Tea & Tales Book Club - His Dark Materials Trilogy

Into this wilde 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 mixt

Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,

Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more Worlds,

Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend

Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,

Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith

He had to cross.

— Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920

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This past weekend, the Tea & Tales book club met to discuss the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The trilogy consists of The Golden Compass (as it’s titled in North America), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, and follows the adventures of Lyra Belcqua and Will Parry in what starts off as a single adventure and turns into what is essentially an inverted Paradise Lost.

I really enjoyed the series! While I did feel Pullman’s writing style involved too much description, I appreciated the world-building and the epic nature of the trilogy, and the wonderful character development. I also respected the series as a parable (or inverted parable?) and could therefore suspend my disbelief when it came to, say, certain characters’ decision-making skills or their reactions to traumatic events.

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All around, the Tea & Tales book club enjoyed His Dark Materials. We chatted about how the trilogy is ultimately a commentary on religion, and we chatted about Pullman’s own views on what Christianity refers to as "original sin." Regardless of religious beliefs, though, I felt His Dark Materials was a very beautiful argument for love, altruism, and respect for life and death.

Of course, we discussed less heavy topics too. For example: Lyra’s blondeness. Her golden hair colour is improbable given how Mrs. Coulter’s hair is described as being jet black. While not technically impossible, isn't it far more likely that Lyra's hair should be some shade of brown? Or is Lyra's world so different from ours that hereditary traits mean less and, like in anime, children could be born with any hair colour at all?

Also, it turns out we each had very specific people in mind when imagining what Lord Asriel looked like. I imagined he looked like Colin Farrell’s character in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Ambitious, cunning, and exuding power, right? Except Colin-Farrell-Lord-Asriel would have dark hair, so the likelihood that he and Marissa Coulter could produce a baby as blonde as Lyra is is even more unlikely. Darn.

Another member imagined him as a Daniel Craig/James Bond kind of man, which felt like a completely different take. And yet another member disagreed with both of our celebrity picks. She said that no, her Lord Asriel didn’t look sleek or rugged. He wasn’t black-haired or blonde. In fact, he wasn’t even three dimensional: her Lord Asriel was Tarzan’s father, from the animated Disney movie Tarzan. I’d never seen the movie, so she pulled up a picture on her phone, and wow. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the aesthetic choice her Lord Asriel must have made when choosing that particular facial 'do.

The Lord Asriel discussion is a great example of one of the beauties of fiction. We were all reading the same story, but our imaginations took us to entirely different visual places.

One of the beauties of His Dark Materials, of course, is that it has so many places to take you.

Have you read the His Dark Materials trilogy? What were your favourite parts?

Oh—and what/who did your Lord Asriel look like? Hah.

Cheers,
Miriam

PS: This is a thought on a spoiler that doesn’t reveal anything about the plot, but it’s a spoiler nonetheless: I was disappointed to find out that Mrs. Coulter’s monkey was never given a name! I’m aware that the radio adaptation gave him one, but it wasn’t approved by Pullman, who apparently just couldn’t think of a name that fit, so I still see it as being a secret kept from the reader. Also, it was interesting that her monkey doesn’t belong to a species that exists in our world, seeing as there are no golden monkeys with black faces anywhere on Earth.