Adam, Eve and The Golden Compass
The fantasy world(s) of His Dark Materials
When I think of my favourite fictional fantasy world, the only option that comes to mind is the world (or worlds) of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Why? you might ask. What makes these books so successful that they have had both film and television adaptations and so popular that they have a dedicated army of fans around the world? There's plenty of fantastical imagery in this biblically-inspired series to attract fans of fantasy fiction like myself; angels made of gold dust, flying witches, and even armoured bears. Lush, indulgent descriptions of these creatures and the places they inhabit are bound to draw fans away from even the most celebrated imaginary worlds of modern fantasy fiction (Harry Potter's cloak be damned, Pullman's witches invented invisibility spells.) It is my opinion that the books' success is thanks to the simple idea, why have one fantasy world when you can have many?
The thing that has always differentiated His Dark Materials from other popular YA fiction is the complexity of its multiverse setting. We begin the first book in Lyra's Jordan, a college of Oxford University. Or at least, Oxford University in an alternate universe. Here the lamps aren't electric they're anbaric, the professors are called scholars and they study theology, not science. In the crypts, there are ghosts that haunt Lyra in her sleep and from the rooftops she can see the clay pits where she and her friends wage war against townsfolk and visiting Gyptians alike.
In Lyra's world, people have daemons. A daemon (pronounced like the word demon) is a living, animal-shaped manifestation of a human's soul. Cool, right? Pantalaimon is as much Lyra as Lyra is herself. They are able to read each other's minds and feel each other's pain but also able to have independent thoughts (as Pan continuously demonstrates in his scolding of Lyra's recklessness.) What's more intriguing than that? Fandoms might have long sorted themselves into factions or self-identified as being a resident of a particular District but now, in Pullman's fantasy world, they can go a step further in their quest to feel part of the universe their favourite characters inhabit; they can discover their own lifelong animal companion. There's even a quiz on the CBBC website to help you meet your daemon (mine's a Crested Gecko.)
Fast-forward a few chapters and Lyra journeys to The North, a journey perilous and exciting in equal measure with passages so vivid you might want to put on your winter clothes to read this next bit.
It was a ghostly journey. Snow began to fall early on, and soon the world was reduced to the grey shadows of the dogs ahead, the lurching and creaking of the sledge, the biting cold, and a swirling sea of big flakes only just darker than the sky and only just lighter than the ground. Through it all the dogs continued to run, tails high, breath puffing steam. North and further north they ran, while the pallid noontide came and went and the twilight folded itself again around the world.- Phillip Pullam, Northern Lights, p369
It is on this journey that we and Lyra have our first encounter with an armoured bear. Pictured above, Iorek Byrnision is a hardened warrior the size of a polar bear and with the strength of two at least. Cast out from the ice fortress in Svalbard where the rest of his species reside he earns his keep working in a bar in the remote town of Trollesund on the border between Lyra's society and the Northern territories inhabited by sea birds and tribes of Tartars who drill holes in their own skulls to better communicate with the spirits that live alongside them. Oh, and the bear can talk.
So to recap, Lyra's world is like ours but with talking animals, living souls, spirits and witches. Don't worry if you're still not won over because there's plenty more where that came from.
To avoid spoiling one of the major plot points of the whole series, we'll leave Lyra and Iorek in their sledge and skip ahead again. This time we're in the second book (The Subtle Knife) and Lyra is joined by a mysterious boy named Will. Don't worry about him, he's from our world and is as confused as us right now. You might be forgiven for thinking that Cittàgazze, with its palm trees, tranquil sandy beaches, and narrow cobbled streets filled with cafés and balcony-laden apartments, was somewhere in the Mediterranean. Emphasis on the might here because actually, you wouldn't. Because it isn't. That's right. This is another new world.
Little grocers' shops and bakeries stood between jewellers and florists and bead-curtained doors opening into private houses, where wrought-iron balconies thick with flowers overhung the narrow pavement, and where the silence, being enclosed, was even more profound.- Phillip Pullman, The Subtle Knife, pg31
This idyllic world soon turns out to be more sinister than it first appears.
There were paths leading here and there along the lamp-hung oleander trees, but not a sound of life could be heard.- pg32
After days spent thinking they are alone in this new place, Lyra and Will meet some other children. They tell them of the far extent of their world, the mountains above the city where there are farms and villages, and the reason for the profound silence. Spectres.
The His Dark Materials equivalent of dementors, spectres are shadowy forms that live off human souls (souls again? yep, we might finally be finding a common thread here.) They're invisible to children so Lyra, Will and their new friends are safe but the children live here alone, their parents either having fled for the hills (literally) or already lost to the melancholy world of the spectre victim. As the pair continue to explore this new and dangerous world, they encounter tales of a tower guarded by angels, a knife that can take them even further into the never-ending multiverse and a time before all of this when daemons, Dust and spectres didn't exist. But elsewhere larger things are happening. More fantastical creatures from more alternate worlds are gathering and the intricate multiverse is about to fold itself around us like the twilight folds over The North.
With this trilogy, Pullman manages to achieve an experience wherein we are never left feeling put out or cut short by the story. In every chapter, the conflict and intrigue feels as big, as important and as profound as it can be yet we constantly encounter more, wider, larger stories that expand the plot ever further. The fantasy world(s) of His Dark Materials is not only well-conceived but, crucially, delivered in a way that makes the books un-putdown-able from the very first page. And that's key for any would-be fan(dom) favourite, don't you agree?