Lessons In Small Print: Of Dust, Daemons, And Divinity
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
What does it mean when a Young Adult novel inhabited by armored polar bears and flying witches also speaks of physics and philosophy? You’re neck-deep in the intense and immersive first book of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials.
Northern Lights (published in a few countries as The Golden Compass) may have won acclaim and awards aplenty, but it took our book clubbers a while to realize the strengths behind its surprises. Dark, broody and “more sinister than suspenseful,” as one child pronounced, the story for kids unfolds around Lyra, a girl growing up in a world of humans paired with dæmons – animal embodiments of their inner selves that transform constantly, settling into fixed forms only when a child reaches puberty.
Always accompanied by her dæmon, Pantalaimon, Lyra lives in cloistered Jordan College among aged academics who benignly neglect her. She overhears a conversation that plunges her into a terrifying chain of events, leading to an expedition to the Northern Lights in search of Dust. The quest for this elusive, elementary particle involves stumbling upon secret experiments conducted by the General Oblation Board (or Gobblers, based on the group’s acronym), an organization that kidnaps children throughout England for experimentation. Lyra is on a mission to save her best friend, Roger, whom she suspects was spirited away by the Gobblers. Running from her pursuers, she finds refuge with the riverboat people, the Gyptians.
Rupal and I were clear we should not expect the kids to grasp allegorical, anti-religious undertones of the narrative. Instead, they found the fictional world more remarkable, as alike to ours as it is dissimilar, with zeppelins and witches’ broomsticks splashing the skyline. The kids also focused on the book’s universal themes: free will, critical thinking, creative energy, soul mates, innocence and experience, and gateways to other worlds.
“We must believe in the power of possibilities.”
One child, attracted to the notions of potential, promise, valour and victory, made this point. And indeed, what child isn’t drawn by these ideas? Northern Lights brilliantly taps into this appeal for the unknown. “If light can cross, so can we,” reasons Lyra’s enigmatic father, Lord Asriel, speaking about reaching uncountable billions of worlds. Every other universe has come about as a result of possibility, he says, “and I’m going to that world beyond the Aurora…. Death is going to die.” When, with vaulting ambition, he crosses the bridge to the new world order to find the source of Dust, Lyra and Pantalaimon follow.
“It’s important to use a gift you have well.”
The kids came to this conclusion when the author introduces the Alethiometer, a tool given to Lyra that uses Dust to reveal any truth and answer any question when properly handled. A number of hopefuls fight fiercely to get a hold of this unique instrument, yet it works in deserving and knowing hands alone.
“Might is definitely not right.”
Such was the children’s response to one of the most beautiful passages of Northern Lights, which recounts a gruesome, good-against-evil clash between two bears – exiled Iorek (gentle, good) and arrogant Iofur (powerful, cocky): “Lyra looked at the two of them, utterly different: Iofur so glossy and powerful, immense in strength and health, splendidly armored, proud and kinglike; Iorek smaller and poorly equipped, his armour rusty and dented. But his armour was his soul. He had made it and it fitted him. They were one. Iofur was not content with his armour; he wanted another soul as well. He was restless while Iorek was still.” One girl insightfully summed up the bloody battle further: “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and we know which bear was what.”
“How much of this is religion versus science?”
So they did sense the inversion of orthodox theology after all. (The trilogy title, His Dark Materials, is itself taken from Paradise Lost—but here Pullman hails humanity for what Milton saw as its tragedy: original sin.) Not wholly aware of the criticism this series has drawn for its negative portrayal of religion, they found the The Magisterium, a Church body that represses heresy and believes Dust is related to Original Sin, debatable. The grisly experiments separating kidnapped children from their soul dæmons are performed to learn why Dust is less attached to children than to adults.
“I think I should like myself a little more.”
We felt the kids would enjoy indulging in a bit of fantasy role play. Choose your own dæmons and say why, we posed to them. The responses were as honest as they were imaginative. There was the boy wanting to be a hippopotamus “because I’d love lolling in the water all day doing nothing.” Another chose a snake with frank motives: “I could move everywhere slyly. I can be pretty bad, and most of us are.” One of the girls opted for an eagle avatar (“to see and survey everything from far away with sharpness”). Horses were popular “because they run free and can be both calm and energetic at the same time.” And an interesting hybrid was conjured up, too: part-dolphin, part-Africanised honey bee, “because this fish is gregarious like me, and that bee can chase you for a thousand miles, which is the vindictive person I can be.” And yet there’s one that bowled us over even more: “I think I should like myself a little more in this human form,” said the shyest little girl of the group.