The first two books of HIS DARK MATERIALS were mainly told from the perspectives of the child main characters, Lyra and Will respectively. Each childhood character gets their own story and adventures told, their characters built up, and their relationships with others filled out. Nipping at the edges of their stories is a much grander epic on the side of the adult characters, involving war, religion, oppression, trauma, and so on. In many ways, the first two books of the series feel like prologues to THE AMBER SYPGLASS, which expands its perspective to include multiple point-of-view characters covering all sorts of subsets of the larger story. Angels, aliens, and a remixing of Genesis, such things come to the fore. All the while, Lyra and Will are at that stage of their lives where they’re well and truly growing up, and the series makes its fundamental points about childhood, adulthood, maturity, and self-actualisation plain as such things all wind to a close.
[spoilers for THE AMBER SPYGLASS below]
The expanded scope makes the first two books seem like prologues in setting up their child characters and respective worlds, before swivelling into the epic war against God narrative.
Balthamos said quietly, “The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.
But that narrative is closed remarkably offhandedly, ‘God’s’ death coming as mercy from two children, unaware of what they were doing.
Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments later he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.
And at that point, there is still plenty of the novel left. What comes after is the real critical piece of the whole series, the narrative being substituted into a love story. The first two books set up Lyra and Will’s characters in detail and depth. In the third book, they both naturally age, and go through enough harrowing experiences, that they certainly reach puberty and have well and truly begun to mature into young adults. The book (and THE SUBTLE KNIFE too, to a lesser extent) is peppered with unconscious developments as to their attraction to each other.
And barely ten minutes later the soft sound of wingbeats came to their ears, and Balthamos stood up eagerly. The next moment, the two angels were embracing, and Will, gazing into the flames, saw their mutual affection. More than affection: they loved each other with a passion.
Baruch sat down beside his companion, and Will stirred the fire, so that a cloud of smoke drifted past the two of them. It had the effect of outlining their bodies so that he could see them both clearly for the first time. Balthamos was slender; his narrow wings were folded elegantly behind his shoulders, and his face bore an expression that mingled haughty disdain with a tender, ardent sympathy, as if he would love all things if only his nature could let him forget their defects. But he saw no defects in Baruch, that was clear. Baruch seemed younger, as Balthamos had said he was, and was more powerfully built, his wings snow-white and massive. He had a simpler nature; he looked up to Balthamos as to the fount of all knowledge and joy. Will found himself intrigued and moved by their love for each other.
“Will, I want us to take all these poor dead ghost kids outside—the grownups as well—we could set ’em free! We’ll find Roger and your father, and then let’s open the way to the world outside, and set ’em all free!”
He turned and gave her a true smile, so warm and happy she felt something stumble and falter inside her; at least, it felt like that, but without Pantalaimon she couldn’t ask herself what it meant. It might have been a new way for her heart to beat. Deeply surprised, she told herself to walk straight and stop feeling giddy.
Presently she rolled over and saw Will, still fast asleep. His hand had bled a lot, his shirt was ripped and filthy, his hair was stiff with dust and sweat. She looked at him for a long time, at the little pulse in his throat, at his chest rising and falling slowly, at the delicate shadows his eyelashes made when the sun finally reached them.
“But he loved my mother,” said Will. “And I can tell her that he was never unfaithful.”
Lyra, looking at Will, thought that if he fell in love, he would be like that.
“D’you think you’ll get married?”
He was quiet for a long time. She knew he was thinking, though.
“I can’t see that far ahead,” he said. “It would have to be someone who understands about … I don’t think there’s anyone like that in my world. Would you get married?”
“Me too,” she said. “Not to anyone in my world, I shouldn’t think.”
There are more awkward moments regarding sexuality as well.
“Well …” she said, and set her beaker down on the ground, leaning forward so that her hair swung down on either side of her face. When she sat up again, she tucked it back behind her ears with both hands, and Will smelled the fragrance of some scent she was wearing combined with the fresh smell of her body, and he felt disturbed.
