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Everything You Need To Know About ‘His Dark Materials’

I won't tell the Catholic church if you won't.

Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) on HBO's His Dark Materials.

Is His Dark Materials a 50 Shades of Grey thing? ‘Cause it sure sounds like it. Like, it seems like a subplot chapter that was also cut from the film where Rich Guy takes our hero, Mousey McBrownhair, into the basement and shows her some really kinky stuff—like, UNSPEAKABLE things. “Dark Materials” sounds like it would create a menagerie of sexual horrors that would put even the infamous “tampon scene” to shame.

But that would be doing this beloved series a MASSIVE disservice, now wouldn’t it?

I’m not talkin’ about 50 Shades, the series, I’m talkin’ about His Dark Materials, the series—a macabre, sweeping epic that tackles theology, magic, and the nature of the soul. There’s a reason that this series got this big. Unlike 50 Shades, it’s actually good.

But first! A brief history of His Dark Materials

The books themselves were worldwide best sellers, and have gone on to win numerous awards. Author Phillip Pullman received the Swedish government’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s youth literature, which the Swedes believe to be an award second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Time magazine included the first novel of the series on their list of the 100 best Young-Adult Books of All Time. Meanwhile, the BBC has His Dark Materials on their list of the 100 most influential novels.

The series has also received multiple live-action adaptations, the first of which was New Line Cinema’s 2007 film The Golden Compass. That film was slated to have two sequels, but the projects were scrapped due to poor reviews and pushback from the Catholic church. But never fear! His Dark Materials also received a BBC series adaptation in 2019 starring Dafne Keen (Logan), James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ruth Wilson. The first season premiered on HBO in the U.S. a few days after its initial BBC release, followed by a second season in 2020 and a third season in December 2022.

And that’s not all! The series was also developed into a six-hour, two-part stage play that debuted at the Royal National Theatre in London to widespread critical acclaim. In 2003, the series was even adapted as a radio play, and was re-broadcast in 2008, 2009, and 2017. People literally can’t get enough. And I don’t blame them—it’s essentially a series about killing God. What’s not to love?

Okay, so tell me what His Dark Materials is about already!!!

Alright … settle down now, children. It’s story time.

The first book in Phillip Pullman’s dark fantasy series is called The Golden Compass. It tells the story of a young girl named Lyra and her magical pine martin (basically a weasel, but cuter), Pantalaimon—except Pantalaimon isn’t a pine martin at all! HE’S A DEMON. Well, technically he’s a dæmon, named after the minor gods and spirits from Ancient Greek myth. In Lyra’s universe, every child has a dæmon, which is a physical manifestation of the child’s inner self. Dæmons do not have a fixed form, and can take any shape (real or fantastical) until the child comes of age. The dæmon then “settles” into an ultimate form which is believed to be the truest representation of the child’s inner being.

Lyra currently lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel, who is a celebrated scholar at Jordan College. One day, Lyra discovers that her best friend has been kidnapped by the government organization known as the Magistrate, which she believes is conducting experiments on children and their dæmons. After being swept up in an adventure, Lyra learns that her uncle has been conducting research of his own on a mysterious substance called “dust.” The Magistrate, a theocratic government, has been repressing any sort of scientific discoveries that would undermine their religious dogma. As such, the Magistrate has stifled all scientific research on dust, and is willing to resort to violence in their efforts. Lyra, along with a GIANT TALKING POLAR BEAR (just read it, it’s awesome) and a few other traveling companions, embark on a quest to rescue the missing children, uncovering the true nature of the universe along the way.

How’s that for the start of a story?

I’m a highbrow reader, and I’m not convinced … Does this thing have any literary themes?

Pullman’s story is a commentary on the nature of Church and State, and serves as a warning of the consequences of joining them together. The Magistrate has striking similarities to the Catholic church and all the power and corruption present within the organization. The story itself neither approves nor disapproves of the belief in or worship of a god. Rather, it is a parable about the dangers of blind faith and strict adherence to religious doctrine and power structures.

Pullman has stressed that the story is not a reference to the corruption of one specific church or denomination, but rather the organizations that seek to use religious faith to further their reactionary policies and social agendas and gain control over a population. “Whenever you get a political structure, with ranks and hierarchies, you get corruption,” Pullman said in an interview with The Guardian. “You get people who are more interested in progressing through those ranks than in doing good. Power corrupts.”  

Nevertheless, religious organizations around the world have banned His Dark Materials for being “anti-religious.” Ironically, the book ban only further proves Pullman’s point that religious organizations demonize (or dæmonize) works of art, science, and literature in order to ensure that followers do not stray from their theological path. Basically, if you were raised religious but are no longer practicing, or if you just wanna stick it to the man, this is the series for you.

Other themes in His Dark Materials include the pursuit of knowledge and truth—a staple of the coming-of-age genre. The story centers on a young woman who questions what she has been taught and seeks to find her own answers to the questions she has about the world. It’s an age-old story, and one that rings true to life. Sometimes we don’t want to listen to our parents. Sometimes we wanna strike out on our own, befriend the spirits, ride on a giant talking polar bear, and sniff some dust—hopefully the mysterious, transcendental kind of dust and not the kind that comes in a clear plastic baggie that you bought from some guy named Knife. But you know what? To each their own. Who am I to judge? If I did, I’d be no better than the Magistrate. And those guys are total asshats.

(featured image: HBO)

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