His Dark Ending


The anti-Narnia has a stinker of an endingI call it a bait and switch. The first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, was an adventure fantasy that was fast-paced and written in an incredibly smooth style. Intrigue, danger, children in peril, armoured polar bears, witch clans at war with each other, and above all, a girl named Lyra as a feisty, smart heroine. The next book, The Subtle Knife, had some worryingly bad moments but still kept my interest and sympathy.

Things go really bonkers in the third book, The Amber Spyglass, which ruins everything that came before. Worst of all, Pullman really means it. Instead of the flawless and exciting story that came before, Pullman ends with a Big Message.

What do I mean by this? The easiest way to make my point is by comparison to Narnia.

Narnia has been in the news lately, as happens when a book gets a big budget movie adaptation. The loudest detractor, particularly of the books, has been our very own Philip Pullman, and he’s been in the news because of quotes like the one where he calls parts of the last Narnia book “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology”.

Now, Pullman never comes out and says that it was artistically bad for Lewis to use the books to convey a point of view, just that Lewis’ point of view was wrong. So it’s not entirely surprising that Pullman would lose his sense of esthetic proportion and kill his story by telling us exactly how we should think.

Lyra and the Will, the boy she meets in the second book, are part of a rebellion against the Authority, the God-figure in Pullman’s world, and all of the Authority’s evil henchmen, namely the Church. There’s no whisper of this whatsoever in the first book; Pullman announces this in the second book out of left field, but it’s in the third book that all the stops come out. Everything builds up to the moment when Lyra and Will kill the Authority, who turns out to be frail and easy to murder. Combine this with statements like the following, from a nun who has renounced her vows — “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” (p. 393, The Amber Spyglass) — and Pullman has crossed from allegory (which is the worst that Lewis can be accused of) to artless hack job.

The anti-Narnia has a stinker of an endingAnd it actually gets worse. The last 100 pages of the third book feature a second ending that reminded me of The Fifth Element and its hilarious all-you-need-is-love denouement! At least The Fifth Element was a cheesy movie that had a few inklings of its essential lowbrowness. Pullman means it all seriously: Will and Lyra really do save the world by jumping into some bushes and having sex. No explanation, just healing the broken universe by two random people getting it on.

Having said all that, it’s both ironic and sad what is happening to Pullman’s own big budget movie. The success of Tolkien, Harry Potter, and now the Narnia adaptations have made fantasy the hot new thing, and the books of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are being made into movies. According to preliminary reports, the writer/director is going to ditch the anti-religion angle! I’m split on this: this is likely an artistic improvement, but it also guts what is unique about the books. Why not make some other random kid’s adventure movie rather than removing Pullman’s distinguishing feature? I say this because adaptation is a different art than creating the initial text; sometimes a free translation makes for a better end result, but not always.

I also say this because, as it stands now, Pullman’s story is a mess, a didactic mess, and I’m not confident that the Hollywoodized version is the approach that will fix this. I might be getting upset over nothing, since the first movie is set for a 2007 release and anything might happen to the project in the meantime.

I’ve talked quite a bit about crappy endings here in the Gutter — it’s happened to both Stephen King (Not So Happy Ending) and Steven Spielberg (The Trouble with Endings). Pullman is in fact the disappointing author I alluded to in my look at Garth Nix’s Sabriel (Stories Never Fail Us — as a follow-up to that article, I’ve subsequently read the second and third books in that series, Lirael and Abhorsen, and while it’s sadly true that that they are not as good as the first book, at least the first book was self-contained and had a great ending of its own). Satisfying and/or worthy endings are not easy but they do sometimes happen. Instead of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, I would recommend Le Guin’s Gifts (The Bandwagon) or Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (The Never-Fail Recommendation) as examples of endings that worked.


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  1. Pullman was always very open about the deliberate message (Message?) of his trilogy. It isn’t just his characters who want to replace the Kingdom of Heaven with a Republic. So one can’t really count the message as a flaw. You can dislike that message, sure, and its delivery. But it didn’t happen by accident.
    As for the movie, Pullman has gone on record to say that properly done, any totalitarian regime could be substituted for the Church. Of course, ‘properly done’ leaves a lot of room for error…

