His Dark Materials: A Critical Worldview Analysis

Ever present in modern times is the conflict of worldviews. Although most people are unaware that they have such an ideological framework, they are constantly confirmed or otherwise influenced by culture, media, and by others. Their outlook becomes an assimilation of the world around them. And more than just subtle integration, these artifacts can often carry discernibly forceful and critical attitudes toward other worldviews. One instance of such a heavy-handed worldview can be found in the book trilogy His Dark Materials, by British author Philip Pullman. The series includes Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The story begins in a parallel earth where individuals are accompanied by animal familiars called daemons, and where science, theology, and magic are closely intertwined. The main character is a young girl named Lyra Belacqua who, gifted with a truth-telling instrument called the golden compass, goes on a quest to rescue a friend who was kidnapped. In the process of her journey she meets several allies, including a group of gypsies, a witch queen, and a talking polar bear. Lyra also faces both proponents and adversaries of the tyrannical organization called the Church, including, Mrs. Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel (who we later learn are her parents) (“Synopsis”). The main worldview seen in His Dark Materials is, to a certain extent, postmodernism, which is effectively embodied in three elements of the plot: the nature of the antagonistic Church, the implications of Lord Asriel’s investigation into a particle called Dust, and finally, the tools (or means) of Lyra’s moral development. Although here examined separately, these elements are not wholly distinct, but all build upon each other into the preceding worldview.

The first body of evidence that demonstrates the worldviews in His Dark Materials is the character and presentation of the antagonistic tyranny called the Church, which is a religious organization symbolic of Christianity and is the primary enemy of Lyra and her scientist father Lord Asriel. More specifically, there is a powerful body within the Church called the Magisterium, which is responsible for quelling any resistance or acts of heresy. Now, postmodernism believes that there is much at fault with Western society, and by extension, organized religion; laying claim that reliance on ancient traditions and values have crippled the personal freedoms of modern society. Traditional authority has become the main issue (“Postmodernism”). Within His Dark Materials, the head of the Church is a creature imitating God—further insinuating Pullman’s and postmodernism’s view on religion as illegitimate and exploiting power. Pullman continues to undermine traditional values by introducing characters that, in pursuit of truth, have severed themselves from religion (i.e. Lord Asriel and a nun-turned physicist named Mary Malone).

The second body of evidence that identifies the postmodern worldview in His Dark Materials is derived from the challenge of truth, and further, the perceptions of reality. Lord Asriel’s investigation of the mystical, elemental particles called Dust is the focus of this subject. He is after the truth of the particle’s significance, believed by some to be related to Original Sin—the origin of evil. Dust is described as particles of self-awareness and is symbolic of knowledge. For this reason the Church chooses to hinder Lord Asriel from his investigation, while they simultaneously conduct experiments on children in relation to the effects of Dust. This is a blatant call against the Church, claiming their intentions of promoting ignorance. The discovery and investigation of Dust, across the parallel universes, then becomes an allusion to the postmodern pursuit of individual truth; everyone’s effort is equally significant and yet no more truthful than the other. This concept is reflected in the following quote by Pullman, where he said, “I’m for open-mindedness and tolerance… The truth is far too large and complex. Nobody has the truth” (“Quotes”).

The third body of evidence that identifies the postmodern worldview in His Dark Materials is drawn from the tools acquired by Lyra Belacqua throughout the series. The ones of mention include the golden compass, or alethiometer, and a supernatural weapon called the Subtle Knife (from both of which the first two books are named). The alethiometer stands for the discovery of personal truth and the subtle knife is the rational process of severing lies from this truth. Again, this is a picture of postmodernism, which states, “truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself” (“Postmodernism”). By the end of the third book Lyra has begun to lose her ability to read the alethiometer, but instead learns to discern truth for herself. In other words, Lyra has been enlightened to the point that she can decide, within the power of her own exalted self, what truth is.

In review, the book series His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman, reveals influence from the worldview of postmodernism—though by no means exclusively. These ideologies are clearly embodied in three elements of the plot: the character of the antagonistic Church, the implications of Lord Asriel’s investigation into a particle called Dust, and finally, the tools–or means—of Lyra’s moral development. As seen, these elements are not entirely distinct from one another, but instead, lead into the same concepts: the illegitimate authority of religion, challenging truth and perceptions of reality, and asserting the doctrine of self-empowerment and enlightenment. As a final thought on a subject, Pullman said once that “All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions” (“Quotes”).

Work Cited

“The Golden Compass: Synopsis.” His Dark Materials. Random House, Inc. Web. 18 Feb. 2012. http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/index.php.

“Postmodernism – What is Truth?” All About Philosophy. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.             http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/postmodernism.htm.

“Quotes.” His Dark Materials.org. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.             http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/index.php.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Book 1). 1995. N.p: Random House, Inc., 2001. Print.

Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials Book 2). 1997. N.p.: Random House, Inc., 2001. Print.

Pullman Philip. The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials Book 3). 2001. N.p.: Random House, Inc., 2001. Print.