Books That Shaped Me: His Dark Materials

When I was young, my parents would take me to a bookstore at least once, sometimes twice, a month. I lived in a sprawling suburb, so we usually frequented either a Barnes & Noble or Borders or—on the rare occasion—a Media Play. I would not discover the pleasures of an independent bookstore until well after college, although I have vague memories of tattered sci-fi paperbacks in a used bookstore we used to visit in an old, possibly Victorian house somewhere downtown.

I was lucky that my mum and dad were willing and able to buy me books almost every time we visited a bookstore. It definitely encouraged my love for the written word and helped me to accumulate a small library of my favorite books in my room. I treasured my books, kind of like Suzy Bishop in the film Moonrise Kingdom—they would have been the first thing I would have saved in a fire and the only thing I would have packed if, heaven forbid, I were to run away from home. I was never allowed to ask for frivolous things—like clothing for my dolls or a new stuffed animal—outside of Christmas and my birthday. If I wanted a new toy or game, I had to plan accordingly, save up my allowance, and buy it myself.

But my little sister and I were allowed to ask for books, and at Christmas, I could always expect to get a handful of them individually wrapped. My mum had good taste and knew what I liked to read, and many of the books she bought me were fantasy novels she had read when she was young. I do not remember exactly which year I got my first copy of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, but it must have been sometime between 1995 and 2000. They sat on my bookshelf for quite a few years before I finally read them during the summer of 2000.

Summer vacation was always spent lollygagging around. My wardrobe consisted of my pajamas and my swimming suit. I would sleep in late most days, eat a light lunch, and head out to the swimming pool. There, I would read books and eat popsicles in the shade or swim until the sun dipped behind the house or until dinner time was called, whichever came first. Halfway through the summer, I must have run out of new books to read when I noticed the first two books in Philip Pullman’s magnum opus on my shelf. At first, I eyed their covers skeptically. I had the Ballantine Books paperback edition of The Golden Compass, the one with the alethiometer in the foreground of the cover and Lyra and Iorek Byrnison in the background looking out over the snowy north at a city in the aurora. My copy of The Subtle Knife was less appealing. It was published by Turtleback Books and had a blood red cover, with Will in the foreground menacingly holding the knife and—presumably—Mrs. Coulter’s dæmon in the background.

Even so, from the moment I started reading The Golden Compass I was hooked, and I could barely put the books down.

“Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen …” (page 9 of of the Everyman’s Library edition of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)

It must have taken me about a week to read the first two books, and I was surprised when the second book left the story up in the air. I remember logging onto our ancient Gateway desktop computer, which ran ye olde Windows 98, and looking on Amazon for the release date for the third and final book The Amber Spyglass. Luckily, it was set to be published in October of that year, and so I had something to look forward to as I started my sophomore year of high school. I think I even had my dad take me to the bookstore the day it was released—on a Tuesday—to buy a copy. That 544 page hardcover tome would accompany me everyday to school for weeks.

I soon became a part of the His Dark Materials fandom before I even knew what fandoms were, although I had delved into the swirling fan-world of unicorns, Neopets, and Sailor Moon on the Internet before. I made an Expage dedicated to the books, with an encyclopedia of terms, characters, objects, and places. It was a lot like a Wikia before there were Wikia-s, and it was even featured on the Cittàgazze website and forum. His Dark Materials soon became my favorite books of all time, and today, they are still my favorite novels.

There was something about Philip Pullman’s story, the way in which the characters were written, that made the books so appealing, so touching, so real. The story seemed so tangible to me, like it had definitely happened; it felt as if Philip Pullman was very eloquently and matter-of-factly relaying some important information to me—and anyone else who might read the books—in order to make sure that it was never forgotten. It was as if I was being told an important story that I should have heard about in the news, but for some reason I missed. It made me cry at the end, something that fiction does not make me do very often. Of course, in addition to the characters and the realistic telling, I also enjoyed the fantastical and epic elements of the story.

“I like stories with magic powers in them. Either in kingdoms on Earth or on foreign planets. Usually I prefer a girl hero, but not always.” (Suzy Bishop in the film Moonrise Kingdom)

That hot summer would mark a turning point in my intellectual development. I was teetering on the edge of womanhood, and like anyone my age, I was experiencing the usual pangs of adolescence. I had begun to explore different abstract ideas and values, and I was questioning everything, especially religion. I read books like Sophie’s World and Theo’s Odyssey soon after completing The Amber Spyglass, and more books on mysticism, philosophy, and science were soon to follow. His Dark Materials pushed me in a new direction and opened up a world of knowledge to me. I was suddenly allowed to read what I wanted, look at what I wanted, and listen to what I wanted.

“She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep of the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on.” (page 1,022 of of the Everyman’s Library edition of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman impacted my life in so many ways. It taught me the words rucksack and rhododendron. It inspired me to read about Arctic exploration, the I Ching, and dark matter. It introduced me to the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, to the essay On the Marionette Theater, and to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.” But overall, it taught me what it truly means to live life to the fullest, a message that so many artists, writers, poets, and musicians have tried to convey to their viewers, readers, or listeners throughout the ages.

“Dust is not a constant. There’s not a fixed quantity that has always been the same. Conscious beings make Dust—they renew it all the time, by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on. And if you help everyone else in your worlds to do that, by helping them to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious … Then they will renew enough to replace what is lost through one window. So there could be one left open.” (page 1,065 of of the Everyman’s Library edition of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)

It taught me to be excited and curious and to explore everything life has to offer and to never close my mind to new ideas and the truth. And although I was brought up in a way that already encouraged open-mindedness and exploration, His Dark Materials definitely roused in me an even deeper passion for learning and exploring with an open mind and an open heart and inspired me to always be myself and to encourage open-mindedness and critical thinking in others.

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Rine Karr

Rine Karr

Rine Karr is the former Chief Copy Editor and an occasional contributor at Women Write About Comics. Rine is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight. Rine loves good food, travel, and lots of fiction, especially novels, anime, manga, video games, and films. Rine is also an Anime Writer at Girls in Capes.

3 thoughts on “Books That Shaped Me: His Dark Materials

  1. I stumbled upon these extraordinary books as an adult –and an adult man at that– and they have definitely shaped my life in some way. Finding them as a child –and as a GIRL– what great fortune!

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