This is one of my favourite books, which is excuse enough to write about it. But if I needed another reason, it would be that Pullman is one of the writers short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, and this is his major work. Its title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whereMilton refers to the Creator’s power to fashion other worlds from the dark materials found in the abyss – ‘the womb of nature and perhaps her grave’. For this is a book about other worlds, and the nature of the abyss.
Actually it is three books – Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), brought together into one volume. (And perhaps confusingly, the first book was also published as The Golden Compass, which is moreover the title of the film of that book.) It is no doubt possible to read them separately, but they form a continuous adventure, and it is best to read them as such.
Twelve year old Lyra lives in anOxfordthat exists in a universe parallel to our own. It is recognisably the same place, but there are significant differences. Physics, for example, is known as experimental theology, and the Church holds far greater sway than in our world. People have animal (or bird or insect) companions called dǽmons, which are best described as physical expressions of their souls. But when children start to disappear, taken, it is rumoured to the far North, the reaction is the same as in our world; parents unite to get them back. When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she vows to find him, and becomes part of the expedition. And then there is the mysterious substance ‘dust’. What has it to do with the disappearance of the children?
In the second book, Will Parry, a boy from our universe, meets Lyra when they both stray into a third universe. He is looking for his father; she is looking for someone to help her understand ‘dust’. Will becomes the possessor of a knife which can cut gateways into other worlds; others want it too. Lyra is also pursued; it seems she has some as yet unknown importance in the great war developing between the Church and secular forces. This war forms a background to the further travails of Will and Lyra in the third book, though other characters, like the scientist Mary Malone, creator of the amber spyglass, also play important roles.
But this is far more than an exciting adventure story. For one thing, there is the depth and complexity of Pullman’s imagined worlds. Just listing some of the creatures that inhabit them gives an idea of the richness of Pullman’s invention. As well as the dǽmons, there are armoured bears, angels, witches, ghosts, mulefa, Gallivespians, harpies, cliff ghasts and spectres, all fully drawn and functioning beings. There is also a wealth of imaginative detail in the technology that operates in these worlds, from the alethiometer – the truth teller, or golden compass – the subtle knife and amber spyglass to the anbaric lights and projecting lantern. Then there is ‘dust’ – elementary particles, ‘Shadows’ or ‘sraf’ – which exists in all worlds. What is it, and why is it so important? There is a fully thought out cosmology underlying the story, and sometimes dominating it.Pullman rejects organised religion, but has a strong sense of morality and spiritual values.
And all this is found in what is characterised as a children’s book. The distinction might relate to the fact that the story is mostly carried forward by Will and Lyra, rather than simply being about them. One critic claims thatPullmanhas given us a new way of writing for children, and this may be so. But I’m not sure it’s worth making a distinction between children’s and adults’ literature inPullman’s case. Each volume separately might just qualify as ‘for children’, but taken as whole, the complexity of the vision and the imaginative power of the work defy such classification. I think adults will read the story as eagerly as children, and be no less challenged by it than by any other work of literature.