Standing on the Brink of a New Interpretation
Introducing Sophia Bollag, one of Mirador’s new monthly columnists! Her articles are posted on the third Thursday of every month.
A few weeks ago, I finally decided to update my list of favorite books on Facebook.
I had hesitated to do so before for fear people would judge my taste in literature the same way I judged theirs. For the record, I automatically classify anyone who lists anything written by Stephanie Meyer on their profile as illiterate, while anyone who lists anything by Thomas Hardy automatically becomes one of my favorite people. The latter scenario hasn’t exactly ever happened. However, last week I decided I had nothing to be embarrassed about. After 18 years (okay, 13 if you only count those for which I was able to read), I think I’ve acquired a half-way decent taste in literature.
Which is why last week I finally answered that nagging question on my profile page: “What books do you like?” I felt confident until I typed “His Dark Materials,” and the familiar Golden Compass cover popped up. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure I had nothing to be embarrassed about.
It’s not really disputed that Philip Pullman’s series is brilliant. The recipient of many awards, including the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for the final book in the trilogy, the series is critically acclaimed for being so detailed and complex.
The question is: brilliant to what audience? The majority of awards the series received were for children’s literature, and the critics who praise the books rarely go so far as to classify them as anything more than a series for kids.
Thus, I was torn. Although far, far more respectable than a YA novel about werewolves, does the series really belong in a list of titles alongside Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Great Gatsby?
I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, it does.
Critical reception and interpretations of the series has, up until now, focused on the plot-spanning allusions and the enormous number of concrete symbols in the series. When studied in detail, the complexity of the books is dizzying. To give an example, this is the quotation from John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, from which Pullman took the series’ title:
“Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage.”
The wary fiend Milton is describing (the Devil, for those not familiar with the poem) appears in Pullman’s text, too, by a different name. The scene from these lines also occurs in Pullman’s narrative. The place to which Milton’s wary fiend is about to voyage, the Garden of Eden, appears in Pullman’s narrative, too, as do all the notable objects from the Garden (the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Fruit of Knowledge, the serpent, even Adam and Eve, themselves), in different contexts and by different names. This is true for all the first stories of Christianity (the fall of Lucifer, Original Sin, the story of Cain and Abel), which Pullman weaves into his own narrative such that they take place simultaneously. Tracing any one of the hundreds of characters and important objects His Dark Materials through the books reveals a labyrinth of connections, meanings, and allusions so tangled and intricate it resembles the wild abyss Milton’s Satan stares into in the lines from which Pullman takes the series’ title.
Almost all of which, of course, is lost on the series’ target audience: children. When I first read the books at age 11, I vaguely understood a few of the references, but the majority of their complexity was lost on me. What came through brilliantly, however, was the overall relevance of the plot, which, in many ways, is more impressive than the complex symbolism.
The best way to describe this phenomenon is to use one of Pullman’s own symbols: the alethiometer. In the books, adults who devote their lives to interpreting this device are put to shame by little Lyra, who reads the alethiometer’s unfathomably complex code with the ease of an uncluttered understanding. While those who first read Pullman’s books as adults get caught up in the details, those who first read them as children see the true genius of the books easily: that the entire trilogy is an allegory about growing up.
Until now, the majority of critical attention the books have received has been from people who read them as adults, because respected voices in the literary world had already grown up by the time the books were published. Now however, those who first read the series as children are inheriting positions of scholarship and respect formerly held exclusively by members of the older generation. In the near future, I predict His Dark Materials will be praised, not only for being children’s books that adults can analyze, but for being veritable works of literature children can understand.