Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass – absolutely blew my mind when I read them to my children; but to them, the books were mainly exciting action adventure stories.
I was amazed at the complexity of the narrative, and the astounding blend of the familiar and the utterly alien from which Pullman constructed his version of the world. Yet my kids utterly embraced the fantastic elements. A symbiotic pairing of child with a spiritual yet corporeal animal that can change form up until the child enters puberty? Tribal, warrior polar bears vying for governance of their kingdoms? A knife that could slice windows open into another world, other worlds? Intersecting with the dead? Empathetic elephantine creatures moving on seedpods that act as wheels attached to their feet? Something called Dust that binds it all together?
I saw the deeper reflections on rebellion against authority, the perils of declared sovereignty, the corruption of power, the pain of environmental disaster on the innocent, the exploration of the meaning of death… all sorts of heavy, thick, complex themes. But Pullman wrote, not on the level of a child, but through the eyes of children; not simplistically but simply, as children would see that world, those worlds. (Leave all the adult-perceived insults by the door – I’m tired of listening to chest beating and teeth gnashing about these books being anti-this or promoting-that.)
These books prompted both me and my kids to think without forcing us to pass judgment. We talked about the books. We discussed difficult topics. And we enjoyed, immensely, the stories wrought in this rarely easy but always wonderful, dark yet ultimately redemptive trilogy.