His Dark Materials is two decades old, but its lessons are made for today

The Book of Dust will soon expand Philip Pullman’s landmark fantasy trilogy, but the first books can still teach us a lot about how we live now

Fans of Philip Pullman and his wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy are in for an abundance of treats over the next few years. Pullman’s long-promised followup The Book of Dust – which turns out to be a trilogy itself – has its first volume arriving in October, while the BBC is working on a TV adaptation of His Dark Materials that is set to start filming in autumn.

So not only might we finally get the screen adaptation that the books deserve (let’s continue pretending that the sanitised monstrosity that was The Golden Compass never actually happened, agreed?), we also get to dive in to the world anew, meeting new characters and – more importantly – getting reacquainted with Lyra Silvertongue.

If we needed a reason to reread His Dark Materials, there are now two . Despite the first book having been published 22 years ago, the trilogy is a glowing antidote to the murky and unpleasant reality we’re currently living in. Pullman has ridden back on his agnostic/atheist steed to teach us lessons about rejecting corrupt authority, favouring facts over unfounded beliefs and being true and tolerant to yourself and others.

If you think Harry Potter is a great political allegory for today’s world, then you’ve obviously not read His Dark Materials. Yes, the Potter books give us a dangerous fascist on the rise, but His Dark Materials gives us an enemy that is not only already the accepted authority, but happens to be the bloomin’ Catholic church. The Magisterium, as Pullman renames it, is an organisation in the ultimate position of power; to criticise it is to blaspheme. Just as Donald Trump’s doubters across the pond are branded “unpatriotic” for daring to question their new president, so too critics of the Magisterium are quickly shut down.

Pullman has been savaged in some places for his brutal takedown of religion, but his real target is institutionalised belief and the leaders who use scripture to justify their wants or hates. The same kind of fierce scrutiny could also be applied to a political leader or party seeking to rule by fear, or legislate for personal gain.

The Magisterium, just like many religious and political bodies, has a nebulous enemy it seeks to control – in this case, the mysterious Dust (hopefully soon to be slightly less mysterious with the new trilogy). Dust stands in as the cause of everything it opposes, everything from free sexuality to the independent-mindedness in children as they become young adults. Here, Pullman’s allegory tips over into explicit political commentary: the Magisterium harms children in a fantastical but heart-wrenching way, by permanently separating them from their Dæmons (a physical embodiment of a human soul), and thus stunting their sexual and intellectual growth. In case that symbolism isn’t explicit enough, Pullman even refers to genital mutilation, a problem that we’re barely any closer to solving now than we were in 1995, when Northern Lights was first published.

Pullman wrote His Dark Materials two decades ago, but the books are full of lessons we could all learn from. While the Church of England is still debating gay marriage, Pullman gives us gay angels with Baruch and Balthamos. While opinion takes growing precedence over fact, Pullman gives us characters who constantly reassess and revise their own stances. Through Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel, Pullman reveals there is bravery in admitting you were wrong.

And putting aside allegories and hidden meanings, His Dark Materials is just so damn joyful. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to bawl your eyes out, no matter how many times you’ve read it, and you’ll never look at a hare or a polar bear the same way again. But right now, we could do with a book that’s about a little person taking on her world’s biggest authority and not destroying it – but setting it free. His Dark Materials isn’t about killing a bad guy, it’s about banishing corruption and overthrowing a dangerous ideology. Let’s all start rereading, while we wait to see what The Book of Dust might have to teach us.


Abigail Chandler

The GuardianTramp

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