It is in the final volume of his trilogy that Philip Pullman yanks out all the stops and delivers the message that makes the entire saga of His Dark Materials quite so startling.
We have been introduced to the idea that there are multiple realities early on. Indeed, Lyra’s story started out in an England that was not quite ours, part of a world dominated by a Church that is not any of the churches we know, although some things about it seemed similar.
We followed Lyra in The Golden Compass when we found out that a secret agency in this church was kidnapping children and separating them from what we would think of as their souls in order to develop a power which allowed control over these dimensions. In Lyra’s world every person comes in two parts, a human portion and a shape shifting daemon which represents their personality and emotions. The soul is that daemon part. Lyra’s mother is the leader of the Church agency. Her father is the head of a rebellion against the Church. Lyra walked off into the Northern Lights after many adventures with witches, Gypsies and talking bears.
From our reality came Will, bereft of father and teenage caregiver to a demented mother, whose circumstances drive him into hiding and cause him to stumble over one of those holes in the world which allow a person to slip back and forth. He finds himself meeting Lyra in a world where spectral beings prey on the souls of adults and leave children living in terror of growing up. In this world Will finds the Subtle Knife, the tool that can rip the walls of reality and allow him and Lyra to stay one jump ahead of those who would capture them.
Things were not going well when we left them at the end of that book. Will had found and lost his father who turned out to have been an interdimensional traveller himself, and Lyra had fallen under the control of her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who had decided the best way to keep her safe was to keep her drugged.
We’ve dealt with perverted religions in many another book, but the usual take on the situation is that the people involved have somehow got things mixed up. The Amber Spyglass goes a lot further than that. In Pullman’s version of the universe, the Creator did his or her business a long time ago and moved on, leaving the place in the control of beings I suppose we could call angels, since they call themselves that.
The oldest of these, in a turn of phrase borrowed from the artist/poet William Blake, is called the Ancient of Days, and he is quite insane, being bullied about by an upstart angel who once, a long, long time ago, was a mortal man.
As for the afterlife, it has become a place of perpetual pain, where dismal shades are endlessly tormented by harpy like creatures who feed on negative emotions. In true mythic tradition, Lyra and Will have to descend into this underworld and scour its foulness in order to learn some important lessons and set the shades free.
They haven’t set out to save or change the world, but merely to rescue one friend that Lyra knew in the first book. Their purity of purpose has unexpected effects on the underworld and its nameless demons, as well as on the lives of many they touch along their journey, including Lyra’s far from pure parents.
In the end, the Kingdom of Heaven will, they hope, be replaced with the Republic of Heaven, just as the Empire was replaced by the Republic in William Blake’s “America: A Prophecy”, which Pullman quotes at the beginning of this book. However, as events have proven, two and a quarter centuries later “the form of the Angelic land” is not what Blake might have hoped.
I came to the ending of Pullman’s saga, which I did enjoy, thinking that things were a little too pat, like those lyrics of John Lennon’s which for some reason people think are so profound and full of independence. It’s all very well to sing “imagine there’s no heaven ... imagine there’s no countries ... imagine no possessions...” but it’s really easy to forget that the final lines of the song, “ I hope some day you'll join us / And the world will live as one.” are just a rallying cry for a different gospel and more of the same.