When Pullman completed his Dark Materials trilogy in 2000, fans asked the obvious question: When can we see the movie? Now after years of speculation, the first book, The Golden Compass, is due for release in 2007. Internet message boards are buzzing, fan sites are collecting every fragment of news, and debates about casting and script are heating up. And, inevitably, companion books are multiplying on bookstore and library shelves.
David Colbert is a veteran of this type of writing, with three previous Magical Worlds titles to coincide with theatrical releases: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Narnia. His study of Philip Pullman’s epic work, endorsed by the author himself, is divided into chapters based on specific questions about the book, such as “What makes Iorek Byrnison so smart?” or “Who gave Daemons to Humankind?” Questions like these will intrigue even casual readers of the trilogy, but unfortunately the answers they seem to promise cannot ever really be found.
Even Pullman, whose quotations appear frequently in this book, cannot be sure where he got all his ideas, although many sparks of inspiration seem to have come from John Milton and William Blake. Pullman has been ruminating for years over their works, and Colbert draws quite interesting comparisons to demonstrate that their works form the foundation for His Dark Materials.
In fact, the very title of the work comes from a line in Paradise Lost
, and Pullman uses themes parallel to those of Milton’s epic poem, although he reverses Milton’s perspective. In Pullman’s universe, God is not the Maker, sin is not sin, and the Fall of Man is a blessing rather then a curse. Blake’s input is his view of deity, not as two opposing forces, but as a combination of good and evil, or, as he considered it, emotion and reason. There is no evil, only reason that makes us think evil. Pullman takes this idea and shows his main character as a second Eve who actually brings deliverance rather than damnation by “sinning.”
The trilogy begins with The Golden Compass
and Lyra a curious, resourceful girl who turns out to be a prophesied child of great power. With her altheiometer, a truth-telling instrument, as her guide, she sets off on a journey to find and rescue her friend Roger as well as other children who have suddenly disappeared. The setting is Oxford University, England, but in a world parallel to ours. The most notable difference is that each human has an animal companion, his daemon, who seems to be an expression of himself and from whom he cannot be physically separated.
The story introduces other worlds in the next book, The Subtle Knife,
and brings Will, with his gift of bridging the various worlds, into Lyra’s plot. In The Amber Spyglass,
Will and Lyra eventually find Roger and force a confrontation with Death. Interweaving his way through Lyra’s plotline is Lord Asriel, who has determined to bring down the Ancient of Days and destroy Death itself.
His Dark Materials is a stunning adventure fantasy which can be enjoyed even without knowing the background in literature that Pullman draws from. However, the understanding and appreciation grow deeper as you see the sources used and engage in the debates that Colbert proposes in his book (“Is Lord Asriel the Story’s Hero?” “Does Mrs. Coulter really change?”) This companion book is full of sidebars with little snippets of interesting trivia, as well as page-long inserts that follow little rabbit trails of thought away from the main text and is a rich resource for readers and movie-goers alike.