  2. James Schellenberg on

    Hmm, I guess that sounded a bit grumpy. A few late night thoughts as follow-up:
    1. I’m not offended by scenes of “getting it on,” my earlier comments notwithstanding 🙂 I guess I was most annoyed by the fact that Pullman didn’t seem bothered to integrate it into the story at all, even though freeing the body from repression was one of his main points.
    2. I got more annoyed with Pullman than I might have otherwise been because the first books were so good and the third one seemed so different. Lewis’ Narnia books might have been allegories but at least that wasn’t a surprise that he sprung on you after you were hooked.
    3. For Lit. nerds… I got a bit annoyed with the way that Pullman claimed all kinds of inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost but then missed the point as to why it was interesting. That is to say, His Dark Materials is Paradise Lost from the point of view of Satan but Milton was supposed to sympathize with God according to his own beliefs and yet he created this ambiguous masterpiece. Pullman has no internal tension.
    I think Pullman is a talented writer, but he’s very “serious” in this trilogy. I ended up enjoying his silly and “light” kids books a lot more.

  3. James Schellenberg on

    Hey Chris,
    Thanks for the comments. I didn’t know anything about Pullman before I started reading the first book, and I didn’t get any of the Kingdom vs. Republic concerns from the first book. From that point of view, it’s a big switch. When I re-read the trilogy, I was watching closely for Pullman’s message, and it’s mentioned only obliquely in the first book (ie, there’s a rogue branch within the Church that’s abducting children for nefarious purposes).
    I know that a lot of people like this trilogy and I can understand why – the storytelling is quite exciting, among other reasons. I had such a different reaction to the last book, which may have made me a little defensive 🙂

  4. You’re right about the third book being different. Interestingly enough, Pullman committed one of the cardinal sins of publishing with that book, and took it back from his editor several months after he’d delivered the finished draft. They had to stop production because he wasn’t satisfied with it. It’s hard not to wonder what that first version might have looked like.
    Apparently the trilogy was a very successful West End musical. As a reader and bookseller both, I love the books; I just can’t imagine how they would translate to the stage.

  5. Hi, I was wondering if any of you had heard (and if so, opinions) on the newly released novel by Dalles McKinsey titled, “Childhood Lost.” It’s a true account of his stepfather who was a serial killer in California.

  6. James Schellenberg on

    Wow, I had never heard of the musical version. Of all three books? In 2 hours or so? That sounds way more ambitious than doing 3 separate movies. I’d be curious to see that… is it supposed to be a high culture thing? For some reason, I think of musicals as a comedic thing, so the whole project seems like an odd one to try.

  7. You read these books on a surface level. Go read it again and really look at how the characters develop and the ideas that the charcters portray. Also go read John Miltons, Pardise Lost which is what His Dark Materials are based off of.
    Your point that there is no religious undertones in the first book, wrong. The whole first book’s storyline is the church trying to find and destroy the source of “original sin.”
    An exmple of how little you know about this series. Lord Asriel plays the role of, Milton’s Satan. Judging how you read the book you might not have noticed that Lyra plays the role of Eve and Will plays the role of Adam. Even though Asriel plays Satan, he doesn’t tempt her in the same way that Mary Malone does. Asriel tempts Lyra by sending her on a quest for knowledge that eventually leads her to crossing the bridge between the two worlds. Cittàgazze and Lyras World.
    They didn’t murder The Authority I am not even sure where you got that idea. They find the authority trapped in a glass box that is keeping the molecules of his body together. He is not solid he is an angel. They free him not even knowing who he is. However he is thrilled when they release him and several seconds after freeing him the atoms in his body drift apart and he dies with a smile of relief.
    Do not use this review as a means of deciding whether or not you should read these books. This man read this book the way a 6th grader would. He saw the most basic story line and refused to look any deeper into the characters and the ideas that these books portray.

  8. James Schellenberg on

    Hey Epic,
    Uh, thanks for the comment? I have read Paradise Lost (which I think I reference in one of my added comments). As for religious storylines in the first book, the way I read it, the group who was torturing children etc looked pretty clearly to me like a rogue group within the church. That’s a little different than a blanket condemnation of all religion everywhere that shows up in the second and third books.
    I think we’re at cross purposes a bit on your last point. I think Pullman flubbed the basic storyline by making his ideas so didactic, which for me means that the characters fall flat. Pullman’s ideas are certainly deep – I’m not denying that. You’ll have to convince me that he actually uses the ideas in a dramatic or interesting way.