“There’s probably a great deal that’s mysterious to you, my Lord President, starting with the relations between a mother and her child. If you thought for one moment that I would release my daughter into the care—the care!—of a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality, men with dirty fingernails, reeking of ancient sweat, men whose furtive imaginations would crawl over her body like cockroaches—if you thought I would expose my child to that, my Lord President, you are more stupid than you take me for.”
They looked at her: her eyes were glittering more than usual, her chin was held high with a look she’d learned from Will without knowing it. She looked defiant as well as lost, Dame Hannah thought, and admired her for it; and the Master saw something else—he saw how the child’s unconscious grace had gone, and how she was awkward in her growing body. But he loved the girl dearly, and he felt half-proud and half in awe of the beautiful adult she would be, so soon.
The book essentially seeks to reframe Original Sin as a good thing, sex and maturity and puberty as a good thing, all the human expressions that institutions clamp down on so as to control people as good things. This goes back the ending of the first novel, where Lyra and Pan decide that Dust is probably a good thing, since all those claiming it’s bad seem rather twisted themselves.
“If in order to destroy Dust we also have to destroy the Oblation Board, the College of Bishops, every single agency by which the Holy Church does the work of the Authority—then so be it. It may be, gentlemen, that the Holy Church itself was brought into being to perform this very task and to perish in the doing of it. But better a world with no Church and no Dust than a world where every day we have to struggle under the hideous burden of sin. Better a world purged of all that!”
What happened to give you the sraf?
We discovered how to use the wheels. One day a creature with no name discovered a seedpod and began to play, and as she played she—
She, yes. She had no name before then. She saw a snake coiling itself through the hole in a seedpod, and the snake said—
The snake spoke to her?
No, no! It is a make-like. The story tells that the snake said, “What do you know? What do you remember? What do you see ahead?” And she said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing.” So the snake said, “Put your foot through the hole in the seedpod where I was playing, and you will become wise.” So she put a foot in where the snake had been. And the oil entered her blood and helped her see more clearly than before
“Well, where is God,” said Mrs. Coulter, “if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged—he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?”
“This is a bitter message, a sad and cruel joke. Can’t you see the truth? This is not a child. This is an agent of the Evil One himself! The world we lived in was a vale of corruption and tears. Nothing there could satisfy us. But the Almighty has granted us this blessed place for all eternity, this paradise, which to the fallen soul seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is, overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns of the angels. This is Heaven, truly! What this evil girl promises is nothing but lies. She wants to lead you to Hell! Go with her at your peril. My companions and I of the true faith will remain here in our blessed paradise, and spend eternity singing the praises of the Almighty, who has given us the judgment to tell the false from the true.”
The church, and institutions like it, are essentially cast as infantile here, preferring a blinkered and simplified view of the world in favour of the more complex, difficult-to-understand, and prone-to-pain encompassing view of the world. This gets rather explicit towards the end, where the story has arced to such points that Pullman feels free to have one character opine directly on the matter.
“Ah, but I knew about them. I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”
“When you stopped believing in God,” he went on, “did you stop believing in good and evil?”
“No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.”
This more complex view of the world includes lies and falsehoods not inherently being condemnable things.
“Yeah, that’s true, that would be awful … You know, with my mother, I never realized … I just grew up on my own, really; I don’t remember anyone ever holding me or cuddling me, it was just me and Pan as far back as I can go … I can’t remember Mrs. Lonsdale being like that to me; she was the housekeeper at Jordan College, all she did was make sure I was clean, that’s all she thought about … oh, and manners … But in the cave, Will, I really felt—oh, it’s strange, I know she’s done terrible things, but I really felt she was loving me and looking after me … She must have thought I was going to die, being asleep all that time—I suppose I must’ve caught some disease—but she never stopped looking after me. And I remember waking up once or twice and she was holding me in her arms … I do remember that, I’m sure … That’s what I’d do in her place, if I had a child.”
So she didn’t know why she’d been asleep all that time. Should he tell her, and betray that memory, even if it was false? No, of course he shouldn’t.
