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His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman

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Plot Overview

Born in 1946, Philip Pullman began life in Norwich, an old Saxon town in the eastern English county of Norfolk. Pullman’s father was a pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, a job that took the Pullman family around the world. Before he was eleven years old, Pullman had lived in England, South Africa, and Australia, had traveled by boat through the Suez Canal, and had visited countries as diverse as India, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and the Canary Islands. These childhood voyages are at the root of the intricately imagined universe of his most famous work, the trilogy entitled His Dark Materials.

When Pullman was seven, his father died in combat in Kenya. Pullman’s mother eventually married another man in the Royal Air Force. By the time Pullman was eleven years old, his family had settled in North Wales. There, Pullman enrolled in a comprehensive school.

Some of Pullman’s fondest memories from childhood are of his grandfather, who was a clergyman in the Church of England. Pullman’s grandfather regaled Pullman with classic stories and tales of his own invention, and comforted him after the death of his father. Though a major theme of the His Dark Materials trilogy is the treachery of organized religion, Pullman did not feel oppressed by the Anglican Church in his youth and his grandfather did not practice the kind of religious fundamentalism under attack in the books. Pullman has said that the church was a source of security when he was a child. As a teenager, however, Pullman gradually realized that religion wasn’t for him.

Pullman was the first pupil from his school to win a place at Oxford University, where he studied English literature. At Oxford he focused on the work of the seventeenth-century poet and essayist John Milton. The title of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, comes from a phrase in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin.

Pullman held a number of different jobs after graduation, ultimately returning to Oxford, where he worked as a middle school teacher. He became a favorite there thanks to his ability to write engaging plays for the children to perform. One of these plays inspired Pullman to create the character of Sally Lockhart, who figures in a series of historical novels he began publishing several years later. In 1977, he wrote his first (and so far only) adult novel, Galatea.

After twelve years of teaching middle school, Pullman moved to Westminster College, a school at Oxford University, to be a part-time lecturer. He taught courses on the Victorian novel and the folk tale. Both of these subjects influence his work. The Sally Lockhart series takes place in Victorian England and Lyra Belacqua’s world is a warped version of that time. Folk tales inform His Dark Materials, which features characters like Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen, and John Faa, the king of the Gyptians.

Pullman published The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, in 1995, after he had already enjoyed some success with his Sally Lockhart novels and a number of books for younger children. When setting out to write The Golden Compass, Pullman thought about writing a Paradise Lost for kids. In Milton’s poem, Satan leads an army of rebellious angels in an attempt to overthrow God. The attempt fails, and Satan and his followers are cast out of heaven. Satan, seeking revenge, convinces God’s creations, Adam and Eve, to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, thus causing their fall from grace. In Pullman’s take on Paradise Lost, God is an oppressive, senile old man, and Satan is a dashing heroic figure. But the real hero and centerpiece of Pullman’s story is the Eve figure, Lyra Belacqua, on whom the salvation of the universe depends.

The Golden Compass, originally published in England as Northern Lights, was followed by The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). The trilogy’s popularity grew exponentially with each installment, and Pullman quickly attracted an adult following. He won the prestigious Whitbread Prize in 2001 for The Amber Spyglass. Pullman is the first children’s author ever to win the prize. Additionally, Pullman has published a book called Lyra’s Oxford, which fleshes out the details of the fictionalized world. He is currently at work on a fourth installment in the series, entitled The Book of Dust.

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