  9. The General Oblation Board was a rouge organization, but it was within the church and they supported what they were doing. The great thing about the Oblation Board, for the church, was that even though the church supported them, what they were doing was so evil and twisted that the church could easily deny that OB had anything to do with the church.
    I will admit that it does not directly lead into the religious story that comes in in the 2nd and 3rd books. But I never thought of it as a completely out of the blue.
    It’s not a blanket condemnation of all religion, in my opinion, it’s a blanket condemnation against following an idea or person blindly. If you remember, Lyra says at the end of the book that she and Pan must build The Republic of Heaven. Which implies that everyone has the right to think whatever he or she wants to, and the right to live their own lives. Which implies further that maybe The Authorities idea of Heaven was the opposite.
    However this is all getting amazingly hypothetical and inferential, and I apologize for that.
    “You’ll have to convince me that he actually uses the ideas in a dramatic or interesting way.” As for that, well that’s all personal preference I can’t convince you that the book’s ideas are used dramatically, any more than you can convince me that they aren’t. I personally, found these books very interesting and very entertaining.
    I thank you for giving me the opportunity of discussing this with you. Being 15 I don’t get to have any interesting conversations about any thing other than who the hottest girl at school is.

  10. James Schellenberg on

    Hey Epic,
    Glad I could help, interesting-conversation-wise 🙂
    Now that I’ve looked back at what I wrote, I think you were right to bristle at some my generalizations. I think I was trying to get across my frustration with the series, and I may have been arguing with less than a level head. I feel a little outnumbered on this one, since most other people like the series. While I don’t think I’ll reread it, I am interested in what Pullman might come up with next.

  11. Who knows how old this thread is, but I’ll throw in my comments anyhow. Mainly because I thought it might be affirming for you to know that there are two people out there (me and my wife) who almost completely agree with you regarding the third book in the Dark Materials trilogy.
    I’ll say it: I don’t care about Pullman’s reasons, he can do as he pleases but I don’t have to like it. And I didn’t. If you ask me third book is simply awful – a preachy sodden boring trite mess. It’s the Godfather Three of the series – hold your nose and pretend it never happened. Re-read Northern Lights and imagine what two subsequent books worthy of it might be like.

  12. James Schellenberg on

    Hey Xian Plus,
    Glad to hear there are at least two other people out there in line with me! Thanks for writing in, although I already knew it was an unpopular position and I was going to stick to my guns.
    I’m still hoping Pullman writes another solid fantasy soon, as he seems to be taking a break.

  13. Dear Mr. Schellenberg:
    I came across your article & comments thread here while researching for lectures on HDM in course on God in fiction. I encourage you to stick by your guns on your original analysis: your instincts match mine. I knew of the trilogy by reputation, but was gobsmacked when I read it by the open didacticism, and the unassimilated …. ideology, for want of a better word; even docrinaire ethnocentric politics: “republics are always better than monarchies, and we’ll have a revolution to implement then” — is that indistinguishable from the neo-conservative idea? I can’t see how. And, as you point out, “sex saves the universe?” Good grief!
    But the bigger point, as you also recognise, is how facile (and I mean that descriptively, rather than pejoratively) is the comprehension of “Paradise Lost.” And this is where I start to have an issue with polemic against CSL. Orninary literary bitchiness one accepts, where one deplores it, as flawed humanity: but for all his Christianity, CSL was a scholarly giant, a don at OxBridge, & possessed of a Johnsonian comprehension of all depths of that long & (even overly-) dense work. Lewis knew the Latin, the Greek, the Hebrew & the manifold other languages behind the linguistics of Milton’s text: knew them as a native would. Pullman has a lower 3rd from Oxford, & reads only English. By itself, no slur, but when the polemic engine is against a much higher order, then the Satan-God relationship — as Milton himself truly designed it — strikes too much of the personal for Pullman’s moral comfort ….
    Best regards, Andrew.

  14. dancingcrane on

    I was intrigued by movie trailer juxtaposing Narnia-like images with words like heresy and truth. I intend to check this out for myself. I have seen commentary insisting that the trilogy is not anti-religion but anti-totalitarianism. While I gather the first book could be read that way, that is not borne out by the descriptions/synopses of the other two books. According to both supporters and detractors, the apparent focus in the other two, seems to be on positing a multiverse where the heroes must, by necessity, discover that neither God nor heaven exist. A corollary to that, seems to be (please correct me if I’m wrong) that illicit sex is better than any virtue when it comes to saving a world.
    Sounds like the author is mad at God, the church, and morality, seeing worth only in what is offered by a Miltonic Satan, in whom he seems fully sympathetic. I look forward to being challenged, and am glad that there are people who will stick by their ‘unpopular’ positions.

