I’m a fan of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, consisting of Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, which came out between 1995 and 2000. It is crafted as an old-fashioned quest, which pushes its two young protagonists, Lyra and Will, to explore alternate universes — featuring talking animals, flying witches, and other marvels — while examining deep philosophical viewpoints: what happens when organised religion becomes a place of command and control, and freedom of thought and expression goes out of the window? And doesn’t it resonate with the times we are living in?
In 2007, The Golden Compass came out as a film, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. It bombed, as it managed to alienate people on both sides of the religious divide: the Catholics, because Pullman’s fictional body of sinister black-robed officials, the Magisterium, is clearly indicative of the Church, as well as those others who didn’t want the film to water down the author’s anti-Church schtick so much. Also, it wasn’t a particularly good film. It had too much stuffed in and too little breathing room.
In November last year, came the real deal. The first season of the HBO Original TV series was a winner. Each episode took its time in building the parallel worlds of the novels. Both Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) live in Oxford. But in Lyra’s Oxford, humans have daemons (a physical manifestation of the soul that takes the form of an animal), which accompany them wherever they go. Will’s Oxford is the one in our world, and when the two discover there are “windows” through which you can cross into the multiverse, they realise just how different, yet similar they are.
The second season, which opened last week and is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium, looks to be as thrilling as the first. I’ve seen five episodes of the season’s seven, and enjoyed each to the hilt. In the previous one, we saw Lyra looking for her friend Roger, who, along with many other children, has vanished. She is helped by an armoured bear, a “balloonist from Texas” called Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and the fierce and kind gyptians, who live on boats and are wary of most landlubbers. As befits quests, Lyra has close encounters with all kinds of people, including the elusive Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), the evil Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), and the noble witch Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), who bears an ancient prophecy of a child who will save all the worlds.
This time around, we find Lyra and Pan, her daemon, wandering around another world. The deserted city of Cittàgazze is bathed in a golden light, but is overrun with dark spectres who suck the living soul out of adults, leaving them mere husks. Will has also found his way into this very strange, very dangerous place from his Oxford. Their coming together, Lyra with her alethiometer, a magical golden compass which tells the truth, and Will with his subtle knife, which can be used to slash a path into other worlds, is lovely: the awkwardness of teenagers, whichever world they belong to, as well as a spiky awareness of the other, is a real thing.
His Dark Materials is one of those coming-of-age set of novels which has broad generational appeal. When we meet them, Lyra and Will are children, but they are growing up fast, poised on the cusp of innocence and awareness. That stage is hard to capture, and Pullman does it beautifully. As does the series.
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