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Looking back on the anti-authoritarian themes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

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The first installment of its companion trilogy, The Book of Dust, arrives in bookstores today

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

For more than a decade and a half, Philip Pullman has talked about a companion novel to his acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Earlier this year, he revealed that fans of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass would not only finally get to read The Book of Dust, but that it was a trilogy, with the first installment, La Belle Sauvage, hitting bookstores today.

With the arrival of The Book of Dust, it’s worth looking back on Pullman’s dazzling trilogy. While readers have enjoyed a glut of great YA fantasy novels in the last two decades, His Dark Materials particularly stands out because of Pullman’s unwillingness to compromise a complex ethical and moral story for his younger audience, and his determination to move beyond a simple story of good versus evil.

The Golden Compass kicks off by introducing 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a girl who lives in Oxford in an alternative world where people are accompanied by physical manifestations of their souls, called dæmons. She’s pulled into an adventure to save a kidnapped friend from an oppressive church known as the Magisterium, which suppresses thought and research it considers heretical. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel and the Magisterium are both studying the same thing: an elementary particle known as Dust, which the Church believes is the root of sin. Lyra’s friend Roger was kidnapped as part of an experiment in their efforts to stamp it out.

There’s a moment at the end of The Golden Compass that helps showcase the nuance Pullman injects into this story. Lyra is able to save her friend Roger from the Magisterium’s lab, and reunite with Lord Asriel. He tells her about the nature of Dust, and that he wants to continue his search for its source in other universes. He then severs Roger from his dæmon, which kills Roger and breaks a hole between their universe and another. Lyra can’t save her friend, but vows to stop Asriel, following him into the universe.

In the subsequent novels, Pullman plays out an enormous story in which inhabitants from across universes vie for control of existence. Lyra travels to an alternate world, where she ends up meeting a boy from our own Earth: Will Parry. The two are caught up in interdimensional tides as they try and escape the Magisterium and the Authority, the first angel to emerge after the formation of the universe.

Pullman uses Lyra and Will as focal points for this larger power struggle between these two ends. The Authority and its forces rule over the cosmos, using churches such as the Magisterium as proxies for its orthodox views on the purpose of existence. It’s opposed by Lyra’s uncle, a radical scholar who studies the nature of Dust, and who eventually gathers allies to resist the Authority and its Regent, Metatron, to establish a Republic of Heaven. Over the course of the series, Pullman explores the lengths people will go to uphold their worldview, regardless of the cost it extracts from people along the way. Characters sacrifice their lives to protect Lyra and Will, while others die in the cause to kill them. Pullman never uses this to equate the two sides, but shows that while there is good and evil, there’s a considerable amount of gray area in between, which complicates the journey of the trilogy’s characters.

Anti-authoritarianism is a common theme in most YA stories: look at novels such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The 100 by Kass Morgan, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. But Pullman’s novels go beyond the broad strokes of an oppressive government. He looks at authoritarianism through a theological lens, referencing works such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the works of William Blake, which look at the relationship between religious belief and how those are imparted or imposed on those subjected to a church’s reach.

His Dark Materials ultimately advocates for the abolition of rigid, orthodox structures such as organized religion, by pushing against dogma and encouraging rational thinking and logic. As a result, the trilogy is frequently banned over objections about how it depicts religion. The American Library Association ranks the series eight out of 100 on its most frequently banned list between 2000 and 2009.

In recent years, there’s been a global shift away from democratic governments and toward powerful leaders who push a less tolerant agenda, and it spells out dire consequences for human rights around the world. Pullman’s arguments against authoritarianism are precisely why the books hold up so elegantly, 17 years after the last installment hit bookstores, and why the companion Book of Dust is so welcome. It not only adds to Lyra’s story, it promises to continue addressing the inequality Pullman sees in the world.