  15. I’m reading the Subtle Knife and I find it far superior to the Northern Lights…but I haven’t read the Amber Spyglass..so we’ll see. I think that Epic is right. It’s clear to me at least that Asriel, Lyra, and Will represent other things based on other stories and I can definitely see the whole Asriel=Satan and Lyra=Eve angle, but I haven’t finished, so I’ll comment more on this when I do.
    I think it’s fine you disagree with most people on this topic, isn’t that what this series is about; being authentic even in the face of overwhelming “consensus”: )

  16. The 3rd book is fantastic, one of the best ever written. If you cannot appreciate the true value of what pullman is writing than dont speak about it,James Schellenberg. Stick to stuff you understand.

  17. I have the same question as Scoot — I didn’t get from the story that Will and Lyra had sexual intercourse. Since they were 13-ish in age and — due to their natures and to their particular life circumstances — rather under-exposed to things like peer groups and mass-media culture (the usual influences for precocious sexuality), I doubt that they figured out the sex thing on their first turn at bat. Certainly, there is kissing and embracing going on, which the book describes quite clearly.
    I’ve looked on several places on the Web, and I have not seen anywhere that Pullman was asked/challenged about his underage characters having sex. I think perhaps JS and others are reading more into the story than is there. But I am open to proof that I am wrong about this.

  18. I have just finished reading the third of Pullman’s trilogy and I have a question with which I hope someone will be able to help.
    In the second book as well as the third, it seemed to me that people’s deamons were representations of their sexuality. When Mrs. Coulter was with Sir Charles and Mrs. Coulter’s deamon was “stroking” Sir Charles’s deamon, it left him dumbstruck enough to allow her to kill him. Also in The Amber Spyglass, when Will is “strok[ing]” (pg.447) Lyra’s deamon, her reactions of “gasp[ing]” with a “pleasure” that left her “breathless” and her heart “racing,” seem like sexual connotations to me.

  19. I see this is a three-year old post, but I can’t help commenting, seeing as I just finished the trilogy 😉
    I don’t think the third book was particularily bad, just that it definitely abandoned the subtle hints that the church and God were evil and actually said it out loud. Sure, I can imagine a fantasy land where there’s an evil church, and I could even imagine in that same world a pretender-God, but then it comes into OUR world, and says Christianity from our world is a lie.
    I have to agree with what Nancy said about the daemons. Seems an awful lot like it.
    I didn’t get the hint at first when they broke the glass container and let God come out and die until I read the comment saying it above. I wondered where I missed the part where he was killed, because it was the thing I was looking for to end the book, and it didn’t happen (until I realized that).
    Mmmm, and regarding the bushes, it sounded like spooning. Hehe, no actual saying that they did, just them waking up with her lying on him o.O
    And man, the ending was depressing. Throughout two full books, they get to know eachother, and through two full books, you know they’re going to say how they feel at some point, and then it happens, and then they find out they can’t ever see eachother again. I think Pullman’s trying to mess with my head. And it’s working.

  20. Despite obvious sidelining of what came out in the later books as Pullmans “main issue” as being the anti-religious, and pro-freedom of will aspect, Pullman did, regardless, build slowly on the theme. Yes, in direct contradiction to what you wrote in your blog, there were religious elements in the first book. Northern Lights was an easy read, following the regular format for books of this genre. Personally, i thought he branched out well in the later books, perhaps that is just typical of my views as something of an anarchist. Needless to say, i got rather excited during the last book. Yes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass sequels did not follow on in the way one might have expected. In my eyes they became even better. As to the love element in the final chapters of the last book, it was again somewhat off-theme, but regardless, it really did move me. Noting i was probably around 10 at the time of reading, my reccolections may be off. Hoowever, stumbling across this post, i couldn’t help but leap to Pullman’s defence.

  21. The third book was real good IMO althought it brought up a dozen easy answers of how they could have left controlled portals open and I had to wonder how they did not think of any of these. First of all the “dark material” was flowing over solid rock to the black pit so it does not flow through terrain, at least very well. Secondly that titanium-silver alloy (if I remember correctly) that was used to cut off daimons from people pretty certainly blocks all flow so a cage of that material with some blast doors would allow very limited matter loss when travelling between worlds.
    Also the fact that dark material named itself the dark material that is being explored in our very own dimension means that a large portion of whole universes mass is created of that shit, unless it lied. Had to headslap the moment it claimed to be the same particles.
    I hate those sad endings; they should have just created a permanent portal some dozen feet undergound and definitely there was no reason to destroy the knife.