“I remember you said something strange, on Svalbard, on the mountaintop, just before you left our world,” she went on. “You said: Come with me, and we’ll destroy Dust forever. You remember saying that? But you didn’t mean it. You meant the very opposite, didn’t you? I see now. Why didn’t you tell me what you were really doing? Why didn’t you tell me you were really trying to preserve Dust? You could have told me the truth.”
“I wanted you to come and join me,” he said, his voice hoarse and quiet, “and I thought you would prefer a lie.”
“Yes,” she whispered, “that’s what I thought.”
The prince of the angels looked at her. It was the most searching examination Marisa Coulter had ever undergone. Every scrap of shelter and deceit was stripped away, and she stood naked, body and ghost and dæmon together, under the ferocity of Metatron’s gaze.
And she knew that her nature would have to answer for her, and she was terrified that what he saw in her would be insufficient. Lyra had lied to Iofur Raknison with her words; her mother was lying with her whole life.
“Yes, I see,” said Metatron.
“What do you see?”
“Corruption and envy and lust for power. Cruelty and coldness. A vicious, probing curiosity. Pure, poisonous, toxic malice. You have never from your earliest years shown a shred of compassion or sympathy or kindness without calculating how it would return to your advantage. You have tortured and killed without regret or hesitation; you have betrayed and intrigued and gloried in your treachery. You are a cesspit of moral filth.”
That voice, delivering that judgment, shook Mrs. Coulter profoundly. She knew it was coming, and she dreaded it; and yet she hoped for it, too, and now that it had been said, she felt a little gush of triumph.
He said, “You will never be lost while this college is standing, Lyra. This is your home for as long as you need it. As for money—your father made over an endowment to care for all your needs, and appointed me executor; so you needn’t worry about that.”
In fact, Lord Asriel had done nothing of the sort, but Jordan College was rich, and the Master had money of his own, even after the recent upheavals.
Lyra – liar – Silvertongue, our protagonist, has always embodied this, through the conflation of lies with stories.
“And we have the right to refuse to guide them if they lie, or if they hold anything back, or if they have nothing to tell us. If they live in the world, they should see and touch and hear and learn things. We shall make an exception for infants who have not had time to learn anything, but otherwise, if they come down here bringing nothing, we shall not guide them out.”
The distinction between ‘good lies’ and the institutional falsehoods of the church aren’t always clear – and that’s partly the point. There aren’t clearly designed gridlines to box the world into. In Pullman’s view, morality is actionable and ongoing, not something prescribed and settled. The novel constructs a fantastical world of the dead, but ultimately reckons with the more atheistic idea of oblivion, framing it as a good thing, a relief, not something to be afraid of. This is the kind of maturity Pullman is trying to tell a story about.
“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your dæmons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your dæmons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”
So it’s fitting that ultimately it’s a story, a recollection, told by the character contorted as Satanic, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, for telling an emotionally wholesome, sexually-charged story to two puberty entrants who find themselves affixed by their newly developing feelings and bodies. The most powerful parts of the series proceed from here.
“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco—that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy—I didn’t know him—he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking … And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth—I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish—and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”
As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on…
“And I think it was at that party, or it might have been at another one, that we kissed each other for the first time. It was in a garden, and there was the sound of music from inside, and the quiet and the cool among the trees, and I was aching—all my body was aching for him, and I could tell he felt the same—and we were both almost too shy to move. Almost. But one of us did and then without any interval between—it was like a quantum leap, suddenly—we were kissing each other, and oh, it was more than China, it was paradise.
Then Lyra took one of those little red fruits. With a fast-beating heart, she turned to him and said, “Will …”
And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth.
She could see from his eyes that he knew at once what she meant, and that he was too joyful to speak. Her fingers were still at his lips, and he felt them tremble, and he put his own hand up to hold hers there, and then neither of them could look; they were confused; they were brimming with happiness.
Like two moths clumsily bumping together, with no more weight than that, their lips touched. Then before they knew how it happened, they were clinging together, blindly pressing their faces toward each other.
