Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)
Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.
Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.
Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.
As well as commentary on the books there are quotes from Pullman, discussion of dramatisations on stage, radio and the big screen, and much more besides. Dr Frost (disingenuously, she sees her personal daemon as a sloth) adds references and suggestions for further reading, and includes a comprehensive index.
Particularly valuable are the equivalents in our world of the places, history, peoples and things of Lyra’s worlds, as detailed in Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. At well over five hundred pages in a large format paperback this reference book must surely satisfy the legions of readers who found much puzzling or obscure in the trilogy or who need reminding what drew them to His Dark Materials in the first place.
Missing are discussions of Lyra’s World and Once Upon a Time in the North, both published after The Elements of His Dark Materials first appeared in 2006, with this special edition produced as The Definitive Guide by Waterstone’s bookshops in the UK a year later; and of course the long-awaited but yet to be completed* The Book of Dust gets only passing mentions.
Pullman himself finds this a reference boon, so there can be no better imprimatur:
This is a phenomenal piece of work, in which every character, place, theme, and reference in the trilogy is listed and explained in full detail with marvellous accuracy and clarity. The author’s skill and knowledge is extraordinary … I can’t recommend it too highly. If I had had this book when I was writing the trilogy, it would have been so much easier.
* Review first published 2nd September 2013, reposted to coincide with the publication of The Secret Commonwealth, the second of Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy which follows on from His Dark Materials. The first volume — La Belle Savage — was reviewed here.