This is a largely ironic novel. I say ironic due to the way in which in aiming to parody another work of fiction, it falls victim to the same problems it accuses the other work of. By parody I mean the claim, verified in some sources by Philip Pullman, that due to the author's dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia (and in particular C.S. Lewis) that he aimed to write a more atheistically leaning version of those children's books. Which in itself is an acknowledgement that The Chronicles of Narnia are true classics of children's fiction, merely that Pullman refused to accept the Christian aspects within them.
It was this fact that kept me from reading this novel for several years. I had intended to get around to it regardless, for I hold the belief that no book can influence you beyond what you yourself choose to believe and take from that book. It may not be beneficial to you if you were to read a particularly sadistic genre all the time, but it would not turn you into a sadist by the pure process of osmosis.
The basic plot can be summed up as such: it follows a girl by the name of Lyra, who at the beginning of the novel hides in a wardrobe. Hiding in the wardrobe leads to her discovering a new mystery of science and adventure. This mystery leads her on a journey towards the Northern Lights, where some dark craft is occurring in regards to children. Of course it helps that Lyra has the aid of bears and witches along her journey.
So, Pullman's novel is an ironic one. Ironic in that, despite his dislike of C.S. Lewis' work, which he claimed was full of such ideas as:
"Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."
You see, Pullman didn't just dislike the fictional land of Narnia. He hated it. But that is where the humorous irony comes in. He work, in trying to form a direct criticism and opponent of Narnia, takes on the same type of patronising and racist tone. Further, his work becomes the very kind of reactionary sneering he spies in Lewis' work. By which is meant that Pullman almost has to point out the ways in which his work is better at everything, than C.S. Lewis. Which is a shame, because aside from his dogmatic way of writing (I'll explain what I mean by that later) Pullman's novel has some half-decent fantasy ideas. Yet they are ideas coloured by the sense that he is trying to better a novel that remains a classic of previous generations.
When I state that Pullman is patronising, I mean that he feels the need to spell everything out to his reader. One could argue that Lewis does the same, no doubt, yet Lewis has the tone of a gentle guiding storyteller, which helps pull the reader into the world and provides fascinating fatherly asides. Pullman does none of this, but rather directs his reader to what they should be looking at and for. As I've mentioned elsewhere, this is a failure of children's fiction authors in that they believe children incapable of concluding ideas and elements for themselves. Which is no wonder when authors feel the need to hide their ideologies in a way children cannot see them.
Pullman has received plenty of criticism in regards to his representation of the church. It is clear that his one major representation of the church stems from Catholicism, which he represents as a giant company that quashes scientific progress and heresy without thought - censoring any unwanted ideas. This is an ignorant and dangerous view, ignoring centuries of theological history and change. Certainly Pullman is writing in a fictional world with different rules, but to represent the church globally in such a way is ignorant and self-serving. As for racism, well there are plenty of stereotypical references to the 'gyptians' - or Egyptians.
The positives of the novel are found in the references to the idea of every individual in this world having a physical representation of their soul in animal form. This representation, called a daemon, is one of the more unique ideas I have seen in children's fiction. The inclusion of a moral compass as a physical idea in the alethiometer is likewise endearing. But aside from that there is less of the fantastic about this novel and more a sense of a set of copied ideas and beliefs. Hardly revolutionary fantasy.
The novel is not only a response to The Chronicles of Narnia but also to Philip Pullman's favourite work of literature - Paradise Lost. In an introduction to this other work he affirmed that he believes that in the poem Satan is the hero. This has become a popular view, particularly for those who do not believe Christian theology in the slightest. My argument is that Satan is the central character, but not the hero, that Milton focuses on him in order to explore the tragedy of the rebellion against God and against his angelic nature. Yet, Pullman finds that it serves his interests to take elements of the poem and expand upon them for his own purposes (including the title of the series). And as any reader knows, taking any word or phrase out of context can prove deadly. Interestingly many of Pullman's character names are taken from mythology about angels and demons - or from Greek mythology - further symbolising how he attempts to write about Paradise Lost.
If one still wants to argue that there is no criticism of religion within this novel, one only needs to note that the very end of the novel ends with a clear criticism. In many ways Pullman through his characters tries his own hand at heresy, aiming to question whether original sin or the results of original sin is in fact good. Yet, I would argue that this indeed shows the reader that Pullman merely wants to be able to stand and state that living as hedonistically or self-servingly as one wants should be seen as a good thing.
There is the question whether this novel should even be labelled as children's fiction. No doubt the same objection is raised in regards to the Chronicles of Narnia which I admit a bias towards favouring. However, where Lewis is rather obvious and in the reader's face about what elements of religion and myth he includes (talk to most children aged seven to 12 who have read the books and they can generally pick out the references) Pullman is not. Pullman hides his agenda and makes it subtle, only apparent when you are looking for it. Should we allow children to read such hidden ideas without being able to choose whether they are truthful? This is why I say that Pullman is a dogmatic writer - because he doesn't draw out his ideology and present an argument as to why it might be correct. No, he presents it as a factual representation. Perhaps what is required is an adult on hand to explain, as with Narnia, that both books represent two sides of religious debate as it were.
All in all, the story is interesting enough to keep one reading. But sadly, if we are to compare it as the antithesis of Narnia it fails as a fantasy work. It lacks the charm and magic of the other novel, replacing them with a sense of dull cynicism. Where it is clear that Lewis views the world with a greater sense of childish wonder, a view that is more appealing (though he held, regardless, racist sensibilities for our times, it is necessary to understand the time in which he was formed as an individual to understand that he was more liberal than some for his time). Take the authors and all intentions for these novels out of the way, however, and you still have two fine novels. Yet Northern Lights unfortunately feels like a re-writing of older and better texts and therefore falls flat in comparison.
*The article with this is here