  22. Allow me to summarize;
    The first book was awesome. It was exactly what a younger person, or even an older person like me, would want; Action, suspense, bad characters, good charaters that might be bad charaters, people using their smarts to get out of trouble, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. It goes on and on, the book is just a masterpiece.
    Then, in the second book, we get a lot darker. That’s not really a problem; As a rule of thumb, the second book is SUPPOSED to be a dark book, because you simply cannot resolve very much if anything in the second book, if you want to have anything to write about in the third book. If he had simply gone back to the format used in book one, but with a little more interaction between the main characters because of their age, it would have all been good.
    But nooooo. He has to go out and create a whole new religious debate. Even in the second book, the religious thing was somewhat understated, much more so than in the third.
    But what ticks me off about the third book is that they DONT REALLY SOLVE ANYTHING. The dust is still escaping, like usual, just slower. The Spectres are still mostly there. They didn’t really figure out what was behind the knife and the alethiometer, because the explaination he gave simply doesn’t make any sense. Why would the angels answer questions about things they dont want her to know?
    And then, in the end, rather than solving any of these issues, they just end it. The main characters have a roll in the hay, they leave a metaphorical light on in the underworld, and they abandon their love to go live in their own worlds. Their Daemons become completely boring creatures. She loses the ability to read the alethiometer, and he breaks the knife. They eventually decide that going back to normal life is the best way to live.
    and i HATE it. It pisses me off, and no book that can piss me off just by reading it, will i ever define as a good book. I say, read it once, and then remember never to read it again.
    Seriously, i’ve read fanfiction thats better than this book.

  23. In my opinion a book like this would have no motive to be written in the first place without the intention of putting out a anti-religion aura. The storyline is based upon tearing out the roots of the christian faith. I saw no moral or point to the story other than to give up on faith and life a lonely fruitless life. The storyline was completely ruined by the pressing ungodly sense throughout the 2nd and 3rd books. The 1st book really sets your mind into the whole storyline and characters and undermines in the last book when it blows away the whole idea of afterlife and the kingdom of heaven.
    This is a fantasy book and in every way it should stay like that.

  24. While I thoroughly enjoyed The Golden Compass, and stayed hooked to the story in The Subtle Knife, I became upset with the author while reading an illogical, tedious, and chaotic story in The Amber Spyglass. It became obvious that the author held an anti-Christianity view of the universe, but why did he think that Christianity is the ONLY definition of God? He throws ALL conscious beings in death’s underworld, (similar to Catholic’s definition of death before Christ’s return). He could have developed the idea that God, or the Real Creator exists and can be experienced through Dust, but the writer leaves us hanging, and we are all subject to the rules of Christianity, ignoring the existence or any other belief other than atheism.
    The prophesy regarding Lyra becoming a Mother Eve seemed
    unrealized, as it seemed unbelievable that she and Will saved all the worlds by simply falling in love. Afterall, the worlds remained largely the same as they were, except that more liberal views were being allowed in Lyra’s world. It also seemed unbelievable that they couldn’t find a way to be together, or that Metatron was defeated so easily by Mrs. Coultron and Lord Asriel. The ending seems rushed, contrived, and very unsatisfying.
    I found the movie version of The Golden Compass delightful, and would like the think that Hollywood might be able to “fix” the ending of third novel somehow…….

  25. I just read the trilogy for the third time after reading it first when I was 10 and again when I was 13. I recently found out about the fact that Pullman is an atheist. And that fact caused everything to click together, so when I read the books again, the anti-religion undertones were so prominent it was laughable.

  26. Just finished the trilogy, gotta say, the ending was really bad… Nuff said. Pullman should have slowed it down, yeah, like really?? The Authority just dies by stepping out of his box? I thought the subtle knife was needed in order to defeat him? lmao and the separating with Lyra and Will was just simply stupid XD

  27. I saw the movie, Golden Compass, but have not read the book, unlike all the others You have mentioned and I read almost anything.

    As a self-published Author (one of millions) writing anything but romance and westerns, I was surprised to find that my part-fictional story of the Holocaust was the only book that had a number of sales and only in the USA.

    I write sci-fi, steampunk, time travel, crime, and fantasy.

    Yes, I know that Amazon is no recommendation, but, like many authors I just want to be read.

    Any ideas on this?


    The money is extra; just sayin’.

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