His Dark Materials is a fantasy book trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It consists of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Now, it has been adapted into a successful TV show of the same name. But, why did Pullman choose this name, His Dark Materials?
His Dark Materials is a reference to the John Milton poem Paradise Lost. This poem retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Original sin. This is very on brand with the whole theme of Pullman’s trilogy, which takes on very religious and philosophical topics through the world of Lyra Belacqua. But this isn’t the only reason he chose it.
Milton’s poem is a masterpiece that has inspired many artists. Pullman as an English literature student, took inspiration from the meaning behind the poem and his own personal belief and poured it into his books. This article will discuss Paradise Lost and its connection to His Dark Materials.
What is Paradise Lost?
Paradise Lost is an epic poem written by John Milton. He was an English poet that lived in the 17th century. It is considered to be a masterpiece, and it was instrumental in solidifying Milton’s reputation as one of the greatest English poets of all time. The poem is about the biblical story of the Fall of Man. Adam and Eve are successfully tempted by the fallen angel Satan, and they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. But this poem has two narrative arcs, one about Satan and the other about Adam and Eve.
The poem’s beginning is about Satan and other fallen angels who have been banished from Heaven and now reside in Hell. They have a discussion, and they form a plan to corrupt God’s favorite new creation, humans. Another big topic in Milton’s poem is an Angelic War over Heaven which breaks out after Satan’s rebellion. In the last battle, the Son of God defeats all rebels and casts them to Hell.
After the purge, God creates the World and Adam and Eve. He gives them total freedom, with only one rule; they can’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with the penalty of death. Regarding Adam and Eve, their story is a little different than the Bible. They live in Eden and are depicted as having romantic and sexual relationships while still being without sin. Adam and Eve have passions and distinct personalities. All is good until a serpent tempts Eve by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric.
After Eve has sinned, Adam decides he has to sin too, since Eve and he is like one. In Milton’s works, this makes Adam look like a hero because he decides if Eve has to, he will die too. But, on the other, he is made to be an even bigger sinner since he knows he will sin. The next morning they wake up feeling guilt and shame for the first time ever. After they are cast out of Eden, their relationship with God becomes more distant. God is now omnipresent but invisible.
This short paraphrasing of Paradise Lost has very similar themes to the ones Pullman explores in his works. Subjects like the symbolism of Eve and the war in Heaven are at the center of His Dark Materials.
Why is His Dark Materials called that?
Philip Pullman was an English literature student at Oxford, which greatly shaped him as a writer. The trilogy story is closely related to Oxford, the city, and the university. Our main protagonists, Lyra and Will live in the location. He learned a lot about literature there, and Pullman himself shared his three biggest influences on His Dark Materials.
The first one was an essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist, the works of William Blake, and, most important, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This influence can already be seen in the introduction, where Pullman adapts a famous description of Milton by William Blake to quip that he “is of the Devil’s party and does know it.” Next, let’s look at the lines from which Pullman took the expression His Dark Materials:
“Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.”
-John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920
These lines talk about the tools, the dark materials God used to create new worlds. And in the quoted line, Satan is the one who is standing on the brink between Heaven and Hell, and he is contemplating his journey to find the world God created. This almost sounds like Lord Asriel. This can definitely be one of the explanations behind the name. But, over the years, the author explains that he also picked the phrase His Dark Materials because it reminded him of the dark matter of astrophysics. As we know, dark matter is also a very important theme in Pullman’s books, as they are the same as Dust. Dust is an elementary particle responsible for consciousness and was, in fact, itself conscious.
There are a few more interesting connections between Pullman and Milton. In Paradise Lost, the capital of Hell is called Pandæmonium, the same name as Lyra’s dæmon. Plus, the earlier name that was considered for the trilogy was The Golden Compass. This ended up being the title of the American edition of Northern Lights.
The golden compass is also a reference to Paradise Lost. God’s circle-drawing instrument is used to establish and set the bounds of all creation. Pullman definitely used his knowledge of literature to write His Dark Materials. This is why Pullman’s books are so rich and complex and will be read and analyzed by future generations.