Why His Dark Materials is the fantasy epic for our times

Why His Dark Materials is the fantasy epic for our times

After a flop film, Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels have now been made into a BBC/HBO TV series – and its fairytale story could not be more relevant to 2019, writes David Jesudason.

Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy, His Dark Materials, was a unique cultural phenomenon: a rare fantasy work that – despite the convolution of being set in multiple universes – lost none of its literary sophistication. Since the first novel in the series, Northern Lights, was published in 1995, the books have been revered for their capacity to plunge readers into a complex adult world that nevertheless foregrounds child characters. By the same token, Pullman’s words resonated with both the young and culturally attuned adults, who appreciated his stock of grand literary influences from John Milton to William Blake and William Morris.  

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Now the BBC and HBO have created a new adaptation of the series that features an array of international acting talent, including Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy and Lin Manuel-Miranda. It is written by British dramatist Jack Thorne, who also created the Harry Potter stage sequel The Cursed Child, and will attempt to bring Pullman’s complex world to a new TV audience.  

Why His Dark Materials is the fantasy epic for our times
View image of (Credit: BBC/HBO)

But why adapt this decades old trilogy now? Thorne has said that “we live in scary times and I think there’s so much in Philip’s book that’s about now and where we’re at now, even more than when he first wrote it”.

And he’s right. His Dark Materials is a fantasy series that is pertinent for a time when there are grave fears worldwide that democratic processes and institutions are under threat, whether they be in Trump’s US or in other countries where populist leaders and movements have won favour. However, adapting epic fantasy novels and trying to retain all their themes is fraught with difficulties as fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, can attest.

Indeed there has been one unsuccessful attempt to adapt His Dark Materials before: the 2007 Hollywood film The Golden Compass, which omitted the books’ darker themes and flopped at the box office. The creators of this version have evidently learnt the lessons of that failure. Thorne has worked closely with Pullman so that his vision is not diluted in any way. The pair had regular meetings so that Thorne could “serve the books” and bounce ideas off him.

What’s more, the epic nature of the story suits a lavish slow-burn TV series more than it does a feature film format and will hopefully give Pullman’s series the cultural reach of Game of Thrones. Like GoT, His Dark Materials features a huge cast of characters and a complex plot, which at first is a lot to take in.

His Dark Materials suggests that it is important each individual person questions what they experience – Dr Philippa Semper

At its heart is 11-year-old heroine, Lyra who travels through parallel worlds with a daemon and a truth-telling alethiometer (or golden compass). All humans have a daemon (Lyra’s is called Pantalaimon) and they represent a part of their personality, like alter-egos. The daemons shapeshift into different animals until their ‘owner’ reaches puberty. Lyra embarks on a multi-universe odyssey that begins at a quintessentially British location – a Victorian-inspired Oxford containing colleges where elderly masters argue over archaic laws.

This is a recognisable, naturalistic world in one respect, yet filled with fantastical detail, with the scholastic setting coloured by airships, nomadic river dwellers and child abductions conducted by a mysterious group, which locals call the ‘Gobblers’. Lyra’s journey begins here but soon she embarks on a quest north to find a kidnapped friend, where she encounters armoured bears, the mysterious Dust (elementary particles that rain down from time to time and some characters interpret as being triggered by sinfulness) and the truth about the Gobblers.

A study of unchecked power

Meanwhile, all these lands are controlled by a sinister religious order called the Magisterium. In the adaptation’s opening episode, the Master of the college where the orphaned Lyra lives and studies, says “men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine”. The Master may be talking about the Magisterium but he is also articulating a very prescient fear – of unknown, unchecked power.

With the Magisterium, Pullman has created a totalitarian governing church who act clandestinely and without recognisable religious clothing. Instead, as shown in the series, they have sombre black suits, and are steeped in the modern-day language of power. The Magisterium are not discussing religious doctrine. They are discussing something rather less abstract: how to keep controlling their citizens.

Why His Dark Materials is the fantasy epic for our times
View image of (Credit: BBC/HBO)

The supremacy of a religious establishment is something that cultural historian and novelist  Professor Dame Marina Warner says has the upmost relevance today.

“The world’s religious leaders are beginning to have more influence than they used to,” she tells BBC Culture.

“We’re seeing fundamentalism being a real problem with [US President] Trump playing to that very virulent brand of Christian fundamentalism.”

If the Magisterium may especially resonate with 2019 audiences, then so, too, will young heroine Lyra, who unknowingly, at first, challenges their fundamentalism via her mission to find her friend and the other abducted children. She is a passionate fighter for a cause she believes in and won’t stop her voyage, despite adult protestations.