“Like Mary said,” he whispered, “you know straight away when you like someone—when you were asleep, on the mountain, before she took you away, I told Pan—”
“I heard,” she whispered, “I was awake and I wanted to tell you the same and now I know what I must have felt all the time: I love you, Will, I love you—”
The word love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit.
Will trembled with excitement, and his mind leapt to a single point: to a new window in the air between his world and Lyra’s. And it would be their secret, and they could go through whenever they chose, and live for a while in each other’s worlds, not living fully in either, so their dæmons would keep their health; and they could grow up together and maybe, much later on, they might have children, who would be secret citizens of two worlds; and they could bring all the learning of one world into the other, they could do all kinds of good—
Where the series really makes its thesis statement isn’t with the blooming of this romance, but with how it’s cut short, and how the two former children reckon with that fact maturely. They gnash their teeth and wail about how circumstances of the worldbuilding prevent them ever seeing each other again, but they self-actualise, they do not act selfishly, they prioritise the needs of humantiy over themselves. They commit to treasuring their time together, honouring their memories of each other, and, remarkably, even make the very mature choice of not blotting out their futures for each other.
And Will knew what it was to see his dæmon. As she flew down to the sand, he felt his heart tighten and release in a way he never forgot. Sixty years and more would go by, and as an old man he would still feel some sensations as bright and fresh as ever: Lyra’s fingers putting the fruit between his lips under the gold-and-silver trees; her warm mouth pressing against his; his dæmon being torn from his unsuspecting breast as they entered the world of the dead; and the sweet rightfulness of her coming back to him at the edge of the moonlit dunes.
“I will love you forever, whatever happens. Till I die and after I die, and when I find my way out of the land of the dead, I’ll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again …”
“I’ll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you … We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams … And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight …”
They lay side by side, hand in hand, looking at the sky.
“And if we—later on—” she was whispering shakily, “if we meet someone that we like, and if we marry them, then we must be good to them, and not make comparisons all the time and wish we were married to each other instead … But just keep up this coming here once a year, just for an hour, just to be together …”
Lyra at eighteen sitting intent and absorbed in Duke Humfrey’s Library with the alethiometer and a pile of leather-bound books. Tucking the hair back behind her ears, pencil in mouth, finger moving down a list of symbols, Pantalaimon holding the stiff old pages open for her … “Look, Pan, there’s a pattern there—see? That’s why they’re in that sequence!” And it felt as if the sun had come out. It was the second thing she said to Will next day in the Botanic Garden.
Staying apart is the difficult but correct action. This reflects the realities of life perhaps more keenly than anything else in the series. It is heart-rending, and Pullman is wise enough a storyteller to know that not only do constraints make for good storytelling, but tragedy makes for good romance – but, crucially, his encompassing view of morality and love see his take on romance as nuanced, melding a youthful forever-love with the reality of eventually falling in love with people, neither thought tarnishing the other. All these things are ‘adult’ thoughts, and that’s the power of having a children’s book series grow into them. These books are for children, and that’s what’s powerful about them. Rather than a feedback loop of childishness, they use a children’s type of story to remix institutional lies and oppressions, to reframe natural beauty and human growth and behaviour. When Lyra returns to Jordan, she meets a woman she described in the first novel as frumpy, boring, unlikable. That woman has not changed, but the woman that Lyra became in the third novel has, and so the description changes as well.
This time it was a smaller party: just herself and the Master and Dame Hannah Relf, the head of St. Sophia’s, one of the women’s colleges. Dame Hannah had been at that first dinner, too, and if Lyra was surprised to see her here now, she greeted her politely, and found that her memory was at fault: for this Dame Hannah was much cleverer, and more interesting, and kindlier by far than the dim and frumpy person she remembered.
Far more than any typical children’s sort of monomythical retelling, this trilogy’s recontextualisation of Genesis paints a nuanced, emotionally keen view on the transformation of children into adults – and the beauty and grace of such a thing. Four seedpods, and two names carved into a bench.