has travelled to the North, where we are introduced to armored bears and beautiful witches. Lyra's adventures in The Golden Compass are exciting, enchanting, and make for an absolutely excellent read.
In The Subtle Knife we meet Will Parry. Will is from an alternate universe (which turns out to be our world), and he's on the run from mysterious villains who want his father's legacy. He meets Lyra when each of them stumble through openings into a third world, a world where Specters eat daemons and leave their humans mere zombies. (Will confuses Lyra, since he has no daemon -- in our world, our souls are not separate entities, obviously -- yet he is not a hollow shell like other people who have no daemons). Will discovers the Subtle Knife, a tool so sharp that he can use it to cut openings between parallel universes. The two children return to our world to investigate the disappearance of Will's father -- who was studying atmospheric particles (Dust?) when he vanished. Lyra meets a scientist named Dr. Mary Malone, a member of the Dark Matter Research Unit, who has discovered Shadows, the same mysterious substance as Lyra's Dust. Mary Malone has found that in these Shadows, there is consciousness. The particles are aware, and their awareness is what makes the alethiometer (Golden Compass) work. Mary Malone's next task is to find a way to communicate with Dust.
Returning to Lyra's world, Will and Lyra learn that Will's missing father is alive and well and living in the north. He has become a shaman called Jopari. He and Will meet atop a mountain...at which point Will learns of his true destiny and his father is suddenly killed by a vengeful witch he had rejected. Will loses his father permanently this time, and just as bad, he loses Lyra, who has been kidnapped. He does, however, meet two angels who may or may not be helpful to him, and thus ends the second book.
The final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass, introduces several new beings that I really enjoyed...the tiny Gallivespians and the wheeled (!) Mulefa. Lyra is held captive by her mother, the evil Mrs. Coulter, and Will searches for her with the help of angels. Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, carries on his attack on Heaven. The children must visit the land of the dead, and return, though Lyra must make a terrible sacrifice in order to do so. And we discover what Dust really is.
Oh, yes, and there's the plot to kill God, who turns out to be evil, and reinstate the fallen angels, who turn out to be good. Will and Lyra help to kill God, and to instate the "Republic of Heaven". Will and Lyra fall deeply and passionately in love, but in order for the Universe to be healed and whole, they must each return to their own worlds and live out their lives alone, never to meet again.
Unfortunately, the final book was a huge letdown for me. The first two books were filled with imagination and creativity, and warm wonderful characters that I could not help but love. Witches Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala, Iorek Byrneson the armored bear, Lee Scoresby the Texas aeronaut, not to mention the spunky Lyra Belacqua -- these are the reasons I loved the first book and at least liked the second. I wouldn't mind the new characters in Spyglass so much, had Pullman not turned many of the old characters topsy-turvy. Lyra suddenly loses most of her vim and vigor and begins mooning about after Will, and Will returns the favor. Is this really what first love does to adolescents? Er, now that I think about it...at any rate, I've no problem with the homosexual angels or even the sudden change in personality undergone by Mrs. Coulter, but when the two heroes become limp and colorless, it distracts terribly from the previous characterization.
In this series, Pullman seeks to rework Christian myth. The story of the Fall, from both Genesis and Milton's Paradise Lost, which Pullman quotes from at the beginning of his chapters, is intended to be the basis for Lyra and Will's story. Based on Romantic poet William Blake's interpretations of Milton, Pullman casts God as the oppressor, churches and clergy are the enemies of human free will, and the Fall itself (or rather, a second Fall involving Lyra as Eve) is presented as a chance for redemption. Like Milton's personifications of Sin and Death, Lyra (known as Silvertongue because she lies so adeptly) and Will (who begins his portion of the story by killing a man) are intended to usher in Satan's new rule -- only Satan here is the defendor of freedom, and therefore heroic.
Pullman's avowed atheism unfortunately gets in the way of this new mythology, because he is using Christianity as a basis for his tale, but in dispensing with Christianity he offers nothing as a replacement. Lyra and Will make a sacrifice that is ultimately holy by any religious standards -- giving up their love and chance of a relationship for the greater good of the many worlds -- but without any deeper meaning, this sacrifice is empty and useless. In one breath Pullman exalts freedom of choice, science, and material pragmatism, while at the same time attempting to convince the reader that two who are so deeply in love would be so non-pragmatic, so idealistic and full of love for humanity, that they would put others before themselves.
While many bewail the heartbreaking separation of the lovers, I found myself more angry than sad: angry that God is portrayed as an insane tyrant, angry that the Church is portrayed as unrelentingly evil and with no folk of good heart to balance the power-mad zealots, angry that so much beautiful imagery and loving description could in the end offer the reader only despair and emptiness. When Lyra says "...the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place..." I believe that she is wrong. There is more, or this mythic world we love is nothing but a bunch of empty tales, and God is truly dead. The Amber Spyglass makes this claim, but not, in my opinion, successfully. Ultimately, this series fails to truly support it's central idea...and I'm glad.