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The Elements of His Dark Materials - Jason's review

Why should you buy The Elements of His Dark Materials: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, by Laurie Frost? What makes it different from all the other books which have been rushed to publication to cash in on the success of our favorite series? Well, here’s what Philip Pullman says:

“I can’t recommend it too highly to the reader who’s found anything interesting or enjoyable in this story of mine. I know I’ve returned to it frequently during the righting of the book I’m doing now, and I know I’ll continue to do so. It’s flattering, of course, to find one’s work the object of such care and attention; but how much more satisfying when the work of reference that results is so accurate, and so interesting, and so full.”

Who should know better than the man himself? Nonetheless, some of you may actually want to know what the book actually is. Very well!

The Elements of His Dark Materials is by far the most detailed and scholarly book to be published on the subject of His Dark Materials. It is equal parts encyclopedia and index, and it is absolutely essential to any of you who, like most of us here on HisDarkMaterials.org, think and write about His Dark Materials on a regular basis. As I flipped through The Elements, my jaw repeatedly dropped at the breadth, scope, and true definitiveness of Dr. Frost’s work. Written by a PhD in English and five years in the making, this book deserves to become the basis for all His Dark Materials scholarship to come, just as Philip Pullman is using it as a reference for continuity and consistency while writing his new book, The Book of Dust.

The Elements of His Dark Materials is essentially an encyclopedia, with entries for every single person, place, thing, or idea ever mentioned in His Dark Materials, and descriptions of the important features of each one. The book is divided into sections such as “Characters,” “Places and Peoples,” and “Applied Sciences and Technology,” to name three of the twelve sections. Some sections are further divided into subsections – for example, “Places and Peoples” includes “The Worlds,” “Structures and Streets,” and “Peoples,” to name a few. Each subsection consists of numerous entries, or articles, arranged alphabetically. In other words, the book is rigorously organized and extremely easy to navigate. To find “Lyra,” for example, one would simply look under “Characters” and flip through to “Lyra.”

Each entry in The Elements is an efficient wealth of information. For every character entry, Dr. Frost includes one or more symbols which indicates in what book or books the character appears, lists the character’s Genus, Dæmon, World, and Alliances, and then goes into detail on the character’s Physical Characteristics, Background, and Role. Everything in these entries comes directly from the book, but because it is a synthesis of everything Pullman wrote about the person, place, thing, or idea, the encyclopedia format makes clear many connections which would not otherwise have been apparent. Occasionally, Dr. Frost appends an Observation to the entry, expressing a possible connection or meaning which is not definitively supported by the text, but she clearly marks these sections with italics. Occasionally, also, she adds a Facts section, with italicized extra-textual facts not to be found in His Dark Materials. For example Frost peppers her entries with quotes from the text and also adds pictures to some of the entries. These pictures are small, black-and-white, and usually of poor resolution. Furthermore, the choices are often idiosyncratic – why, for example, is the picture which is supposed to represent the Master’s crow dæmon show a “Hawaiian Crow?”. But many of the pictures, especially of animals or Oxford locations, are helpful.

One of the most impressive “elements” of The Elements is that each entry (and remember, there are entries for everything)is accompanied by a list of every single time the subject of the entry appears in His Dark Materials, paginated for both UK and US editions of the books. For example, you can know find out instantly that “Vries, Dirk” appears on page 135 of Northern Lights and page 134 of The Golden Compass. This is incredibly useful for His Dark Materials scholars and researchers who want to be able to go through the book and find their own direct quotes which help explain, for example, Mrs. Coulter or Serafina Pekkala.

In addition to the individual entries on all the subjects, in all the categories, Dr. Frost also includes a few special features. Sprinkled through the text, near their corresponding entries, are small “essays” by Frost which explore some aspect more deeply, whether by examining some real-world connection or discussing a recurring theme. For example, she has sections on Lee Scoresby’s Balloon and “Jewelry in His Dark Materials,” as well as “A Comparison Between the Genesis of Will’s World and Lyra’s World,” and “Is the Authority God?” Also, Frost includes quotes from Philip Pullman, culled from interviews, writings, and addresses, which relate to nearby entries. We get interesting tidbits from Philip Pullman on, for example, the golden monkey: “The golden monkey doesn’t have a name because every time I tried to think of one, he snarled and frightened me. What’s more he hardly speaks either.”

The Elements also includes some amazing maps. Among other maps, Frost traces Lee Scoresby’s, the Gyptians’, and Will’s journeys in Lyra’s World, as well as tracing perfectly both Will and Lyra’s wanderings in Will’s Oxford in The Subtle Knife. Frost also lists and explicates the epigraphs at the beginning of each book, as well as the chapter epigraphs for The Amber Spyglass. She also includes some innovative cross-referencing sections, such as a list of characters by world and one by type, to supplement the alphabetized entries. At the end of the book is a complete “Philip Pullman Bibliography,” a list of “HDM References,” and “Works Cited and Information Sources,” which includes links to websites with more information.

The incredible thoroughness of The Elements cannot be emphasized enough. Dr. Frost explores not only the obvious “elements” of the book like characters and places, but also intangibles such as “Social Structures of the Worlds,” including “Juvenile Alliances” and “Financial/Commerce.” In a bravura display of obsession and determination, Dr. Frost not only includes entries on the plants and animals which Philip Pullman invented for His Dark Materials, but also lists alphabetically every single animal, plant, and food mentioned anywhere in the books, and cross-references them by world of origin. Useful? Not particularly. Impressive and totally awesome? Absolutely.

The Elements of His Dark Materials is definitive in a way that no normal encyclopedia could hope to be. Because it describes just the three volumes of His Dark Materials and their tenth anniversary supplements (almost nothing from Lyra’s Oxford), the book truly gives HDM scholars and fans all the building blocks, all the “elements” they need to think and write accurately about the series, and to make connections they otherwise would not have made. Even Philip Pullman does not know as much about the details of his creation as Dr. Frost. For in-depth literary critical analysis, look elsewhere. But for the definitive reference guide to His Dark Materials, and an indispensable resource to all who love the books, look no further.

Comments (3) — Add Yours

I am usually skeptical about reference books made for books or movies.  However, I might actually give this one a look at….

# Posted by Katiin on 5:31, 8 February 2008

This sounds like an incredible book. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it.

# Posted by CS on 3:24, 10 February 2008

CS's avatar

Thanks, Jason!

An update: readers in Canada and the US can buy Elements.

But it is no longer for sale outside of North America in that form and under that title. My book has been licensed by Scholastic Ltd (UK), revised, and re-issued as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide.

At present, it is available exclusively at Waterstone’s, but that arrangement ends this spring.

The most significant revision is that the page numbers for each entry have been replaced by chapter numbers. The reason is because there are now so many editions of the three novels, each with slightly different pagination, and the versions I used in compiling the page number lists are no longer readily available.

There are some other changes as well. That Hawaiian crow is gone, along with other annoying images and mistakes. The maps have been redrawn. I’ve added an index and material from the Lantern Slides from the 2007 HDM.

And if you check out the revised Acknowledgments, you will find a sincere note of appreciation to the hisdarkmaterials.org community for all the kindness and support I’ve found here.

# Posted by lauriefrost on 1:32, 11 February 2008

 

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