His Dark Materials Book III
by Philip Pullman
Note: If you don’t want to know anything about what happens, don’t read this review until you’ve read the book. If you’ve read the earlier books but put this off out of fear of disappointment, then go ahead and read Book III.
This is the final book in Pullman’s trilogy (The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife are the first two books) and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.
I had put off reading this book, because I was afraid I would be disappointed. I didn’t see how Pullman could pull off the story he was setting up — he had to include a battle against God and the fall (or not) of a second Eve. Not to mention resolving all the issues with other characters such Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, the witch Serafina, and the scientist Mary Malone.
In reading the first two books, I found myself asking whether or not they were truly children’s books, or merely fantasy novels marketed that way. (Think Harry Potter, think increased sales opportunities with the crossover to adult readers.) This third book, however, I think it is most clear that Pullman wrote these books for younger readers.
Why? Like with all good stories — and I’m thinking story in the fairy tale sense here — this one has a moral. Pullman doesn’t pull any punches delivering his messages: what matters is how we live in the here and now, how we engage with life, how we treat other people, and don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.
Really, it is surprising Pullman’s books haven’t drawn the ire of Christian wing-nutty groups. You know, the folks who think Harry Potter is evil as wizards and witches are obviously satanic. The evidence suggests that Pullman, unlike J.K. Rowling, is actually looking to pick a fight with them: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”
The situations Pullman’s characters find themselves could all be seen as small versions of the big truth he is trying to tell his readers, that “all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.” Mrs. Coulter thinks she is pursuing Truth, Lord Asriel thinks his battle is in the service of truth, the armored bear Iorek believes he knows the truth about the world, Will is less certain but no less driven to do the right thing and he will not lie, and Lyra spins beautiful lies only to learn that it is the truth that will save her.
Not everything works, just as not everything in the first two books worked. The title artifact isn’t magcial this time around (I was grateful) but the other two devices still are, and are still much-needed to make the plot function. From these devices to Asriel’s intention craft, it seems Pullman can’t decide if technology should be real, or should be magical. And if I am to be honest, I could have done without any redemption for the evil monkey lady Mrs. Coulter, as I really did enjoy disliking her.
Then there were the things that I think worked. I liked what happens to God in the end, with the cliff ghasts attacking him, Lyra and Will helping him, and the way he dissolved, confused and unrecognized, into the air. The spineless people on wheels were good, though I have a penchant for nonhumanoid intelligent life. Learning how witches become witches was also an unexpected treat. Ending the tyranny of the land of the dead was also something that worked for me, though it was most unfair to have to watch Lee Scoresby die twice.
We are told that Mary Malone, scientist and former nun, will play the role of tempting serpent to Lyra’s innocent Eve. I liked that the temptation — if you can call it that — wasn’t the breaking of a commandment from God, but instead was holding up a metaphorical mirror to Lyra so she could recognize her own feelings and understand the power in her own body. Yes, there is sex, and many might see that as an expected or stereotypical Fall, but it wasn’t sex that got Eve into trouble the first time, it was a bite from an apple. (Though, to be fair, Lyra does seductively offer Will a bite of fruit. Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
I suppose that one of the reasons I was not disappointed in the end was that the story was messy all along, and it didn’t end in a traditionally happy way. Lyra and Will must always be apart — the loophole that would have allowed them to see each other is instead used to free the dead. Pullman revealed himself to be writing fantasy to encourage children to think critically for themselves about received truths — and I think that is so important I’m willing to forgive a great many things to follow the story.