Last night’s post about the Real Housewives of Atlanta got me to thinking about reality television in general. It’s easy to watch these people as part of a “cast,” as opposed to plain old regular folks, because they’ve bought into the adage that all the world’s a stage. In Kim Zolciak’s mind, she is a talented, stunningly beautiful woman whose charms are finally being appreciated. While viewers might not see her that way, she’s got an audience–so we’re sort of complicit in her fairy-tale making.
As a YA lit nut and Milton nerd, I suppose it’s somewhat embarrassing that I hadn’t ever finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy before now. I’d read The Golden Compass several times, but if I finished The Subtle Knife, I can’t remember it, and I’d never cracked The Amber Spyglass. So over the Thanksgiving break, I decided to read them all again.
And is it me, or are these novels awful? I think my expectations were shaped by how much I love the Sally Lockhart trilogy, set in a world that’s Dickensian in its nature but without any of the heaviness of Dickensian prose, full of brilliant and convincing characterization. My quibbles with His Dark Materials lie along those lines, not with Pullman’s atheism. And I was shocked by the difference in quality. Spoilers galore in the discussion that follows.
First, the world-building is just terrible. Asriel goes from hanging out in a schmancy prison to building a major fortress, with precisely no explanation of how he built his coalition or got the resources for his rebellion. It’s just stupid to assume that you can waltz off into a different world, an alienated scientist in your own, and suddenly acquire world-destroying powers. It’s condescending to readers. Same is true for the deus ex machina declaration that using the Subtle Knife creates the Spectres. It makes no sense at all, there’s no explanation for the mechanism by which that would work, and the plot turn essentially seems to exist because Pullman decided he needed to separate Will and Lyra. Which is incredibly dumb, from the point of his argument, but I’ll get to that in a second. And then Intention Engine? That seems like pure Mary Sue technology to me. It’s not plausible, or sensible, it’s just meant to be cool, but there’s no reason for why it should work at all.
If Pullman wants to build rigorous literature for children, he can’t just give them absurd concepts and expect them to just accept them. It’s the antithesis of critical thought. Pullman should respect his readers by giving them concepts strong enough to live up to scrutiny.
Next, I didn’t buy the process by which Will and Lyra fall in love. To me, it seemed the person Lyra really loved was Roger: he was the person she’d go across the world to save, the person she’d venture into limbo to try to speak to again, he is the Eurydice to her Orpheus, the mother to her Odysseus. I’m just not sure I see the basis for the relationship between Will and Lyra other than shared trauma, and it didn’t feel to me that it was enough for this to be an epic, cosmos-saving love.
Finally, and perhaps this is intentional, but the Authority and Metatron are just as flat and invisible in The Amber Spyglass as God is in Paradise Lost. But in Paradise Lost, that flatness serves to illuminate Satan. It’s not just authority he’s rebelling against, it’s crushing boredom. In The Amber Spyglass, on the other hand, we’re stuck between boring tyranny and boring rebellion.
As Satan, Lord Asriel’s hugely unconvincing as a leader. He’s cold to Lyra, it’s not remotely clear why he loves Marisa Coulter, he has no clear allegiances, there’s no one moment when we see his charisma. Pullman tells the story of Lyra’s birth in a way that drains the motivating energy out of it. If we’d really seen Asriel’s passion for his lover and his daughter, and seen his rage for freedom grow out of the denial of that love, it might have been convincing. But it’s a cold, colorless freedom Asriel’s fighting for. He doesn’t seem to want anything except to destroy the Authority. And that lack of desire makes him a deeply unconvincing champion.
But maybe even more egregious is the ending. Lyra and Will, having experienced a sexual awakening and restored order to the world, don’t get to experience the joys of freedom. Instead, they’re separated, sent back to their own worlds, bound by the rules, and required to be ambassadors of the new virtue of freedom. They might as well have lived under the Authority as under the new order for all the good it gets them. Freedom from the Authority and the Magesterium doesn’t seem to enrich anyone’s lives any, except that Lyra finally is going to get an education. It’s a failed case for a different ending. Paradise is still lost.