Paradise lost and freedom won

As Philip Pullman's heretical trilogy comes to its close, will the churches be building a bonfire to celebrate?
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The Independent Culture

Next week, the final part of a bestselling series is published, to the great relief of the many child and adult readers who have been captivated by it since Volume One in 1995. Set partly in this world, partly in universes elsewhere, it revolves around a battle between the immemorial forces of darkness and their liberal opponents, represented in this instance by the young at their bravest and best.

Next week, the final part of a bestselling series is published, to the great relief of the many child and adult readers who have been captivated by it since Volume One in 1995. Set partly in this world, partly in universes elsewhere, it revolves around a battle between the immemorial forces of darkness and their liberal opponents, represented in this instance by the young at their bravest and best.

More Harry Potter? Not a bit; this is Philip Pullman's majestic trilogy His Dark Materials, an altogether denser, blacker work which draws on Milton, Blake, Gnosticism and quantum physics but retains an almost desperate readability. Without taking away from J K Rowling's success, Pullman's achievement is of a different order, and likely to be remembered long after Harry has hung up his broomstick.

The first volume, Northern Lights, describes a world like ours but different in significant ways. Each character is accompanied by his or her own daemon: an animal of the opposite sex whose shape, size and very identity changes according to the mood of the moment. Volume Two, The Subtle Knife, is set in contemporary Oxford where the author himself lives, but the knife in question has the ability to cut a hole into the world of Northern Lights and into another, new universe of its own.

Now The Amber Spyglass (David Fickling Books/ Scholastic, £14.99) moves between all three universes. This could get very complicated, and it sometimes does. But the story is saved by Philip Pullman's hypnotic narrative skill and by the sense that something important could happen at each turn of the page. In The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will, the two main child protagonists, have finally to renounce each other in order to return to their own kind with the life-saving knowledge they have so painfully acquired.

Articles and theses have already been written about these books, with more to come. For while Pullman is a brilliant writer, his strong vision of things is not always easy to work out. But it is plain that the trilogy is an ambitious re-working of the Biblical story of Original Sin and the Fall.

Talking to Philip Pullman about his books is like discussing characters so real they could easily be in the next room. A big man, he is fierce in his dislikes but warm, generous and defiantly optimistic about the human need to trust each other and ourselves. Lyra, for example, is very much a modern version of Eve, one of his particular heroines. "We owe her an enormous debt," he says. "She actually liberated mankind when she accepted the offer of further knowledge. The Garden of Eden she quit was more prison than paradise; no wonder the church has never forgiven her."

Lyra, too, comes to threaten the status quo so fundamentally that the task of her opponents from organised religion (also drawing on science at its most threatening) is simply to kill her off. After that, there can be a safe return to a state where everyone, human and animal, knows their place and asks no more awkward questions. No wonder the Catholic Herald described these books as "Far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry [Potter] - a million times more sinister". That quotation is proudly displayed on the inside cover.

Pullman is widely read in America, and it will be interesting to see how this final volume goes down during all the Bible-thumping of the presidential election. His own loathing of extreme religion, and all authoritarian systems of thought-control, is not easily explained at a time in Britain when the church hardly seems a positive danger to anyone. Nor does his own life offer any key.

"A clergyman-grandfather largely brought me up," he remembers, "when my father died and my mother had no room for her children in her London flat. But he was in fact a wonderful man: gentle and humane as well as being a marvellous storyteller."

A teacher for 12 years, and then lecturer in English at Westminster College, Oxford, Pullman is now a professional writer. He therefore stands outside all institutions and is free to express his strong and sometime fiery opinions. His disgust with the new authoritarianism in education, his former happy hunting ground, is particularly keen. At heart, he remains a 19th-century humanist - convinced that mankind is good in itself and capable of even better if only people believed more, both in themselves and in others.

While we must always resist what he calls "the kingdom", his name for established religion with its guilt-inducing distrust of the human spirit, we also need the support of what he describes as "the republic of heaven". But what exactly does this consist of, when for so many God is dead and the comforts of religion have been largely outgrown?

Pullman's answer is to look to the whole world of stories. "They are easily the most important things in the world. Within them we can find the most memorable, life-enhancing glimpses of human beings at their very best." Brave, loving Lyra and her companion Will are cases in point; readers of any age cannot help feeling all the better for having known them. So too with Iorek Byrnison, the magnificent, armoured talking bear, their steadfast companion; Dr Malone, a university physicist who braves professional ruin by insisting on the truth; Lee Scoresby, the Texan aeronaut who sacrifices himself to save Lyra, and other characters who help the children.

But, as with Milton, it is still difficult in any story of good versus evil to avoid giving the devil the best tunes. The forces of darkness in these pages are truly terrifying. They are countered by a type of human decency which by its very nature has to come over as modest and understated in comparison. It is chiefly represented by two children on the cusp of adolescence who, after finally defeating the growing darkness around them, discover a new capacity to love. Yet no sooner have they made this wonderful, age-old discovery than they have to part.

George Eliot once pronounced on God, Immortality and Duty: "How inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third." Today, doing your duty seems to be a dismally hard substitute for the renunciation of a great love.

Nor does the agenda the young people have to follow sound any other than tough, unrewarding work: namely, to teach others "how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious".

Pullman is an emotional man, as he admits. He has already recorded the first two stories of his trilogy, and will shortly start on the third. "And when I finally get to read it, I know that my voice will be very unsteady at this moment of parting." But perhaps Will and Lyra will not go on to become adult education tutors, New Labour politicians, therapeutic counsellors or any other profession that has as its stated aim the encouragement of self- or social improvement.

They could instead turn into writers, with the capacity to remind a broad audience about the limitless capacity of human fantasy, and with the licence to ask difficult questions and come up with inspiring answers. Back on earth, we have one such author in Philip Pullman, capable of lighting up the dullest day or greyest spirit with the incandescence of his imagination.

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