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Book Review: 'His Dark Materials and Philosophy'

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

What Is “His Dark Materials”?

His Dark Materials” is the name given to a series of books by Philip Pullman. The books are called “Northern Lights”, “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”. He wrote a subsequent trilogy called “The Book of Dust” that expanded this universe. I’d summarize the books as Nietzsche for kids. And I’m not alone in that belief.

These books have regularly featured among the most commonly contested books in libraries. Why? Because the books are a direct attack on religion and the Catholic Church in particular. Then there is Lyra Belacqua, a young woman who lies without end, though one of the theoretical morals of the novels is to appreciate the truth. The books themselves suggest the ends justify the means. Yet the works are incredibly, philosophically rich.

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for a book review.

Are There Moves Based on “His Dark Materials”?

The movie “The Golden Compass” was based on Pullman’s “Northern Lights” novel. “His Dark Materials” was the basis for an HBO series of the same name that began in 2019.

The Cover of "His Dark Materials and Philosophy"

The Cover of "His Dark Materials and Philosophy"

About “His Dark Materials and Philosophy”

Chapter 1 is an analysis of the characteristics of a god worthy to worship. It discusses the problem of Evil, the evil in the Magisterium and evil in general. Chapter 2 discusses the knife that can cut through the barriers between worlds, allowing children like Lyra and Will to travel between them. It also addresses the physics and metaphysics of Dust and the spyglass.

Chapter 3 is a look at death in His Dark Materials. For example, people clearly have souls as demonstrated by daemons, and the second book takes us to a literal world of the dead. Chapter 4 examines daemons and identity. While daemons change as children play, they take a final form at puberty. And they don’t change though adults often do.

Chapter 5 ties “His Dark Materials” to Nietzsche. Ms. Coulter is compared to the Overwoman. She is a mysterious character in war between Metatron and Asriel, the representative of religion’s quest for power and a supposed quest for secular reason. Lyra and Will are compared to the philosophy of “Beyond Good and Evil”. Lyra’s path to becoming an overwoman herself is also in line with Nietzsche’s philosophy, including her repeated deferrals to Will.

Chapter 6 presents the story as how the power of an innocent girl can change the world. It discusses the fears Lyra faces on her path to maturity and coming into her own by realizing the adults around her are wrong. The books are very late-wave feminist in that the father has to sacrifice himself to save his daughter who then achieves his end goals such as finding the source of the Dust and liberating the dead. The third book ends with her starting to build his Republic.

Chapter 7 compares “His Dark Materials” to Margaret Cavendish’s work as well as better known classics. Chapter 8 parallels the conflict Pullman faced with Socrates. He outlines the attack on Christianity and authority in general that are the core morals of the series that others consider immoral. This chapter also discusses how the death of God in the books parallels the metaphysical death of god in Nietzsche.

Chapter 9 is, to me, the best though it had so much more potential. It brings up the prophecies tied to Lyra such as her being the new Eve where Ms. Malone is the snake or how only Lyra can defeat fate and death by being ignorant. The author briefly brings up the threat to one’s freedom fate represents and touches on

The Subtle Knife” shows Will refusing to ask his father’s fate from the magical device that can give him the answer, because he sees it as preserving the illusion of freedom. Ironically, Lyra exercises what is supposed to be her freedom by not asking on his behalf or out of her own curiosity. Instead, she asks the device what Will says when he says it and rarely anything else.

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The author touches on the risk of AI being the oracle that tells us what to do and undermining our freedom of choice. This could have been an essay in its own right. The author didn’t discuss the risk of elites in power using the machines to tell us what to do, presenting it as a neutral source of advice when it actually reflects their biases and commands what they consider “best”.

Chapter 10 tries to analyze the truth in Lyra’s lies, such as how her stories contain higher truths or that her good intentions excuse the lies. One example is the lie that restores someone to their rightful place.

Chapter 11 is the only political chapter in this book, though the editor’s introduction suggested there would be more such political moralizing. The writer’s biases blind him to anything other than a critique of all conservative views as “post-truth”.

Chapter 12 returns to the true philosophical analysis of this deep body of work. It discusses the metaphysical differences between various types of creatures in the series. It doesn’t quite compare daemons to spirit animals but should have.

Chapter 13 veers off course with the philosopher comparing circumcision to the separation of children from their daemons. Yet the writer leaves out the horrors of female genital mutilation and mentions a lesser, beneficial procedure instead.

Chapter 14 presents the series as the breaking of the link between higher knowledge and sin. It references Jacques Derrida’s work. It argues in favor of subjective and outcome based morality. That was the basis of social justice.

The chapter is interesting for its analysis of the alethiometer. For example, the device only communicates via symbols. This is a direct refutation to the written words of the Bible or Book, sometimes literally referred to as the Word.

Read “The Chronicles of Narnia” to see what Pullman was trying to counter. The movies are relatively close to the source material.

Paradise Lost” would be an excellent piece to read to understand what Pullman's books are trying to subvert, but it is a slog.

I suggest reading Johnathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It is a counterpoint to the “post-truth” essay in this popular culture and philosophy book.

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series is far better at discussing the trap and lure of prescience than “His Dark Materials” addressed in Chapter 9.

© 2020 Tamara Wilhite


Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 25, 2020:

I've never heard of this but I have nieces and nephews and a whole lot of cousins that I think might enjoy it so I will pass it along to them.

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