Of the several books on Pullman’s His Dark Materials read by this reviewer (about a half-dozen or so), this one is, without a doubt, the best, most insightful and informative of all. Watkins does a superb job of analyzing the background issues (which provide the literary setting for the trilogy) and the stories themselves, both explaining and respectfully criticizing Pullman’s work. In the preface of the book, Watkins states, “I am unashamedly a fan (of the trilogy), but I also take issue with Pullman on the question of his attack on God and Christianity” (page 7). Watkins thus writes as an enthusiast of Pullman’s stories, but also as one who respectfully disagrees with the beliefs and perspective of the author and carefully explains the reasons for his different position.
- Dark Matter is presented in three major parts:
- Part One: The Storyteller
- Part Two: The World(s) of His Dark Materials
- Part Three: Shedding Light on Dark Matter
The first part includes four chapters, the first three of which are about Pullman’s writings, Pullman the person and Pullman the storyteller, respectively. The fourth chapter is about the primary literary background of Pullman’s trilogy which includes Paradise Lost by John Milton; several works by William Blake; and On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist. This fourth chapter is especially helpful in that it analyzes and explains the literary connections between the background material and Pullman’s stories.
Part Two also includes four chapters—one on each of the three books of the trilogy and a fourth on related stories (The Book of Dust and Lyra’s Oxford). The major strength and contribution of this part is that Watkins presents not only a useful summary of the stories, but also in-depth analysis and insightful critique as well. Readers of the trilogy who, at various points, might have wondered, “What was that about?” will especially appreciate and enjoy this part of the book.
- The third part is the longest of the three and includes the following seven chapters:
- Chapter 9: Dæmons and Growing Up
- Chapter 10: Dust, Sin and the Fall
- Chapter 11: Consciousness, Wisdom and the Second Fall
- Chapter 12: Truth, Integrity and the Alethiometer
- Chapter 13: The Magisterium and the Authority
- Chapter 14: The Republic of Heaven
- Chapter 15: Once upon a Time Lasts Forever
Each of these chapters provides in depth discussions of the subjects identified in the chapter title, offering extended analysis that includes extensive quotations from relevant sections of the trilogy. Once again, although Watkins disagrees with Pullman on several issues, he does so in a balanced, respectful manner and explains the reasons for his disagreement. Watkins also highlights those aspects that he especially enjoys in Pullman’s stories, and explains the significance of each as he discusses them in turn. The primary strength and contribution of this part lies in Watkins’ insightful analysis of these topics that are so significant to the overall success and appeal of Pullman’s stories.
Finally, Dark Matter concludes with a 10-page Appendix subtitled “The Science of His Dark Materials.” Watkins notes that, while there are other books on the same subject (in particular, one by Mary and John Gribbin), he could not pass up the opportunity of offering his own perspective on this topic since his personal background is in physics. This final section includes a presentation on two significant topics: dark matter and multiple universes—both of which are extremely important to Pullman’s trilogy.
In conclusion, the back of Watkins’ book includes a quotation from another His Dark Materials fansite (bridgetothestars.net):
Dark Matter by Tony Watkins is the first (book) to really go in depth into the more controversial issues raised by His Dark Materials. He looks at the series from the perspective of a Christian who deeply enjoyed His Dark Materials, and is willing to tackle some of the questions that Pullman raises. … Watkins has provided some excellent analysis that will be insightful to new readers and longtime fans alike. … [Watkins] is successful in portraying both his enjoyment of the story as a whole and his respectful disagreement on a few issues which are all handled tactfully.
Overall, this is an excellent book for anyone who really wants to understand all the issues involved in His Dark Materials. If I had to choose only one book to read on Pullman’s trilogy, it would be this one by Tony Watkins.—Jeff Wise
Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy His Dark Materials, by Tony Watkins. IVP Books, 2004. 221 pages. $15 (U.S. paperback).
Reviewer’s rating: ***** (out of five stars)
The reviewer works for the Western Recorder newsjournal in Louisville, Ky., and has read extensively in science and theology.