In the series, she is played with convincing energy by 14-year-old British-Spanish actress Dafne Keen, as at once vulnerable and unstoppable, fiercely loyal to her friends but suspicious of adults. She is also yearning for parental love – something her uncle, Lord Asriel, played by James McAvoy, is not in a position to provide. He, like Lyra, has a higher calling and wants to find evidence of The Magisterium’s conspiracies. But because of this he rejects any attachment with his niece.

Thorne has compared Lyra to Greta Thunberg, another child who is on a quest to the save the world, and recently crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat to highlight adult folly. Both are free-thinkers and willing to challenge the status quo – one of Pullman’s leitmotifs.

“His Dark Materials suggests that it is important each individual person questions what they experience,” says Dr Philippa Semper, a lecturer of English literature in University of Birmingham.

It’s very important that our writers take us to places [where] we confront what we don’t understand. Easy answers are the fodder of snake oil merchants – Marina Warner

“And to develop their knowledge and have this sense of inquiry, that means that they find things out for their selves and that they are not merely handed down information from a dictatorial church or an authoritarian state.”

So forceful is His Dark Material’s worldview that religious groups have long criticised the books and even tried to ban them in schools in the US a decade ago. It was news that former teacher Pullman greeted with amusement at the time, especially because it goes against the very free-thinking his trilogy champions. This attempt at censorship became a badge of honour for him – and Warner notes that after this, his “military atheism became more pronounced”.

The mysteries it holds

If Pullman’s work can be seen at times as anti-establishment, though, is it therefore, ironically and inadvertently, populist in outlook, supporting those who would gain political capital by criticising ‘elites’? While the Magisterium is definitely an elite, it’s a push to claim he is on any side, especially because populist ideas are often criticised for offering easy answers, and such simple solutions are the antithesis of Pullman’s work.

“The world is mysterious,” as Warner puts it. “It’s not fully understood at all. It’s very important that our writers take us to places [where] we confront what we don’t understand and continue to realise that we don’t understand it. Easy answers, glib solutions are the fodder of snake oil merchants”.

Indeed, it’s arguable that His Dark Materials is actually the very antidote to populism, offering  colour and shade instead of easy answers.

Why His Dark Materials is the fantasy epic for our times
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

If there is one disappointing thing in the otherwise excellent first episode of the new TV adaptation, it is that it opens with a rather reductive explanation of the all-important daemons – “here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon” which is something the books never explicitly stated, allowing the reader to think for themselves. In fact, Semper tells me, there has been a lot of debate about what the daemons represent – and whether in fact, in a reversal of the above, the human ‘owners’ are the daemons’ souls made physical. She also adds that some academics have speculated that they could be two beings with a shared consciousness.

Such complexities place Pullman’s work high in the fantasy canon. “It breaks away dramatically from the tropes established by some of the giants of fantasy literature before Pullman,” says Dr Dimitra Fimi, lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow.

Pullman is also a great champion of the underdog as evidenced by the Gyptians, who live humbly on canal barges, but are no lumpen proletariat

It does this by offering a more nuanced universe where every player is capable of good and bad. Unlike in The Lord of the Rings, for example, this isn’t a fight between armies of good versus evil, the latter seeking total destruction, but a more realistic exploration of how good and evil are behaviours rather than defining labels. 

Pullman is also a great champion of the underdog as evidenced by the Gyptians, who live humbly on canal barges, but are no lumpen proletariat. They are a group of people who, although they live on the fringes of life, are not willing to be sidelined when their children are kidnapped. They are capable of brutality, but also tenderness, and show Pullman’s optimism in the human spirit. The Gyptians could be seen to be a riposte to the way the working class are often depicted – they demonstrate the power to affect change through collective action – while equally, their depiction as itinerant outsiders could be viewed as a redress to the kind of rhetoric that views migrant communities with suspicion. The series brings these characters to the forefront from the start and makes their plight gripping. Their golden-sun-lit canal setting also provides a vivid visual contrast to the bleak snowscapes of the north.

Certainly, on the evidence of the opening episode, all the omens for a successful adaptation look good –one that respects Pullman’s deft characterisation, readiness to discuss uncomfortable themes and rich settings.

“He is a sort of moralist,” Warner says. “Like Charles Dickens was. But he’s clever enough to disguise it. Pullman is too skilful a storyteller to let it show all the time.”

Dickens was the ultimate chronicler of Victorian times. His Dark Materials, and its new small-screen incarnation, shows that Pullman is worthy of being considered as the modern-day equivalent. 

His Dark Materials begins on BBC1 in the UK on November 3 and HBO in the US on November 4

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